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Five big questions for publishers in 2016

Towards the end of last year, our crew at HBR.org started to wonder whether Facebook’s Instant Articles would be a good fit for us to try. Sure, scads of newspapers had jumped aboard FB Instant—the Washington Post was among the most noticeable. And, why not? FB renders articles as advertised, instantly— making for a delightful mobile experience. 

But does it make sense for the Harvard Business Review when our strategy is about building a deeper (direct) relationship with our readers? Of course, pondering this question just lead me to bigger questions.  Eventually, the FB debate internally had triggered five other really big questions about our publishing future: 

  1. Should publishers even try to be technology players?
  2. What happens when your audience spends more time with your content somewhere else online?
  3. What happens to bundling print and digital?
  4. Can paid content models work within Facebook’s walls?
  5. Why isn’t this just AOL all over again?

But I won’t try to tackle each of these ideas this week; instead I’d rather role them out one at a time over the coming months – and feel free to pitch your own big questions that might be on your agenda.

Let’s start with #1:

Should publishers even try to be technology players?

Ask your technology folks if they can make your articles render as rapidly as FB Instant Article. Chances are pretty good that it’s not going to happen. So, if FB blows us out of the water with their dazzling speed, is it even worth trying to compete on the technology front? Or should publishers just stick to content where we can be great? 

The Washington Post is one of those publishers that wants to compete on both fronts—not unsurprising, given their owner. My take is that when we talk about technology at a publishing company, we are really talking about two (very) different types of automation: There’s technology that powers the utility infrastructure versus the product experience. 

To get the difference, imagine a house. The locks on the doors, the wooden beams, the walls, and the light sockets are all part of the utility infrastructure, which is composed of common parts—most of which are commodities. Now think about how each room is decorated, from the sconces to the furniture—this is all part of the distinctive product experience. 

A website is much the same. The login, the page structure, and search are all common utilities, versus the design of the page, animated graphics, and typeface, which are part of the experience. The first needs to function correctly, but the second must make your feel something.

When it comes to the latter — the part that makes you feel —Publishers must have the technology tools and expertise to differentiate their experience.  But a publisher gets very little credit for the utility infrastructure;  the utilities must work, but they won’t necessarily motivate your customer to come back on their own.

In his course on marketing strategy at the Harvard Business School, Professor Ranjay Gulati talks about “motivators” versus “hygiene factors.”  His example is a restaurant where the bathrooms are spotless but the food is so-so.  In this case, you aren’t apt to return.  But if the food is amazing and the bathroom is disgusting, it’s likely that you still won’t return.

You don’t motivate the customer with the clean bathroom, but you also can’t live without it. A website with a slick log in and fast pages but terrible content is not likely to get return visitors. Conversely, great content and a terrible log in experience is equally bad.

Gulati also notes that sometimes a motivator shifts to becoming a hygiene factor, as in the case of Volvo. Long ago, Volvo motivated consumers with their safety features, but as more and more cars jumped on the safety bandwagon with their own features—and the government mandated more and more of these sorts of features—Volvo’s motivator became a hygiene factor.

This may in fact be what’s happening with web publishing. Much of what we thought motivated users in the beginning, such as speedy pages, has now become a hygiene factor that you simply must have, but which won’t motivate a customer to become a loyal follower.

So, what does this mean in the context of Facebook’s speedy offering? Letting FB provide your content in their framework essentially helps them to motivate their customer to come back to them for the great content and a delightful experience. But if you see FB as a way to get your own new subscribers, you might come up short. And this would argue for giving FB some but not all of your content. It also means that when the customer does arrive at your digital offering that you motivate them with dazzling content. To do this, you must invest in the technology that is at the fingertips of the storytellers (the journalists, producers, marketers, etc) and keep the investment in the utilities under control. 

In other words, you want the door locks on your house to work without supporting a team of engineers to help greet every guest.

On to the next question: What happens when your audience spends more time with you somewhere else online?  It used to be that a healthy percentage of our audiences came from places like Google, Facebook, and Apple. But now, especially in the case of the Washington Post, which posts everything on FB, it’s entirely possible that at some point in the future our websites will be totally unnecessary. Is that a good thing or bad? Tune in next month….

Thanks and again don’t hesitate to email me questions or thoughts at jmacht@hbr.org or @machthbr on twitter. Happy to chat any time.

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