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What Publishers Could Learn from ESPN

The Who 1308720059 by Heinrich Klaffs

The Who 1308720059 by Heinrich Klaffs on Flickr

In an article titled, “Meet the new boss” on Magellan Media’s blog, Brian O’Leary expresses skepticism about the characterization of a “new crop of chiefs” profiled by the New York Times as really being very new. O’Leary says:

First, these guys – all middle-aged white men – reflect experience in the old order, not necessarily an embrace of a new one. They aren’t part of a “born-digital” generation; they are on the other side of that divide.

This article caught my eye because I wrote a blog article earlier this year about this same group of companies called “Print Publishing’s Public Pity Party.”

The publishing industry has embarked on a quixotic journey.  A recent  Adweek article announces that “Close to 100 titles are planning to sacrifice prominent placements in their issues for an industry campaign.”  Their tilted windmill is a sense that we have all simply forgotten how wonderful their product is, and that by running ads they can remind us.  I can’t help but picture a group of buggy whip salesmen on the side of the road laughing at a car with a flat tire, secure in the knowledge that a horse would never succumb to such embarrassment.

I commented on O’Leary’s post, agreeing with him that it seemed that this new group would simply be tinkering with a model that needs to be blown up. Or as he quotes, “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” And then it occurred to me to offer these titans of publishing some unsolicited advice: they could learn a lot from ESPN.

Inbound marketing is fueled by compelling content. The magazine publishing industry doesn’t have a content quality problem; they have a content packaging, promotion and delivery problem. As it turns out, there are two things that ESPN does exceedingly well in this regard, and I think any organization following a content marketing strategy can learn from them as well.


ESPN Boston ContentI’m a fairly avid sports fan and have been consuming sporting news in all its various forms for a long time. I’ve watched television programs, read newspapers, subscribed to magazines, listened to sports radio, and read blogs. ESPN has invaded all of those media channels and more with Napoleonic fervor. One thing I’ve noticed in particular is how effectively they’ve modularized their content and then squeeze every last drop of value out of it.

Take a simple 20 second sound bite from a post-game interview, for example. You’ll see this snippet embedded in a Sports Center broadcast, embedded in multiple articles, played throughout the day on ESPN Radio broadcasts, incorporated into relevant Podcasts, embedded in blog opinion pieces, uploaded to YouTube, posted on the Sports Nation fan page, Tweeted by one of their anchors, etc… And even that list doesn’t really do justice to the number of different places from which that singular chunk of content will be consumed.

Instead of embracing reuse and extracting the maximum value from their content, what are newspaper and magazine publishers doing? Erecting pay walls on the web and creating tablet applications (that are pretty terrible, by the way). But efficiently re-purposing content by itself isn’t enough…

Demand Publishing

Richard Nash is an independent publishing entrepreneur, having previously run the iconic indie Soft Skull Press for which work he was awarded the Association of American Publishers’ Miriam Bass Award for Creativity in Independent Publishing in 2005. I watched a 35 minute video of Nash at BookNet Canada’s Technology Forum 2010 in a session entitled “Publishing 3.0: Moving from Gatekeeping to Partnerships.” It connected a whole bunch of dots for me and blew my mind (the video is embedded at the end of this post).

In this presentation, Nash describes how the publishing industry must evolve from a supply model to a demand model. Under an economic model of scarcity, companies manage supply. From the invention of movable type until the proliferation of Web 2.0, information was – relatively speaking – scarce. Publishers would, in the words of Clay Shirky, “filter, then publish.” In other words, they would decide what books deserved to be published and then deliver them to the market. In an economic landscape where information is abundant, Nash argues that publishers must manage demand instead.

ESPN Mike Reiss

Mike Reiss began as a New England Patriots beat writer for the Boston Globe and is now ubiquitous across ESPN's many media channels.

How do you manage demand? You need to provide products and services along the entire demand curve; abundant but inexpensive (or free) as well as scarce but expensive experiences. ESPN does this by turning their content creators (formerly known as journalists) into experiences. Instead of writing one or two weekly columns, their correspondents deliver a constant stream of bit-sized content from short videos to blog posts and Tweets. This forms a sort of experiential pyramid, where we can consume lower value products (i.e. facts) at a greater volume and higher value products (i.e. video and opinion) at a lower volume.

Instead of embracing demand publishing, newspaper and magazine publishers are implementing draconian social media policies that attempt to keep their journalists as faceless as possible.

Here is Richard Nash’s 35 minute presentation. If you’re interested in the future of publishing, this is well worth the time.

Inbound Marketing Takewaways

Many organizations and individuals could do a better job at re-purposing and leveraging their content. Recall my social media strategy advice: Be authentic, relentless and everywhere. You can achieve better results by promoting your content relentlessly and everywhere, and by having your content creators engage with the audience in order to create enhanced, value-added experiences.

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