Phillip Smith

Dear Publishers: Please learn how to experiment and recognize when it's time to innovate.

In part three of this reflections on MagNet series, I wanted to tackle another potentially touchy topic for publishers: How to innovate through experimentation, and how to recognize when it’s time to innovate.

During the MagNet panel I shared a story about a publisher that I worked with some years ago. I worked with them over a number of years and when I first started working with them I gave a presentation that proposed it was time to experiment and innovate.

At the time, the organization had a good sized readership in several countries around the world – circulation was starting to decline, but not dramatically – and a good financial position, i.e., large cash reserves, owned the building it operated from, etc.

Looking back, this was the precise time – when the picture was relatively positive – to think about the then upcoming challenges for print publications and how to stay ahead of the curve. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons – mostly a conservative organizational culture – the window of opportunity, in my opinion, was missed. Experimentation was not undertaken, innovation was not prioritized, and this publisher is now faced with a very different reality: precipitously declining circulation, lower revenues, quickly depleting cash reserves, and increasing obscurity in a market that now has a lot of new competition.

Some smart person once said something like: “There are only two things that lead to great change, inspiration or desperation.” All too often with publishers, I witness that it is desperation that is the catalyst toward change. You don’t need to look any further than Toronto’s own for an illustration of this strategy: declare bankruptcy, implode and shed layers of conservative organizational culture, kickstart the operation again with a minimalist team and a mandate to “do great things with a tiny budget,” and suddenly people get creative and the publisher gains recognition! However, more often than not, the conservative culture that was there to begin with creeps back in, the innovators leave, and you’re back to where you started: staring over the edge of a cliff with relatively few options.

How can publishers avoid this dilemma? If it was easy to avoid, it would be obvious how to avoid it, or people like me that claim to know something about it would be rich (sadly not the case).

No doubt you’ve personally witnessed that experimentation and innovation in the publishing world – that is, publishers that change the field by demonstrating that a new idea or way of thinking is possible – often happens in younger, smaller, or “start-up” organizations: just think back to initiatives like JPEG magazine or GOOD magazine, or look toward operations like the Texas Tribune, ProPublica, or Vancouver’s own (full disclosure: I work with The Tyee and have a huge crush on them). These publishers have demonstrated very different ways of producing information, whether it’s a magazine about photography curated by readers, award-winning regional news coverage, or ground-breaking investigative reporting and “news apps.” But, as you’re probably saying to yourself, “These organizations were created with the mandate to try something new! How can ‘traditional’ publishers move from a place of questionable economics toward a potential future of financial sustainability and continued relevance?”

Well, as mentioned, if I had all the answers I probably would not be writing this blog post and, instead, would be sitting on the beach somewhere warm most of the year (oh wait, I already do that!). But, in the last decade-and-a-half of working with publishers, I have witnessed both inspiration and desperation and have distilled a few recommendations from that experience… Maybe they’ll be helpful to kick start your own thinking:

  1. Innovate when you can afford to: The lesson I draw from having worked with several publishers through the years where the Internet really took hold is that you must prioritize innovation when you’re most able to do so (which is before the car has launched off the cliff and your staring down into the valley below). As Thomas Homer Dixon explains so well, innovation is expensive and potentially risky, but organizations undertake it because the possible return on investment justifies the cost. So one challenge is that an organization can end up in a place where it simply can’t afford to invest in innovation. On the other hand, many publishers believe that they can’t afford to invest in innovation when the opposite in fact is true. I would propose: if you’re not already in crisis mode – reaching the desperation end of the spectrum – you’re in a better position than most to explore innovation and should have a deep think about what you can afford to invest.

  2. Operationalize experimentation: Back in 2004, while working on the prank campaign for THIS magazine with a whole gang of creative writers and developers (an early version of Hacks/Hackers, now that I think about it), we were able to demonstrate that experimentation can be inexpensive and, more importantly, fun. We also demonstrated that, in some ways, successful experimentation is repeatable, i.e., there’s a recipe that, for the most part, “just works(tm)”. The secret sauce is, in my humble opinion, to operationalize the experimentation; specifically, to make experimentation a skill set, so that you’re able to do it more quickly, less expensively, and with better results each time. My typical recommendation for publishers is to put aside one lunch each week where the whole team gets together to document challenges and brainstorm possible experimental solutions, and one day a month where people are given the time to work on those experiments. For smaller publishers, that can be adjusted to one lunch a month and one day each quarter. It’s very flexible – find what works for you – but just commit to doing it and operationalize it. You won’t be alone: just look to organizations like Toronto’s own who have an internal “demo day” every four weeks where team present what they’ve been working on.

  3. Measure everything; make tough decisions: Experimentation for experimentation’s sake is never the objective, thus organizations need a way to “graduate” the best experiments into products or operations. In my experience, this is only possible when you’re able to say with certainty that a particular experiment was “successful” by some metric. What that metric is is up to you, but far too many publishers are operating in the equivalent of an airplane cockpit without knowing how to read any of the instruments. Ask most publishers how they measure the success or impact of investing staff time into activities like Twitter and they come up blank, or worse indicate that they do it because “everyone is doing it.” The same goes for basics, like circulation and subscription marketing: if you don’t know which initiatives are successful and which failed, you’re doing it wrong (and you should be talking to Jon Spencer or attending Circulation School). Analytics and measurement tools are abundant, and many are available at no cost, and my proposal is that you should learn at least one sufficiently well that you can measure what’s working and what’s not on a daily, weekly, monthly, and year-over-year basis. Then use that data to make tough decisions: kill initiatives that aren’t working (including editorial ones) and promote initiatives that are working. As the project-management guru, Rob Purdie, has said “numbers don’t lie.”

  4. Remove barriers to innovation; suspend organizational disbelief: Ultimately, even if you’ve embraced the previous three recommendations, it’s likely that you’ll still face a number of internal barriers to innovation: conservative organizational culture, people who are afraid to lose their jobs, people who are about to retire and are worried about their future, and the general risk aversion that most mature organizations develop in the course of achieving some sustainability. There’s no easy solution to this challenge, unfortunately, other than trying to get the support of the folks who run the show. If you are the person who runs the show, you’ve got no excuse: ask teams to suspend their disbelief, curb their criticism, sideline those that intentionally create barriers, and generally work to develop a culture where experimentation and innovation is welcomed and rewarded.

  5. Make it fun and make it personal: Nothing is more important than passion when it comes to experimentation and innovation; innovation often happens precisely because of an intense desire to solve a difficult challenge or to prove an unpopular theory. Every publisher that I’ve worked with has at least one person who’s passionate – often off the side of their desk – about experimentation; someone that is thinking about the future, exploring new possibilities, researching what the competition is doing, investing in their own skill development, etc. That’s the type of person you want involved, because – for them – it not only fun, but personal.

Well, this has become a rather long post, so I’m going to leave it there for today.

Feedback welcome.

I’m keen to hear about your own experiences.


Hi, I'm Phillip Smith, a veteran digital publishing consultant, online advocacy specialist, and strategic convener. If you enjoyed reading this, find me on Twitter and I'll keep you updated.


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