Thursday, December 10, 2009

What's the New Normal? Mark Logic Digital Publishing Summit Examines Cross-Platform Publishing Opportunities

While Mark Logic is far from the only game in town for cross-platform publishing technologies, its recent Digital Publishing Summit at the Plaza Hotel in New York City was a huge down payment on establishing itself as a thought leader that could merge the best of East Coast and West Coast thinking in enterprise and media content markets. As one would expect with a vendor-sponsored conference, the day was filled with "friendlies" who use and support Mark Logic and its XML-based databases, APIs and content delivery services. But it if you had to pick friends, CEO Dave Kellogg and staff picked some friends who had excellent examples of how cross-platform and cross-source publishing is "the new normal" that is helping to drive value in the publishing industry. The trick is, though, is that this new normal is filled with some ironies that the content industry is still struggling to absorb.

With a packed ballroom listening on (nothing like "free" as the price of admission for networking in this economy), Dave Kellogg opened with a lively video, followed by Outsell's David Worlock pointing out that user-oriented networked services, not pre-conceived publications, are the key to this "revolution" in publishing services. Yet at the same time his slides showed a pyramid of value-add content services from simple published documents to "workbenches" that seemed to be quite standard in its pre-conceived product flow. Databases are indeed key components in today's publishing environment, but as exemplified by Mark Logic's technologies, the database is now - that is, whatever a user needs it to be in the moment. Both enterprise and media oriented publishers are discovering that publishing cultures centered around traditional databases, be they for traditional editorial content, business data or multimedia, are not agile enough to respond to the demands of their markets.

Richard Maggiotto, Founder, President & CEO of Zinio, highlighted similar ironies that print publishers face in confronting mobile markets. Zinio is moving beyond simple "page-flipping" technology for magazines on PCs and mobile devices to enable video-like animations of content, including ads, to draw magazine publishers into more appealing online presentations in their software. One demo that Richard flashed on the screen was for a $30,000 watch, paid for by a manufacturer that refused to produce Web ads. A beautiful ad, but the question becomes: how can you build a market based on a tiny sliver of people who are using iPhones but preferring magazine-like layouts of content? Building beautiful and engaging content is a plus for any audience, but no arbitrary container in today's online world is going to fence an audience in to your message for very long.

I had to take a phone call at this point, so I missed a good portion of a presentation by Chris Tse, Director of Information at BusinessWeek, who focused on their "BX" social media initiatives. Ironically, when I came back, Tse was explaining how social media content was harder to monetize than traditional editorial content, although he acknowledged that it would probably grow in its revenue impact over time. So even when you have good design, interactivity, repurposed content and social interaction, there's no guarantee that you'll have the systems in place to match revenue opportunities to your content - or have a sales force that knows how to sell it.

Kent Anderson, Executive Director for Product Development at The New England Journal of Medicine, a leading Sci-Tech journals publisher, showed off a popular "diagnose the disease" quiz
that they had ported over from their Web site to the iPhone, and, through Mark Logic's infrastructure, easily retooled for Google's Android and other mobile platforms. The growth of the app's use on iPhone was quite extraordinary, paralleling the growth of overall iPhone use. But when Kent was quizzed about the impact on overall subscription revenues in the Q&A, he expressed some optimism for future, non-free applications in mobile markets but didn't offer any indication of how the app helps to boost core journal subscription revenues. Certainly highly functional mobile apps can help to build a publisher's brand value through higher engagement, but there needs to be a clear conversion strategy devised to ensure that the engagement actually converts that brand value into revenues efficiently. Repurposing content in and of itself doesn't ensure those conversions, though it can help to define a much larger addressable marketplace.

Shannon Holman, Director of Content Management for McGraw-Hill Higher Education and Lee Fife, VP of Publishing Solutions for Flatirons Solutions, put on an excellent demo of McGraw-Hill's Create online custom textbook creation application. Their development of Create was based on the assumption that they needed to empower their customers to design and customize their custom textbooks online, instead of relying on institutional sales forces. The Create application does an excellent job of fulfilling this mission, enabling its users to choose specific sections of books, insert personal course materials and papers and produce both PDFs and bound, custom-printed textbooks on demand with remarkable ease. This interactivity that allows clients to package content the way that they really need it packaged was probably the closest example of "the new normal" during the day's presentations. But even here, the very success of the Create application leaves McGraw-Hill's institutional salespeople scratching their heads somewhat. Better that in the long run, though, then becoming a captive of sales methods that may be out of date.

The final featured speaker of the day was Gordon Crovitz, former Publisher of The Wall Street Journal and a founder of Journalism Online, which is preparing to launch in 2010 an online content ecommerce service that will enable people to have one single sign-on for accessing premium content sources across the Web and mobile platforms. Crovitz outlined at a high level the range of use and pricing models that the Journalism Online platform will support, such as single-article micropayments, multi-article/time-based payments, bulk multi-publication subscriptions and print/online bundled subscriptions.

Interestingly, both the questions that came up from the audience afterwards and some discussion in the panel discussion following Crovitz' panel indicated that there was still a fair amount of resistance from some people in publishing to this concept - and not necessarily for the reasons that you might think. Some people were concerned about Journalism Online being a publisher-centric model, solving their own particular pricing problems but not necessarily solving problems for audiences. This is a reasonable point, one that highlights how publishers are to some degree still on a fishing expedition for successful online revenue models for premium online content that no technology alone can answer. Yet Crovitz emphasizes that premium's opportunities lie where people already believe in your content brand. In other words, premium plays well when you have a relationship with an audience that's already valued above the norm. You may, as Crovitz suggests, convert only a fraction of them, but if the relationship will support it, then demand it where the value suggests that it's worth it to them.

So what is "the new normal" in the era of repurposeable content? To put it succinctly, it's having content that's always ready to attain its highest value in audience-defined moments. Be it through search engines, self-published and self-packaged content, real-time collaboration or easily repurposed and relicensed data and editorial content, the companies that can chase those moments most effectively wins. Sometimes this means being able to aggregate content from any number of sources more rapidly and effectively than anyone else, based on your insights into audience demands. But often it means letting your content flow to where your audiences want to consume it and to be ready to know how to make money with it once it gets there. A multi-platform strategy for repurposed content is not simply slamming the same product into different packages.

Multi-platform publishing also requires the recognition that it's not about platforms at all - it's recognizing that your audience has to be the center of your publishing at all times - and to recognize that each platform and application may draw out a different audience persona from the same person. It's not enough to ask "What does your customer do ten minutes before and after they use your content." It's also necessary to ask your audiences, "who are you" in each platform environment. Your hardcore diagnostician may be all business on a PC, but be out for kicks or socialization on their iPhone - or vice versa. These types of variations only enhance the need for good content multipurposing infrastructure, even though that infrastructure will not guarantee that you'll be offering the content that they want most.

Mark Logic's Digital Publishing Summit probably raised more questions for publishers than it answered, but that's probably not a bad thing in a market in which publishers have very few clear-cut options for succeeding in content markets. It also left outside the doors of the ballroom the uncomfortable fact that many platforms are in use today that enable people to aggregate content on their own with minimal assistance from traditional publishers. You can have the best aggregation and monetization strategy in the world, but if your audiences are creating and aggregating more content than you can, then it's going to be an uphill battle for most any publisher. But within those constraints, Mark Logic is showing the way to a "new normal" for publishers in which matching any content to any audience demand is creating a much more flexible, responsive and audience-centric publishing industry.

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