Tech strategy for publishers – build vs buy

Tech strategy for publishers

Digital development never used to be a core skill set for publishing. In-house teams focussed on editorial, sales and marketing, and tech was out-sourced. But this appears to be changing. Even small media businesses are hiring their own tech staff and developing software in-house, as well as collaborating on “co-sourced” projects. However, there can be risks and pitfalls in this approach.

I chaired a round table of publishing MDs who have taken a range of approaches to software development, from running an in-house team to working with a number of external agencies.

A sensible first step before making these choices is to consider the business case. What tools and tech do you have already, where are the gaps, how much are you spending now and what additional revenue might your tech investment generate?

When and how to develop in-house?

Small publishers often made the initial decision to develop in-house on the basis of cost. Or maybe they knew a trusted techie. So long as your requirements are really stripped down, developing in-house can save high licence fees. One company saved a six-figure sum by swapping from a third-party CMS to an in-house platform.

But another counselled being rigorous in sticking to a minimum viable product at the start. A real advantage of developing in-house is agility, the ability to tweak and develop a bespoke platform to suit your needs as they evolve, or as your customers provide feedback. Organisations need to be pragmatic – website CMS, CRMs and newsletter platforms are easier to develop in-house. Strategically, with the future of publishing and media being digital, most organisations need to develop their technical understanding.

A disadvantage of in-house development is the challenge of hiring good developers and keeping them engaged. Working with popular and progressive technologies, projects and tooling helps make that more attractive. A very small team can be risky, as if one key person leaves, then it can be hard to maintain your platform. One publisher quickly hired a second developer after the first to create a back-up. But hiring a small team, documenting code and shadowing with non-tech teams so they learn more about the platform can mitigate that risk. Establishing technical project management and oversight with a development partner agency can reduce risk and provide flexible development resource.

In-house developers don’t need to be graduates. One publisher found it worked well to hire non-graduates who were eager and hungry to learn and develop their skills. You may make a conscious decision in choice of programming language to attract the right talent. One publisher deliberately chose to develop on Ruby on Rails as it was the “hot” language at the time. JavaScript frameworks and tools are burgeoning at the moment, for UI/UX and performance reasons.

To retain your dev team, you may need an in-house CTO, and it’s important to provide fresh challenges and reward them well. Once the team grows, the risk of one person leaving is reduced, but you will have to manage and develop the team. Having a support contract for System Administration, Hosting Developer Operations is advisable, again mitigating the in-house risk.

Speed (or lack of it) can be a disadvantage of in-house development. One small publisher who built their own paid subs system on Drupal with an external developer felt it took far longer than expected. And in retrospect they might have got there faster with an off the shelf product.

And if you are planning to sell your business in future, having in-house tech may be a double-edged sword. Some buyers may value it, others may see it as a liability, with the risk of in-house developers leaving and poorly documented code. Again, support contracts with appropriate product development partners will reduce risk and provide continuity.

Smart ways to outsource tech to third parties

Another publisher deliberately chose to outsource. They felt the team, with more of a print background, had limited digital knowledge, so they worked with two key external platforms, for CMS and CRM. They invested time in joint workshops with the external teams before committing. It’s valuable to have multiple relationships between your own staff and the third party and establish a spirit of partnership. There are compromises to be made with an off the shelf product, but it can be faster when your team are less knowledgeable.

Hybrid tech approaches

A business that is subscription driven but very reliant on its tech platform chose to out-source development with an East European dev team of six, but with an in-house systems architect/CTO who made the big architectural decisions, provided quality control and advised the business leaders on prioritising features. The out-sourced team worked solely on the one project, but from time to time individuals were replaced. All the IP stayed with the business. Understanding ownership of IP, licensing and maintaining access to Code repositories for open source and proprietary tools and technologies is important.

Another approach is to separate front-end/ UX development from back-end – can keep one team in-house and the other out-sourced. This is increasingly common with ‘headless’ content management, ecommerce and subscription tools, where in-house teams take responsibility for design and front-end implementation. But the core framework is maintained by the software developer and provided as an application, or SaaS.

A publisher developing a new subscription product used an external agency for the UX/UI who had some specialist skills. As the product was developed and customer feedback was given, they rapidly iterated the front end. In many content-rich, digital subscription products, a simple, intuitive interface is a real competitive advantage.

Strategic tech architecture

Before embarking on developing different products, consider hiring in a systems architect to ensure that all your separate platforms can connect via APIs, and you have the flexibility to swap in or out any one in future. GraphQL, a Facebook backed open-source project, provides the most efficient API tooling currently. ‘No-code’ solutions are emergent that allow marketing and editorial team members to manage data between systems. More than one person used the analogy of hiring an architect for a big building project, as they understand client requirements and can also help select good builders and provide quality control.

There are also some important decisions in selecting the platforms you use. Open source software can work well for a mix of in-house and third-party development. WordPress is a popular CMS for publishers: it is open source, there are lots of plug-ins plus it is easy to find developers. But it is 20 years old and has many security and performance issues.

Publishers who have acquired titles on a multitude of different platforms have to make difficult decisions about which to keep and which to migrate. And B2C sites that are ad-driven may have different requirements to niche B2B sites moving towards paid subscriptions.

Developing tech skills across the company

In the future, your whole team will have to understand digital platforms, use analytics tools and appreciate customer journeys. So your tech in-sourcing/ out-sourcing choices may also be driven by where your editorial, marketing and sales team are in their own digital evolution. Over time their skills may develop. One publisher who chose to out-source at first plans to move to more in-house, bespoke development in a couple of years’ time.

One publisher has a contractor developer working closely with an in-house designer with a good understanding of UX/UI who has now learnt more about how the tech works.

There are now more “no-code” platforms where non-technical teams such as marketers can make simple adjustments without calling in a developer.

Tech strategy for publishers

So, it’s a much more fluid and nuanced picture than a simple black/white in-source/out-source decision. Smart media organisations may start in one place, or divide up their portfolio, or keep front end in-house and out-source the back end, or do the reverse, and then change the mix in a couple of years as their expertise evolves.

This round table was set up with members of the Speciall Media Group, an online community of 140 MDs, publishers and directors in independent B2B and B2C businesses. We have an online forum hosted on Guild and run regular virtual round tables on hot topics suggested by the group. It’s free (for now) but invite only – you can request to join here.

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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