Building better links between publishers, librarians and researchers

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Sian Harris looks at how publishers are trying to build better relationships with their customers and what more could be done to help

Communication was a big theme at both the ALPSP and STM Frankfurt conferences this year. In both of these publisher meetings  there was a strong sense that improving relationships – between publishers, authors, readers and librarians – is important.

And these relationships have not always been great. Tensions are obvious simply by taking a look at a Twitter hashtag like #openaccess or considering the recent upset when rumours emerged of Elsevier’s acquisition of Mendeley. And then there is the ongoing Elsevier boycott, led by The Cost of Knowledge.

Indeed, it was the boycott that prompted Elsevier to rethink how it engages with its community, according to Tom Reller, the company’s vice president for global corporate relations, who spoke at the STM Frankfurt meeting. ‘Social media has completely changed how we do things. In social media, conversations were going on about us but not with us and, when we engaged, it was in hostile environments,’ he noted. These hostile environments, for example, include the comment fields of blog posts attacking the publisher.

The company’s response was to launch Elsevier Connect, which is its own communication and engagement site. The idea is that this is distinct from the company’s PR and marketing messages. ‘Elsevier Connect was not just about communicating at a corporate level. We recognised that we needed to be more open and transparent about things that we might not previously have wanted to talk about such as the boycott,’ Reller continued. ‘Elsevier Connect can enable us to respond very quickly to, for example, leaked stories.’

But the idea is not solely to present Elsevier’s side of contentious stories. The site aims to have a mix of things about publishing and about the research published in its journals. ‘Around 50 per cent of articles are written by people who are not employed by Elsevier. The most popular pieces are advice articles,’ said Reller.

He is pleased with how things have gone so far in bridging the gaps between the publisher and others. ‘We think the site has brought our company and our people to life.’ However, he added that he would like to see more dialogue and commenting on the site, and that the readership is primarily in North America and Europe. ‘We would like, for example, to have an Elsevier Connect hub in China,’ he said.

Wiley had a similar idea when the company launched a blog called Wiley Exchanges this summer. It features guest bloggers and aims to ‘facilitate discussion that’s broader than us and to listen too,’ according to Helen Bray, the company’s director of communication, who spoke on this topic at both conferences. ‘There is a strong desire from researchers, librarians and others to join the conversation about the future,’ she explained. ‘Communication is a way to help in times of extreme change.’

The launch of Wiley Exchanges came after a survey of what people in the research and library community see as important. ‘We wanted to find out what people want from publishers. They said they want title quality and academic reputation,’ commented Bray, who also noted that the top trend that respondents saw as having potential to revolutionise academic research was digital tools for collaboration. This was followed by new approaches to funding.

Perhaps a surprising outcome of the survey, given the heated nature of some discussions on the likes of Twitter, was that 70 per cent of Wiley customers said that they want to hear from the publisher by email, compared with just 13 per cent who wanted more communication by social media. However, Bray added that they don’t want ‘one size fits all’ but a blended approach to communication. ‘We don’t have to have all the answers. We can get to the answers through conversation and my hope is that open conversation does spark change,’ she observed.

Grace Baynes, head of corporate communications for Nature Publishing Group (NPG), picked up similar themes in her presentation at the STM Frankfurt conference on this: ‘Communication should always be a two-way thing. Our communities are talking about us increasingly on social media and we ignore it at our peril. This means engaging but especially listening.’

Baynes had some advice at both conferences about how she does things at NPG. She encourages publishers to ‘set out sensible guidelines to staff about how to communicate online and the risks’ and to ‘know when to respond and when to leave it alone.’

‘Know your audience and the language they speak; pubs should put themselves in customers’ shoes,’ she continued. ‘The last time l did an FAQ for internal use l did each response as a tweet because that is how people often ask us things.’

She also suggested that people could find the youngest person in their organisation and get their advice about how the organisation should be communicating.

External view

An addition to the discussion in Frankfurt was a perspective from outside the publishing industry. At Regester Larkin, Alexandra Durnford’s clients often look for help in times of crisis in their public image. Scholarly publishers may breathe a sigh of relief that they aren’t held directly responsible for a stranded tanker leaking oil into the sea and wreaking environmental disaster but there have no doubt been many situations where they wish they had communicated better.

Durnford’s first piece of advice is to be prepared: ‘We work with organisations where things have gone badly wrong. We tell them that preparation would be good and to communicate as early as possible. Quite a few organisations don’t invest the time in getting to know their stakeholders until there is a crisis.’

But there is more to it than just talking, as she went on to say. ‘You need to know what you want to say and what outcome you want from it. You need to communicate in your audience’s language.’

She advised companies to think about who would speak for them in a crisis and to address this before it is required. In addition, she noted that many companies wrongly think of the media as their audience. ‘The media isn’t your end audience but a conduit to your audience,’ she pointed out.

She added: ‘If you don’t already have a social media way to engage with stakeholders then a crisis is a bad time to start.’

How you handle such things, she said, can help to add up to reputation. ‘Reputation is the cumulative view of everyone you’d regard as stakeholder, which is why it is so tricky to manage,’ she noted. ‘You can’t spin your way out of a crisis. There is a sense that if you plant a tree or sponsor a school all will be OK but it’s not really like that; people are more cynical. Reputation management is a long road and not linear. You can’t just tick a box and say you’ve done it. If you feel that communication is important you should invest in it.’

Tackling disagreement

Reller has had his share of handling disagreement since he started working for Elsevier. ‘l think we just need more engagement. The publishing industry is underrepresented in social media – and it is always the same people doing the talking,’ he said. ‘There is something about talking to people that calms things down. We are having better dialogues than we did a year or so ago.’

He also noted that, with recent issues like the company’s response to The San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA), what Elsevier communicated internally was the same as what it communicated externally.

Smaller publishers

The efforts that some large publishers are putting into communication are impressive. Elsevier Connect, for example, employs a full-time editor for the site and solicits contributions from the thousands of people across the organisation and beyond.

But one question that cropped up several times at both meetings was: what about smaller publishers? What if, instead of employing thousands of people, you employ nine? This is an issue that marketing consulting firm TBI Communications has been looking at.

‘Sales and marketing is definitely seen as an area that small publishers struggle with but marketing can have a huge strategic effect,’ Camilla Braithwaite, marketing manager at TBI, told Research Information.

‘What’s interesting is differences in how it’s resourced. Some organisations don’t have a marketing person at all or they don’t have the experience so get the focus wrong,’ added Charlie Rapple, the company’s associate director.

Braithwaite and Rapple have a number of tips for small companies, based on some of the work they have done for clients.

One of these is that marketing is important and should be very closely tied to sales. ‘Sales people shouldn’t be cold-calling. It is so inefficient if a sales person starts from scratch,’ argued Rapple.

There can also be a sense with social media that people need to do it without really thinking about how or why. ‘So many organisations get channels and then don’t know what to do with them. You see people running around like headless chickens, trying to keep track of it,’ pointed out Rapple. ‘The first thing to think is what role is social media going to play. If the goal is to reach wider readers you need to find people to contact and find interesting things to say to engage.’

She pointed to simple tools like TweetDeck and Google Alerts that can help companies get a better idea of when, how and why people are engaging with them. ‘In social media so many people don’t take a step back and look. It doesn’t take much to focus. It’s not about how much you say but about your brand message.’

And working out this brand message – or ‘core values’ – is important too. ‘With a customer recently we went back to basics. It was not a problem of having resources but having the vision,’ said Rapple. ‘At the start of the process we asked them: “what do you think you stand for?” Often the response was a very general “we stand for quality content” – but which publisher is not going to say that?’ She said publishers need a simple message that says clearly what the company is about. ‘The answers are there in an organisation. It’s about getting the right people together. If you’ve crystallised this in people’s minds they start to need less specific guidance.

‘Authors do care about what we would define as brand identity, especially in open access and with things like the Elsevier boycott.’

‘Many little companies think brand is for big companies but it’s for everyone and it’s about getting a clear message,’ agreed Braithwaite.

And then there are changes to practices too. For example, Rapple noted that many companies put in substantial effort on direct mail campaigns ‘even though it’s not very effective’.

She noted the value of personalisation and shared the approach that she and fellow co-founders of the researcher impact initiative Kudos have taken in their engagement with the academic community. ‘At Kudos we have customised 20 different segments and variables so that emails are very relevant to the recipients. It’s not that easy to get datasets so segmented but once you do so you can be very specific. It takes a bit of knowledge and sense of what’s effective and commitment,’ she said.

Having a website that engages with an organisation’s community is also very important, they added, as is making sure that you do good copywriting to get the message right. ‘Small publishers feel between a rock and a hard place with new OA publishers. However, small publishers are in a good position as they are often very close to their communities,’ said Braithwaite.

Rapple agreed: ‘They often have a high level of awareness in their niche communities and there is so much opportunity for publishers to take advantage of that. Societies are really good at this. Huge publishers are really struggling to not seem like faceless companies.’

Publishing brand

Beyond individual companies and their marketing strategies though there are bigger branding challenges too. At the ALPSP conference delegates were challenged to come up with a clear, concise statement that people agreed on that defines what scholarly publishing is all about and what publishers do. Eric Merkel-Sobotta, executive vice president of corporate communications at Springer, even offered a case of wine to whoever could come up with this. To Research Information’s knowledge, that wine is still in the cellar.