Digital Publishing: Roping at the Goat Rodeo

Article ImageDuring interviews with a publisher client recently, one of the managers likened his organization's approach to digital product development as a goat rodeo, as in, "Our managers are crazy. After each one of them provides input to our project, it's a goat rodeo." The colorful reference is to a chaotic situation, typically in a corporate or bureaucratic setting, according to Wikipedia. A goat rodeo involves several people who have different agendas and perceptions of what's going on around them, and reconciling those views is difficult. Despite energy and effort, it's impossible to bring any sense of order to the situation.

What an apt and fitting description of the current state of digital publishing.

There are multiple dimensions to the chaos. In the markets for monetized content, new business models are emerging, being tested, and being refined. Through trial and error, and sometimes just sheer brute force, information providers are learning how to produce rich digital products more efficiently. As a result, revenues from digital products are growing, very quickly in some cases. For enterprise publishers, investments in digital marketing, products, and corporate content are being driven by the demand for relevant experiences at the personal level. Content must satisfy users immediately, and it must be dynamically responsive to the users' last actions.

Across all markets, a major catalyst for innovation has come in the form of mobile devices: next-generation cellphones, tablet computers, and e-readers. As a result, we see many organizations--enterprise, not-for-profit, government, commercial publishing--focused on today's shiny object: the app project du jour. Apps are the new clowns in the goat rodeo, causing chaos and grabbing attention at the expense of other activities.

Cranking out apps is consuming a great deal of resources. So far, we are seeing relatively modest investment, if any, in addressing the real opportunity, which is the ability to manage content and develop competencies for creating and delivering rich digital products in device-independent ways. In simplest terms, too many organizations are doing today's publishing work without a strategy for deploying their content assets.

Proceeding without a strategy is not a new circumstance. In today's rapidly evolving technology landscape, publishers simply have to jump in. The risk of doing nothing is often greater than the risk of trying and failing. Sometimes the day-to-day work is so intense that there's little time for designing, developing, and implementing strategy. This is especially true in time-sensitive publishing environments. Both of these practical realities force publishing organizations into a project mentality--right into the corral at the goat rodeo.

Outsell, Inc.'s research shows that 2008 was the digital crossover year for the information industry--the point at which revenues from products in digital formats began to exceed revenues from products in print format. A project mentality was appropriate at that time. It was essential to learn by doing. But as the gap between digital and print revenues widens and as new types of mobile devices come into the hands of consumers and business users, it becomes extremely burdensome to do one stand-alone project after another. Many publishing organizations are now at the point of realizing that a project approach is not sustainable because it's not scalable. Project investments are not often reusable. What is worse, they create no long-term, competitive advantage.

Much of the argument for strategy is just good business sense, and many companies understand the need for strategy at intellectual and theoretical levels-structuring the content for reuse, adding metadata for personalization, localizing for global audiences, using device-independent publishing infrastructures (people, process, and technology) that maximize flexibility and agility. But there's another powerful and compelling reason to break out of the project mentality and begin to operate strategically.

Digital publishing is no longer just about content. It is about the experience of the content consumer, and it necessarily combines content and engagement. In our opinion, this shift makes the future of digital publishing fundamentally different from the present. And it's perhaps the most important reason to break away from a project mentality. Thinking beyond content and crafting products and services as experiences means baking in consistency across channels and continuity across devices (that is, users wants to pick up reading on their iPads where they left off on their smartphones). It means carefully and consciously thinking through each individual content-driven experience as part of a whole-not as a one-time hit. Strategies for digital publishing, although always essential to maximizing success, are even more critical within the context of the experience that users are demanding. Publishers who understand this are stepping back and heading into the future with strategies--not projects. The goat rodeo won't be fun and educational forever.

Photo courtesy of Bohemianism, Flickr Creative Commons.