It used to be that a professional publishing company had a concrete product and a clear value add. But today publishing companies are less able to capture value from those traditional print-based offerings and must find new ways to add value and grow. They are, in a word, being dis-intermediated by free web content and smaller players. For this discussion, when we say professional publishing company we are referring to companies that publish to business and educational professionals.

Over the past 15+ years, we’ve worked with numerous clients in the professional and educational publishing space on a wide variety of design projects. And what we’ve learned is this:

  • The value companies have traditionally provided their customers—that of vetted, compiled, editorialized content, packaged in a nicely printed format and delivered direct to the customer—is no longer sufficient. They are being challenged to figure out what value they can provide and how to capture that value successfully.
  • Simply moving existing content online doesn’t work. Many companies have tried. None have succeeded. Their failure is often what leads them to us.
  • To add value, companies need to understand the context of work in which their information is used. Once they understand the customer’s work, they can see the opportunities to add value and create new services.
  • The move to digital content delivery means publishing companies are going through the painful process of transforming themselves into technology companies, which requires a new skill set and way of thinking about themselves and their product.
  • Traditional marketing methods of getting user input will never provide the information companies require to be successful.

“Just translating a book into an e-book is not sufficient. Everything we put into our platform has to map back to something we learned from our customers by observing their work.”

Director, Product Management

Providing Value Starts With Understanding Workflow

Moving content online provides an opportunity. We’re not talking about the opportunity to add additional functionality, like full-text searching and linking and all the other obvious benefits that digital content offers. We’re talking about the opportunity to understand the customer’s workflow—the tasks, environment, and people that make up their day-to-day work. When our clients take the time to understand their customers’ workflow, they learn why it doesn’t work to just dump everything online. The customer isn’t living and breathing the content like the editors, content creators, and others at the publishing company are. Customers are using the information to get their jobs done. Once a company understands the details of the customer’s workflow, they understand why they can’t expect the customer to search five databases, for example, with different search interfaces just to retrieve the information they want. They understand they must offer a single, simple search interface for all content. And then they can extend the value of the content by, for example, supporting the customers’ tasks of compiling their research and sharing it with others.

One of our client’s traditional business was based on a strong customer and service representative relationship, where the customer would call up their representative, ask for some very specific information, and the representative would track down the information, compile the information into a report, and send it to the customer. As this company started looking for new value opportunities online, they studied the workflow of their customers and decided to implement a self-service model that integrated their information into the overall tasks of the customer. The design solution for this project was a single place where the customers could track their tasks, get resource documents, and access tools and templates. And since they had studied the existing customer and service representative relationship, our client knew that, to be successful, the new self-service system had to be as reliable as the trusted representative and provide a comparable sense of personalized attention.

Prevent Misapplication of Industry Trends

Once a company understands the work that their content supports, they see where value can be added and what opportunities there are for new services. They also learn that a value for one audience will not necessarily transfer to another customer base. And, equally important, they learn that they can’t just implement the latest trend without understanding if it will fill a need—that is, add value—for their customers.

For example, after working with us, one of our clients created an integrated workspace to support their customers. This workspace included not only information to help these professionals make business decisions, but also supported other tasks such as monitoring and reviewing interactions with their customers and vendors. The design also included a community element, where customers could get insights from trusted sources in the larger professional community. Supporting the use of information within the community became a key element of this design and a new value that the company could provide.

However, when the same idea was tested with another of our clients that supports the medical community, it was not successful. We learned that medical professionals wanted expert commentary on specific articles, but they were not interested in having discussions with or getting opinions on an article from the larger medical community. What they did want was relevant medical information easily accessible when providing patient care. In another project, we found that if the medical publisher brought their content closer to the center of the work—the patient’s medical record—the publisher was offering greater value. This integration of content with patient records also helped cement the relationship between the medical professional and publisher by positioning the publisher as a partner in getting the work done.

The above is an example of how a concept such as networking can become popular, and companies jump on the bandwagon. But without understanding the details of the user’s work, what works for one group won’t be successful for another.

Understanding Workflow Reveals Common Structure that Can Be Leveraged

Understanding the specific work of various market segments also allows a company to successfully deploy a corporate-wide solution across individual customer populations. For example, one client that supports educators needed to understand what their customers liked in an existing system that would soon be replaced. They also wanted to understand how to take their corporate-wide search engine and tailor it to this specific audience. Extensions to the base search engine included adding more search types to cover content that instructors were using in their classes, such as images and video; creating browse categories specific to the various disciplines; pulling in discipline-specific websites as related links; and making sure discipline-specific journals were prioritized in the search results. This sort of customization by population allowed our client to reuse the core functionality of their company, while creating a personalized experience for a particular audience that made their customers feel our client truly understood their work and the information they needed to do their jobs.

Finding the right value add for each customer base and implementing a solution that fits the customers work goes a long way toward addressing another key issue digital publishers face—maintaining credibility. Our clients have a long, respected history in their specific content domains—one that can be threatened by a poorly designed and implemented online offering. It is vital for publishing companies to treat the online experience they offer their customers with the same careful care and consideration that they are accustomed to providing with their print materials. The problem is, as a company, they often lack the skills to provide the same high-quality online experience—because they aren’t used to thinking of themselves as technology companies.

And Then There’s the Technology

Providing content online, and especially providing the kinds of integrated workflow solutions and good user experiences that we’ve been talking about, requires that a publishing company essentially transforms itself into a technology company. This change requires a shift in skills and personnel; from the skills of traditional editors, writers, print designers, and production specialists to those of developers, testers, and UX folks. This shift can be extremely painful as companies struggle to balance their existing expertise—still required for delivering high-quality content—with the new expertise demanded for thriving as a digital publisher.

One pitfall we’ve seen companies fall into is adopting the technology mantel so completely that the technology, with all its seductive capabilities, becomes “the product.” Each new release focuses on implementing additional functionality and exploiting the features of the technology. They lose sight of the customer who is actually going to use the new device/app /JavaScript widget. The focus is “platform, platform, platform,” rather than the customer’s work and how it might be supported by the platform.

Then there are the problems that traditional technology companies have been grappling with for years that digital publishers now need to address as well. For example, what kind of underlying systems must be in place so that content can be written once and output to multiple platforms, including print, web, and multiple mobile platforms? The growing field of eBooks and mobile apps has both expanded and complicated the possible solutions.

Another is the problem of communication. In technology companies, it’s often the marketing and product management people who don’t know how to talk to the developers who in turn don’t understand the UX perspective. In the digital publishing world, the technical people don’t understand the content creators and vice versa. In both cases, having detailed customer data gives all sides a common language and a common thing to focus on—the needs of the customer.

Bringing It Back to the Customer

Recently, we’ve seen the publishing industry start to right itself from their infatuation with the platform. The industry is aware that they need more customer input to be successful. But our experience has taught us that the traditional marketing techniques such as focus groups and surveys that companies tend to use will never get them where they want to go. When you want to become part of the customer’s workflow, you need a level of customer intimacy and detailed user needs that are not needed when producing printed materials—and simply will never be gathered from a focus group or by asking customers what they want. You need the kind of detailed, grounded data that comes from watching customers really use the content in the course of doing their daily work. You need the kind of data that comes from doing Contextual Design.