Explosion in the Content Factory: Fragmentation Shakes the Foundations of Publishing

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Is Branding Everywhere Or Nowhere?
As information disperses into headlines and feeds, search results, and portal links, a brand can be everywhere and nowhere at the same time—ubiquitous but somehow invisible when blended into so many other sources. Is brand identity, let alone loyalty or brand creation, even possible here, some publishers worry?

"Only the most powerful brands and the biggest marketing budgets will be able to promote individual destinations," says Alterman. Moreover, digital dispersion could mutate traditional notions of what constitutes a content brand. "Brand has become more about the person and topic and society than the publisher," says Ezra Ernst, CEO of Swets Information Services, a facilitator of academic and medical content. In his world of multi-national research feeds and search engine distribution, content quality and identity can coalesce or "brand" around individual doctors and lawyers, specific areas of research, or even geographic regions identified with hot topics like health. For Prism's trade publishing business, media fragmentation makes it too easy for new brands to compete with established titles. "Someone else can come in from left field and overtake you," Prism's Shibles argues.

"It puts more pressure on producers to find ways to establish brand identity," says Scott McFarland, VP of full text marketing at Ovid Technologies, which aggregates digital access to 1,200 journals and over 700 books in the medical field. And it is in this brand-challenged environment that aggregators like Swets and Ovid find expanding power.

In the late ‘90s, many foresaw the internet disintermediating middlemen and bringing publishers and institutional customers into direct contact. But the aggregators may become more important now. How can any one publisher format data for all the devices? Users won't want alerts from scores of publishers every time important news breaks. And when large and small publishers are now in the same digital channel, the aggregator holds the usage metrics for all the players and advises institutions on managing their content budgets. "It is about being heard. Our significance in this market has really grown," says Ernst.

Ubiquity and vigilance are the best defenses against brand diffusion, Marcinko advises his clients. Dispersing one's content across multiple vendors makes publishers more money than holding the brand preciously to one's chest. Aggregators are paying less and less for content as they gain more publishers and power, so content providers have to broaden their distribution networks. However, this must be done wisely. Marcinko says, "Publishers have to build into contracts what will give them more brand awareness in all these venues and make their brand more visible." Ernst suggests that publishers be more flexible with their licensing. A large institutional library may want all of its content accessible to member libraries digitally, but that "puts an old paradigm on its head," he says. "Publishers need to give up more of their distribution rights and electronic rights."

Fragment, Then Integrate
Some publishers feel strongly that they provide the best service to clients when they resist or at least compensate for the fragmentary nature of digital content consumption. "We're doing our best not to fragment," says Ovid's McFarland. It is important for medical journal articles in his database to track back to the full issue or the source materials so doctors see where courses of care led or who else cited these articles. Fragment, yes. But always reintegrate. "The context is really useful and critical," he says. A doctor may need the two-minute answer on a PDA, but the medical publisher needs follow-up with full citations and literature reviews delivered later to the desktop. In that way, fragmentation is only the beginning of a more holistic and integrated approach to content delivery where publishers can anticipate where, when, and how much information their users need.

Another response to fragmentation of product and brand may be turning content into an indispensable tool and pushing just the right shard of content into applications people use. Within the enterprise, a customer relationship manager may want to have the latest news about a client fed directly into the CRM application. A procurement officer may need a vendor profile or its latest news releases without leaving the ordering screen. "The most important trend we have seen at Factiva is toward workflow integration," says Alterman.

For example, Factiva and Hoover's now create online tools so other applications like Salesforce.com can pull their information into the workflow when and where it is needed. With AccessHoovers, Salesforce.com customers can compare Hoover's corporate profiles with the data they may already have on file to decide which source to keep. This kind of "stare and compare functionality" expresses the next stage in digital content distribution to a fragmented world, says Paul Pellman, Hoover's interim president. Beyond slicing and dicing, content must flow to the desktop in the formats and the applications people use, but at the same time communicate the provider's brand. "We invest a lot of time and effort in the way we present data and construct that integration so it is intuitively easy for customers," he says. "The reason you invest in usability is to have content and tools that reinforce your value proposition. It reminds you it is Hoover's. Otherwise you risk commoditizing your product."

And commoditization is the root fear about media fragmentation. Will dispersing content also diffuse brands, disrupt old organizational and production hierarchies, and ultimately diminish the value of good product? Despite years of fair warnings, the digital shift now has become so tectonic it is rattling and sometimes destabilizing almost every aspect of the publishing infrastructure and value chain. And don't expect it to get better too soon, says Factiva's Alterman. "Like a lot of earthquakes, it causes more destruction at the beginning than reconstruction. Anyone who professes to know the answer to any of these changes the media faces in the digital age is not to be fully trusted."

Companies Featured in this Article

Alacra www.alacra.com
American Lawyer Media www.americanlawyer.com
Delphi Group www.delphigroup.com
Factiva Inc. www.factiva.com
Hoover's Inc. www.hoovers.com
MEI www.marcinko.com
Ovid Technologies www.ovid.com
Prism Business Media www.prismb2b.com
Swets Information Services http://informationservices.swets.com

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