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3 posts from May 2014

Four important questions about your brand

Publishers tend to take their brands for granted, especially when they feel it’s well defined and doesn’t need attention. Since the core meaning of a brand needs to remain consistent it’s hard to argue with leaving things as is.

Nevertheless, there are times when every organization needs to take a step back and make sure their brand conveys the right message. This is particularly important for an industry like publishing, which has experienced several years of disruption.

Here are four questions leaders and brand managers should ask themselves from time to time:

What’s the first thing that enters a consumer’s mind when they see your brand?

This is the most important question of all. Regardless of what you want your brand to convey, consumers have their own interpretation. I’m not a big fan of focus groups since they sometimes lead to “New Coke”, but this is a customer survey that’s worth the time and effort to conduct.

Does your brand name have a tight connection to print, making it seem outdated or even obsolete?

Here’s where newspapers really struggle. The word “newspaper” itself implies “static”; you’ll never find news that’s happening right now in a paper. Consumers realize this, of course, and have shifted their news consumption to brands other than newspapers. These other brands imply “dynamic” and “up-to-the-minute”, not coverage of yesterday’s news delivered via ink-on-paper. Yes, every newspaper has a website but that hasn’t changed the core meaning of their brand. Btw, this problem isn’t unique to newspapers. Magazine and book publishers have similar problems since most of their brands were built around a print product that’s quickly losing relevance.

What demographic does your brand currently attract?

There are exceptions, of course, but I’ll bet the majority of trusted brands from the print era are mostly read by an older crowd. Further, that audience keeps getting older…and dying. What demographic does your brand appeal to? More importantly, what demographic do you want your brand to appeal to?

Do you have a household brand name or an industry brand name?

This is a significant issue some publishers misinterpret. There’s a huge difference between a brand that’s well-known within the industry and one that’s actively sought out by consumers. Book publishers are the best example of this problem. Nobody goes into a bookstore looking for the next Random House title, for example. In fact, few book publishing brands are household names; authors, and some book series are household brand names but consumers typically don’t know the name of the publishers behind these authors/series. Those unknown publishers will have the hardest time creating a direct-to-consumer relationship and channel. 

I’ve had the benefit of working in a couple of organizations with successful consumer branding campaigns. The tactics behind a great branding strategy aren’t exactly new. In fact, many of them have been around for a long, long time.

Al Ries and Jack Trout have written several great books on the topics of branding and marketing. I highly recommend their classic, Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind. Another terrific book is The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding, by Al and Laura Ries. They’re both very quick reads and valuable resources to help recalibrate a branding strategy.

Will digital content subscriptions follow the cable model?

According to a quick Google search, the typical U.S. household now pays between $80 and $90 per month for the TV component of their cable bill (excluding broadband and phone service). Now compare that to the price of an all-you-can-read digital content subscription service like Next Issue for magazines or Oyster for books. The former is $10-$15/month and the latter is $10/month.

The average person spends a lot more time watching TV than they do reading, so that’s one obvious reason for the significant price difference between cable and e-zines/ebooks. Even though services like Next Issue and Oyster are trying to build large subscriber bases by offering the lowest price possible, I expect those rates will increase significantly in the next few years, especially Oyster’s.

A recent Nielsen report indicates that the typical American household watches the same number of channels today (17) as they watched back in 2008; this, despite the fact that those same households now have access to almost 50% more channels than they did back in 2008. So we’re not really taking advantage of this increased breadth of channels and yet our cable bills are increasing at roughly four times the rate of inflation. Yes, it’s one of the main reasons we all hate our cable providers, but it also proves we’re suckers for the boob tube.

The cable companies say they’re just passing along the higher programming costs from the networks. They also note that networks force them to carry their unpopular channels as part of the package. That drives the price up even higher and, despite the added exposure, the unpopular channels remain unpopular.

Now switch gears and think about Oyster. Today they have one of the Big Five book publishers in their catalog. The other four are presumably waiting on the sidelines for a richer deal. And despite their recent announcement of now having more than 500,000 titles in the service, most consumers will find a lot of holes when only one of the Big Five is available.

How would the model change if they suddenly had all the titles Amazon sells for the Kindle? How much would a consumer be willing to pay for that added breadth? More importantly, would the price have to go up in order for Oyster to offer that added breadth?

Most all-you-can-read ebook services use a pay-for-performance business model: the more a book is read by subscribers, the more revenue that title earns for its publisher/author. What if, like in the cable industry, publishers insisted on getting a portion of the subscriber’s monthly payment regardless of whether any of their books are read?

This drives up the price of subscription, but it also increases the value of the service, especially if it ends up bringing the other Big Five to the table. And to steal another page out of the cable playbook, why couldn’t Oyster offer multiple tiers of pricing based on the content offered? So today’s 500,000 title list remains at $9.95/month, but if the other Big Five titles are included, maybe that subscription option is priced at $19.95/month. 

The little guys might complain that they too should get a fixed minimum amount from each subscriber but I’d argue they’re benefiting from all the additional visibility the larger list creates. After all, unlike the cable TV model, I believe that a broader all-you-can-read model leads to more discovery and consumption of content that wouldn’t otherwise have been read. As an Oyster subscriber I can confirm that this is consistent with my experience; I’m currently reading an Oyster ebook I never would have considered buying from Amazon, for example.

I hope Oyster considers this sort of model to dramatically expand their catalog. And if they do, I’ll be the first to upgrade to the $19.95/month premium subscription.

Applying Moneyball in publishing

I recently attended a publishing association event where one of the speakers brought up the topic of data and how Moneyball isn’t just for baseball. If you’re not familiar with it, you should read Moneyball; the movie was fine but the book is less about Brad Pitt and more about using data in new and innovative ways.

We’re swimming in a sea of numbers. Sales data, subscriber trends, website analytics, etc., are just a few of the indicators we can touch on a daily basis. The key is to figure out which numbers to pay close attention to and which can be ignored. 

Moneyball opened our eyes to how certain stats in baseball were being overlooked by teams and their scouts. It requires a fresh look to really appreciate what numbers are important. More interestingly, it allows baseball teams to avoid overpaying for the wrong results. OK, it hasn’t caused many teams to avoid paying too much, but it’s helped level the playing field for teams on tighter budgets. And who isn’t facing a tight budget in any form of publishing?

Moneyball should challenge every publisher to rethink the weight they place on certain metrics. My favorite example is in the book publishing world, but Moneyball applies to newspapers and magazines as well.

In book publishing everyone focuses on the Bookscan data since that’s the one source of POS results. Everything from what book to acquire, how much to pay as an author advance and even how many copies to print are often driven by Bookscan data from related titles.

So what’s wrong with using Bookscan data for these decisions? It’s a lagging indicator. In other words, it’s showing you what happened yesterday, not what’s happening today or likely to happen tomorrow. In some cases, Bookscan numbers can be a terrific guide; in other cases, they can lead to losses because of timing or changes in the marketplace.

I’m not suggesting Bookscan data be tossed aside, but I do believe publishers need additional data streams to help make better decisions. I’m talking about leading indicators, ones that can provide a better sense of where the market is today and where it’s likely heading tomorrow.

How closely are you studying the trends on your own website? What are the popular search terms today, not 6 months ago? How about Twitter and Facebook activity around the topic? And if you’re not familiar with Google Trends you need to be. Even though each of these other data streams also have a lagging indicator element, they provide more immediate, up-to-date information about what’s happening today. Bookscan, on the other hand, can be significantly influenced by distribution or marketing campaigns. Adding in these other resources can help provide a more balanced picture, leading to smarter decisions.

As I said earlier, Moneyball isn’t just for book publishing. If you’re producing a newspaper, magazine or a digital-only content service, what tools are you using? Are you paying too much for the content you’re acquiring and developing? Do your target customers even care about it? Are you asking them the right questions to help figure out where to place your content emphasis, frequency of coverage, depth of coverage, etc.?

I’ve suggested a few simple tools to help improve the decision-making process and I’m sure there are plenty of others. Taking a day or two to research the options would be time well spent and likely pay off with better targeted content and more appropriate investments in delivering that content.

The logic behind Moneyball is as applicable today as it was when the book was published 11 years ago. If you haven’t read it, do so immediately and start thinking about how it applies to your business.