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Marketing can help publishers weather the recession

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Charlie Rapple reveals the challenges and opportunities of marketing in a recession and how a new web-based community could help

The year 2009 is proving to be pretty grim. Library budgets – already under considerable pressure – are being cut further as the credit crunch takes hold. Several scholarly publishers have already had to cut staff. In times like this, it is all too easy to look to places like the marketing department to make short-term savings. But now, more than ever, publishers need good, strong marketing to differentiate their titles and to inform librarians, readers and authors about their ongoing strategy. And marketers need to work together to overcome the poor opinions some have of our profession.

A strategic function

Marketing is a much-maligned and misunderstood discipline, often equated to little more than product promotion. In fact, it has a strategic role to play in helping publishers answer critical questions such as: how changing market conditions affect readers, and how publishers can continue to be of value to them; and how organisations can be restructured to best reflect the evolving priorities of their members. Marketing also helps publishers understand: what they must do to ensure that their publications survive – and thrive – in this increasingly competitive market place; what will make a new journal stand out from its competitors; and how a small not-for-profit publisher, for example, can compete effectively with larger well-resourced commercial publishers.

The answers to questions like these are found in market research, strategic modelling, customer relationship management, product positioning analysis, and benchmarking – all tools at the disposal of a well-resourced and integrated marketing function. Some have contended that scholarly publishing is a monopoly (because academics demand specific titles, not potential competitors). This, in part, explains why marketing in our sector has tended towards the tactical – promotional campaigns, materials and events – and remained quite conservative. There is an unwritten rule that you cannot use techniques from the consumer marketing world because they would undermine the serious academic value of the publications. More broadly, marketing has been undervalued by business leaders in the past because of its lack of accountability; it is hard to respect a business function that cannot demonstrate its own value.

Rising to the challenge

The profession is rising to the challenge of overcoming these traditional tendencies by taking a more strategic approach, becoming more innovative in its use of emerging techniques and technologies, and by defining measurement criteria to assess return on investment in marketing activities.

We are supported in this endeavour by the wealth of metrics available from digital marketing tools. For example, smart marketers don’t get out of bed these days without: segmenting (maximising the potential response to communication activities by breaking down the audience into segments based on behaviour, demographics, current purchaser status or other variables); targeting (broadcasting a different message to each audience segment); and positioning (refining your message to appeal more closely to each target audience’s interests, status or behaviour).

This combination of activities results in a carefully-focussed campaign that will result in higher response rates than a generic broadcast. Sophisticated email campaign software, data integration and analysis, and flexible e-commerce tools all support the contemporary marketer’s ability to identify target customer groups, create and communicate focussed offers, and measure the response they receive to feed back into ongoing marketing planning.

Relationships with customers

In a recession, this approach to marketing is even more critical. Every penny invested in the marketing function must be optimised, with a strategic approach to its expenditure, and a phased campaign approach with follow-on activities that each build on the one before. In our industry, this means using all the information we have about our customers to build profiles that enable personalised communications and support a long-term approach to our relationship with customers. Such information includes publications they subscribe to, submit to or use regularly; articles they have purchased individually; email alerts they have set up; and events where they have met us.

However, one of the difficulties faced by most marketers in our sector is being a relatively small service function in organisations for which marketing is not the primary focus. In many small publishing houses and society publishers, there will be only one or two marketing staff. In this context, it can be hard to keep professional knowledge up to date, and to find the time or confidence to experiment with new techniques. Many marketers in this situation face the traditional misconceptions about the role and benefit of marketing. They also often have no-one with whom to discuss strategic marketing plans and objectives, emerging techniques, the impact of their activities or the development of marketing knowledge within their organisation.

Coming together: the MAPP

A new initiative called the MAPP (for ‘marketing in academic and professional publishing’) has been set up in response to this perceived need for a knowledge and networking hub for publisher marketers. The evolving information environment calls for some fundamental changes in the way in which we market scholarly content. The MAPP aims to be a focal point for the profession as we grapple with an increasingly-complex market place and a wealth of new tools and techniques. It is a forum for exchange, discussion and development of ideas and experiences. It should help us prove and improve the impact of our function on the success of our organisations, and to create a more satisfying experience for our customers.

The MAPP started life as a LinkedIn group. Its 150 members, and the range of active discussions underway, bear out the community need for such an initiative. A new website will launch soon at www.themapp.net. Features there will include themed discussion forums, good practice guides, toolkits and templates, book recommendations and reviews, marketing industry intelligence resources, an ‘ask the expert’ service and more. The MAPP’s growth will be guided by an expert panel that includes senior representatives from a range of scholarly publishers and publishing consultants.

By sharing our ideas and knowledge of best practice, we can solve our collective problems. Collaborating enables us to learn new skills and gives us the time we need individually to practise marketing strategically, innovatively, accountably – and, thereby, to help our organisations compete effectively in a tough climate.

Charlie Rapple is head of marketing development at TBI Communications