Leading an independent media or publishing business feels like a white knuckle ride right now. Holding a business together in a volatile advertising market, with remote teams and uncertain distribution channels is a major challenge. Having bandwidth to look ahead and plan how best to emerge from the Covid era is even harder.
Much of my work is with indie publishers, with fewer than 20 staff and less than £2m turnover. CEOs are usually still hands on, juggling the demands of investors, sponsors, subscribers and staff while doing their best not to divert too far from their vision. From conversations I have had in the last few months these are some of the most common pitfalls facing indie publishers – and how you can avoid them.
Pitfalls for indie publishers
1. Holding out for an upturn
Part of your business may be severely challenged, eg studio style marketing projects for usually high spending brands whose own markets have evaporated. Tempting as it may be to keep forecasting an uptick, you may do better accepting a longer downturn, letting go of the people and resource, and focussing on what you can influence. You can always set up freelance options for a rapid scale-up once the demand returns.
2. Not knowing your customers directly
Intermediaries and distribution channels can get between you and your customers. This can make it harder to respond when their needs change. Now may be the moment to forget the newsstand or dispose of digital intermediaries and ensure that you have a direct relationship with your end users. (See also #5 for how to get closer to your customers.)
3. Too many product lines
As a small business, if you have six or seven product lines you will struggle to deliver exceptional value in all of them. Better to streamline to two or three with a strong value proposition and good growth prospects. Focus on improving the value you offer to customers and expanding your reach in your markets. If you get stuck on four or five, consider delegating responsibility for the smallest or even spinning them off.
4. Doing not planning
CEOs at indie publishers are likely to still run the major client accounts, chair top events and even write top columns or marketing copy. This means you lack the headspace to look ahead and develop your value proposition and scale. Delegate anything that can be delegated, even if you think you can do it better. It doesn’t have to mean hiring full time employees – there are many highly competent part-time freelances. Use that free time to work out where your business needs to be in 2022 and beyond, and your path to get there.
5. Not talking to your customers
If your sales are on track, why do you need to talk to customers? Well in the current environment their needs might be changing very rapidly, and your products may need to evolve sharpish. Start a rolling programme of proper conversations with subscribers, members, customers, involve as much of the team as possible and start to see the world from their point of view.
6. Following clients not customers
Beware of chasing the needs of commercial clients, sponsors and advertisers. As a media business you have to focus on delivering value and attracting the attention of your readers/ audience, even if they don’t pay directly. Get in their shoes, know what problems your products can solve, and exceed their expectations. If you have your readers’ attention, the commercial clients will follow.
7. Not capturing learnings
Tempting as it is to keep chasing after the next big deal or revenue earner, it is essential to log what has worked so far and why. As we all experiment with virtual events, digital subscriptions, new membership propositions and innovative sponsorship packages, we have to pause and track what we have learnt, how we can be more efficient and deliver better value next time.
8. Trying to solve it all yourself
As the CEO you may feel you have to be an all-knowing superhero. It isn’t possible. Most problems you encounter have already been solved by someone else in a different market. Build yourself a network of peers and former colleagues, experts and advisors, independent non execs or mentors. Talk through your challenges and listen to how others have tackled similar problems.
9. Being held to ransom by key staff
You know how a product should evolve, you have researched the customer, but a key person on your team is blocking the change. Don’t let them hold you to ransom. Find someone else in the team who can be a champion and give them the task (and the subsequent glory). You don’t have to ask the naysayer to leave (although occasionally that will be necessary).
10. Cash constraints limiting growth
The strategic plan is clear, but the cash isn’t there. Plan ahead and build in financial resilience. Maybe your best customers will weather a price rise or commit to pay up front in return for a discount. They may even support a crowdfunding campaign. Perhaps any investors or angels will extend their timelines or put in more cash. And there may be options to reduce costs. Do you really need a permanent office, could you switch international print subscribers to digital only, or even reduce frequency and increase pagination to save on postage?
So long as your audience value your product and your advertisers still want to reach that audience, there is grounds for optimism. And the strongest brands will be best placed to take advantage of the upturn when it comes.
If you’d like to have a virtual coffee about how you plan to steer your independent publishing or media business through the next 12-18 months, I’m happy to chat – do get in touch.
PS the image is of an inhospitable landscape in Iceland, all stinking hot mud springs and sulphurous mist….
About the author
Carolyn Morgan has bought, sold, launched and grown specialist media businesses across print, digital and live events. A founder of the Specialist Media Show (sold in 2014) she now advises media businesses large and small on their digital strategy through her consultancy Speciall Media.
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