How publishers can navigate technology dilemmas

Publishers technology dilemmas

Publishers are facing a range of dilemmas managing technology and developing digital products. Especially small or mid-sized businesses with limited resources:

  • Buy in platforms or build in-house?
  • Work with a digital agency?
  • Base tech team in UK or overseas?
  • How to develop product skills?

At the Publishing Show recently, I chaired a panel of media leaders discussing their tech strategy: Helen Fish, CEO of HR Grapevine, Hector Arthur, product consultant and former Digital Director at Which?, Jane McFadzean, CEO of Suitcase Media, and Gregor Young, COO at Guild and formerly of FT and C4. Here’s their thoughts on the big tech dilemmas for publishers.

What drives decision to buy in or build, to outsource or hire?

HR Grapevine has a mix of buy and build: it makes sense to buy in rather than build in-house where a SaaS product is easy to customise, like Salesforce, and most staff are familiar with it. But they developed their own CMS, membership, and virtual event platforms – as they had an in-house dev team and wanted the flexibility.

Hector agreed that it’s now easier to integrate external platforms than it was a few years ago. He inherited an in-house CRM at Which? that proved problematic. But when they needed to develop a digital product review to specific requirements, they built this in-house.

Gregor advised being clear about what your requirements are, then doing your due diligence on the software products out there that could meet your needs. If you think your needs might evolve quickly and you have the capacity to develop in-house, that might be better.

Jane explained that Suitcase, as a small start-up, had decided to work with a digital agency rather than build tech in-house.

How to build an internal tech team?

HR Grapevine has a CTO on the Board who has hired a team of developers and designers in the UK. High salaries have been a challenge. Try to involve the entire team in company events, to bring the tech team closer to the culture of the organisation.

Hector added that publishing and media companies will always struggle to compete with tech firms for talent. The solution is to find people genuinely interested in the product or market, who appreciate the content and are more likely to stay. Retention is extra important for developers, as too many handovers contribute to technical debt.

Gregor emphasised that the tech leader is vital – they need to be able to steer things in the right direction. And the leader themself will influence the tech team culture.

How to work best with digital agencies?

Helen had an unhappy experience with an agency – promised a lot but hard to customise product and had to end the relationship.

Hector was more positive – agencies provide creativity and challenge. Worth investing time in selecting an agency with relevant experience and partner for the long term. Clutch is a good place to start your search. An agency with affinity for the product will deliver better results.

Gregor pointed out that agencies add value when they complement your team, adding creativity or an advanced capability you don’t have in-house. Consider using the agency until you can do it yourself and be upfront about it being a short-term relationship.

Jane has worked with an agency for Suitcase Media – it takes a big investment of time to brief thoroughly and manage the relationship.

Using local or offshore teams?

Helen had a disappointing experience with an Indian research/data agency – they were efficient but lacked creativity. Communications challenges were significant so eventually they moved it in-house.

Hector feels that offshoring is more suitable for large scale projects. It’s essential to invest time in visiting the remote team, building relationships, good comms, so they feel part of the team.

Gregor works with a Polish tech delivery company – they have great English, super talented and driven. When you might be working over a video call even in the UK, it makes little difference.

How to develop product thinking?

Hector felt strongly that the product function must be in-house. Good product people put the user first and expand that culture into editorial and sales. Remember the value of business analysts – checking the product meets the business needs, while product manager checks on users.

Helen herself fulfils the product role in HR Grapevine, with a real focus on user experience. In B2B have to adopt the standards set by B2C.

Jane’s background is product and she agreed that it is a skill that needs to be developed in-house. Editorial or marketing teams can acquire product skills – Mind the Product run good courses and events.

Gregor believes that product touches on everything, so your product people need to be at the heart of your business.

Setting a flexible technology strategy

It’s worth investing the time to plan the technology requirements and hiring a tech lead even if you anticipate largely buying in third party platforms. Agencies can bring in specialist knowledge and add creativity to the mix. Targeting developers with a real interest in your subject matter should help with retention and integrating with the publishing team. And Eastern Europe may be a fruitful source of smart tech talent if UK salaries are beyond your budget. Finally, invest in in-house product skills.

If you’d like to have a chat about your technology strategy, over a real or virtual coffee, please get in touch.

About the author

Carolyn Morgan has acquired, launched, built, and sold specialist media businesses in print, digital and events. She now advises niche consumer and B2B publishers on developing new products and digital revenue streams as a consultant and NED.

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