Reports publishers: what innovation looks like

I speak to Edwin Bailey, expert on the business of reports about how publishers should innovate, and why there is still value in what they do best: providing content from trusted experts.
Reports publishers: what innovation looks like

Given Zapnito is a software start-up that helps publishers to innovate, it’s unsurprising that we often get asked what innovative products look like for publishers today. Increasingly, we are being asked that question by perhaps the most traditional of publishers: those that publish reports.

To explore what innovation looks like for reports publishers, I spoke to Edwin Bailey, an information industry consultant who has been involved in the high value market reports business for many years, as an analyst, commissioning editor, publisher and reseller. He worked for The FT Group and Informa, as well as founding his own publishing and reselling outfits. (I first met him back when I ran a reports business for which he was a reseller.)

Today, Bailey advises information publishers about how to develop their products and strategy to meet information consumers’ changing needs. 

Know the need

At the beginning of a project, Bailey typically starts by clearly identifying what information users  will pay for, in the given sector. “The first thing is to identify the information need,” be it a regulatory requirement to stay up-to-date or a commercial imperative to have latest market news and data. Bailey is a fan of qualitative research - sometimes validated with quantitative data - to get an in-depth understanding of what that information looks like and why it’s necessary.

Sounds simple, but Bailey has found that “publishers are producing more and more but there may not actually be more demand”. They simply haven’t identified what information their customers need so badly that they will spend their money on buying it and their time on reading it. The latter is especially crucial when we all feel we have less time than ever to spend on consuming information. 

Make sure it’s CPD

One way to ensure consumers want to spend time with your information is to get it accredited for Continuing Professional Development (CPD). “Publishers who can offer this can have better an audience engagement,” Bailey claims. Unsurprising really, given we all have so many demands for our attention. Why spend time with work-related content that isn’t directly benefiting your career (when you could be watching cat videos)?

Fake news doesn’t just affect newspapers

Every publisher has some concerns about the proliferation of fake news, which threatens to undermine any organisation in the business of content. But it’s not just newspaper publishers at the frontline of this war on fakery that should be adapting how they operate. Even reports publishers have their business model threatened by fake news, says Bailey.

“End-users are questioning the information even in ‘reputable’ sources”, he says, with consumers increasingly likely to need evidence that a report has come from a trusted source before parting with their money. “This means that publishers need to reinforce their respected brand with acknowledged experts to stand apart from unsubstantiated ‘noise’”, he claims.

“This means that publishers need to reinforce their respected brand with acknowledged experts to stand apart from unsubstantiated ‘noise’.”

Your value is in your experts

It’s not just fake news that has made highlighting your experts so important, Bailey notes. Over last 5-10 years he has seen “a significant increase in publishers, often operating from a low-cost Asian base”, which has meant an explosion in the number of report titles available. Much of the content in these reports is ‘scraped’ from the web and is written quickly by graduates with little industry knowledge, Bailey has found.

“My research shows that end-users are frequently disappointed with the quality of these reports. To counteract this tsunami of information, I would recommend that niche publishers highlight the knowledge and experience of their in-house analysts. Customers will instinctively trust a company who has a named individual (with a photograph) and a decent CV.”

It’s something that publishers could so easily do, but Bailey recently reviewed the websites of 40 niche market publishers and was surprised how few are still using report titles and tables of contents as the only selling point. They provide no evidence of the experienced contributors whose expertise is their main USP, never mind direct access to them so they can confirm they know their stuff. 

Consumers’ changing needs

Not only do publishers needs to provide better evidence of the expertise behind their content, they also need to consider presenting that expertise in a new way. I asked Bailey whether think publishers looking to innovate away from traditional models are focusing on meeting information consumers’ current needs. The answer? “No”. 

“End-users, who are increasingly the ‘Google generation’, expect to search and quickly find the answer. They don’t have any inclination to spend a long time looking for information or reading.” He feels that many of the smaller business information publishers in particular are still print production-driven, and package data and analysis in large tomes with defined publication dates (regardless of whether they do actually print those reports). “I would suggest that they move away from being a ‘passive publisher’, to a consumer-focused ‘knowledge house’ which delivers analysis and data in a variety of formats.”

“I would suggest that they move away from being a ‘passive publisher’, to a consumer-focused ‘knowledge house’ which delivers analysis and data in a variety of formats.”

Now the reports sector has almost completely transitioned from print to online, Bailey claims that the next step is to focus on delivering “really good analysis with granular level data”. As well as presenting information more creatively and less densely, Bailey stresses that publishers need to ensure their content is constantly up-to-date. Although there may be no material change to the market being reported on, customers expect timely data, so publishers will have to deliver (or at least create the illusion that they are delivering) data and analysis more frequently. In turn, “this will hasten the move from a single purchase to a subscription-led offer,” says Bailey, giving publishers the sustainable revenue that is increasingly vital to long-term success. 

Another threat from social media

It’s not just changing information needs that force publishers to innovate. Within consumer markets, Bailey sees one of the major challenges to market research publishers to be the use of social media data sets to understand consumers. 

“Traditional market researchers take pride in carefully selecting survey respondents to ensure fair and unbiased results, something that social media does not do. However, this lack of cohort control may be irrelevant as the sheer volume of social data will produce results that are good enough to make decisions. I think this poses a long-term threat to established market research methodologies.”

To buy or build?

If you have recognised the need to change, where do you start? When looking to innovate, a key question is always: “do we buy in software or do we self-build?”. Bailey feels that publishers need to embrace technology and try to use it to build relationships with customers, so is glad to see more publishers realising that innovation requires technology investment. “However, I would recommend sticking with off-the-shelf software. Although it may not be perfect, it tends to be cheaper and much less work to manage.”

Who’s doing it well?

So, of his current clients, who does Bailey think is innovating successfully?

“A couple spring to mind. Firstly, a scholarly publisher has realised that it holds a quantity of content that might be of use to a professional audience and is looking whether it can be repurposed. This highlights how publishers are increasingly looking at content as a commodity.

“Secondly, an ambitious start-up I am working with is looking to map an emerging industry sector offering a freemium database product. There could be a significant multi-national audience for the free version but trying to anticipate who (what kind of company) and what end-users will pay for is requiring extensive validation.” As Bailey stressed earlier, you need to know the need.

What I wish I knew...

By the nature of his work, Bailey works with the companies that have realised they need to do something differently if they are to compete in a world of commoditised information, attention-short consumers, fake news and social noise. To survive in this world, what would he tell himself at the start of his career to equip himself for the publishing industry of today?

“As content creation (i.e. writing articles) has been seriously devalued and pushed salaries downward I would retrospectively advise myself to develop expertise where one can add value through analysis or data.”

That said, he also sees value in trusted techniques. “I would also advise to go ‘old-school’ when marketing and selling to B2B customers. That is, be very targeted and personalised (it could mean using the phone sometimes!) and do not rely on search engines to bring in business.”

For reports publishers too, it’s about reinforcing the value of the ‘old school’ - of trusted, expert-created content - while embracing the new technology, business models and content strategy that will keep them competitive.