Don’t think like a publisher. Think like a publishing start-up.

Hacker way

You’re not the New York Times. You’re not even Cisco. Be something else. Something better.

“Think like a publisher” works when you’re exhorting a cultural shift in marketing from talking about yourself and your products to talking about your market and your users. You want to talk about the market and make content that people want to read, or watch or listen to, like a publisher.

You’ve probably accepted this idea. You want to produce content that speaks to and about your audience, his or her problems, pains, hopes and dreams.

Here’s where I feel a distinction needs to be made.

By publisher, we’re usually talking about a company that produces media titles – magazines, newspapers, music, radio shows, etc.

You should not think like these at all. And, I’d say, this is not a straw man, or the overextension of a useful metaphor.

Businesses are acting like publishers, or media companies. Hiring veteran editors. Setting up newsrooms. Writing editorial guidelines. Fretting about sales influence. Imitating the New York Times. Or Cisco.

And I don’t think that’s working out very well for them.

Businesses should think like a publisher in the bigger sense of the word – a company that creates experiences around content. This high-level definition would include a Facebook, a Flipboard, a Wirecutter and a Red Bull, all unique publisher start-ups.

The latter come to the core problem in a fundamentally different way. I call this approach the publisher start-up because it blends publishing with the thinking behind start-ups. It’s nothing new – people have been starting up publishing ventures for as long as there’s been publishing – but it’s never been more important than now, as digital media unravels in disruptive mystery.

This post has four parts: 1) the reasons you shouldn’t think like a (conventional) publisher, 2) the forces driving publisher start-ups, 3) the principles of publisher start-ups and 4) examples of publisher start-ups.


The reasons why you should not think like a publisher

don't think like a publisher

  1. Publishers are dying. The model that they’re following is, largely, not working. You don’t want to imitate that.
  2. Publishers are stuck. They can’t adapt due to vested capital and inertia. You should not, you cannot, co-opt that paralysis.
  3. To publishers, each new piece of content is steadily less valuable in relation to the overall value of the content brand/the title. It should be the opposite for you.
  4. Publishers HAVE to publish; it’s existential. You don’t. Your budget could vanish tomorrow.

The nail in the coffin has to be this, though:
5. Businesses that have copied traditional publishers have a poor record in content marketing.
That last one’s going to be controversial. But I’ve seen numerous examples of businesses channeling media companies (hiring publishing pro’s, setting up news desks, building a big professional editorial staff, etc.) that – for all the hype – produce lackluster programs.

I’m not going to name names. If you follow this field, just look around. You’ll see what I mean.

The economics behind it are clear. They’re overinvesting in headcount, relying on a busted concept of editorial authority and basically adopting all the conventions of a dying industry. (And there are countless vendors to help them do it.)


The forces driving publishing start-ups

A historical reference: Starting in the 1990s, desktop publishing allowed anyone to become a small-scale magazine publisher. Thousands of ‘zines were born, and – like mayflies – died. But a new generation of people with experience starting new media titles remained.

In the 00s, the evolution of digital publishing allowed anyone to become an online publisher, with potential to reach millions. Blogs were born and died in droves. But publishing was reinvented in the process.

As a result, media entrepreneurship’s now a professional sport (a bloodsport). And traditional notions of publishing are getting a beating. Much of the talk of adopting a digital ethos in conventional businesses today (or going digital first) is about trying to catch up to the speed of publishing start-ups.

Some of the ideas driving these publishing start-ups?

  • A focus on experiences instead of start-end narratives
  • New revenue models and publishing structures
  • Immediacy and transparency
  • Experimentation and data validation based on lean start-up methodologies.

I propose you think more like a new publishing start-up (even if you’ve been doing the content marketing/publishing thing for a while).


The principles of publisher start-ups

Think "experience"

Traditional publishers are built around a one-way communication model involving a core mission: To entertain, to report, to investigate. Publishing start-ups are more likely to approach communications in a collaborative sense; their purpose is to shock, to inspire and to engage. This is best illustrated in the difference between a printed newspaper and Facebook.

Experiments, rants, curated discussions, evolving series, attitude, liveblogging and basically anything that resembles streams (as opposed to pages) are all great short-cuts to thinking experience. Focus more on users, than readers.

Built around media hacker types

The media hacker is a neologism (Mitch Joel’s used it occasionally), and a useful one, I think. These guys and gals live to build audience, they think creatively and laterally (across all formats and channels), they’re competitive, they’re ambitious as fuck and they need a grown-up to channel their energies now and then. Imagine the love child of Hugh Hefner, Rand Fishkin and The guys at Business Insider, love ‘em or hate ‘em, are great media hackers, and here are their ten tips.

It’s ironic that media hackers are all over the place, but most organizations and senior marketers manage to suppress these people. It’s not uncommon for me to see a media hacker type thrive when his boss departs, only to get stamped down again when a new boss arrives. Each and every time, it’s disappointing and depressing. Like if David Brent supervised Jack Dorsey.

Build your content marketing around these guys. Senior marketers should do everything they can to nurture and guide them (you work for them), and build support structures for them. Do that one thing right, and they will make you a hero. Guaran-f’ing-teed.

Lots of little bets

Publishing start-ups never stop testing things out. Because the chances that you’ll hit the best (or even a good) publishing strategy the first time are practically null, you need to iterate to good. Mark Zuckerberg’s made this a mainstay of the hacker way; test constantly, but make each test small-scale. Little bets.

Make knowledge discovery a priority. Reward efforts to do new things, or old things in a new way. But keep track of your bets, study them and share the results.

Experiment with formats, channels and promotions

There’s no Massey Pre-Nup to content marketing – that is, a single best or right way to do it. This is related to the previous point, but tied explicitly to distribution. Chances are, the most effective strategy will involve an ever-changing mix of formats, channels and promotions. It’s a cultural thing, and culture always changes.

Talk to the people who are doing new things, or offering new publishing solutions, or technologies. Pull them close. Query them. Try them out, if you can. Talk distribution. Again. And again. And again. And try to share what’s discovered in a wiki or private social network.

Expose the process

Publishing start-ups are remarkably transparent about how they do what they do, why they do it and what it’s for. Unlike publishers, which only share the final result (“ta da!”), publisher start-ups want you to see how they got to the destination. In fact, they believe that exposing their process will enable the community to contribute, and make the final result better.

Bring the market along on your ride. Describe the kinds of data and stories you’re working on. Share your challenges in dealing with it. Expose troubles and triumphs. Be transparent. Pull the cloth away from a final product. Reveal inner workings.


Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer recently banned work-at-home for her employees; she simply pointed at data showing that people working at home weren’t logging in to the company’s network. Relevant data are the stars for people navigating the digital world. Publisher start-ups stay alive – in spirit and in bottom-line – by taking an eyes-wide-open approach to data.

Many companies lack a baseline for their publishing. Grab and steal whatever data you can from relevant peers or competitors. Even then, you need to manage parallel operations, giving you a constant idea of “better”. Reassess the data you’re tracking at a regular interval. Then, focus on the fewest, most relevant numbers, make them highly visible and define clear paths for response to the data.

Planning for Ballsy

How many marketing departments would be inspired enough to invent a site like the Oatmeal? They should be, and they will be. Matthew Inman’s the quintessential media hacker and a prototype content marketer because he’s willing to take unconventional routes to success (his career testifies to it). Publishing start-ups are willing to try just about anything, once.

Make “don’t ask for permission, ask for forgiveness” the governing principle of your teams. Content marketing without creativity is insipid, and creativity comes from strategic constraints (the goal can’t change) and tactical license (anything to reach the goal). As long as it’s aiming for the goal (the core media principle mentioned above), let wild ideas fly – and suspend judgment for a while.

DIY by default

In the course of a half-generation, our self-publishing capabilities (blogging, podcasting, movie-making, data visualization, etc.) have expanded more than any five generations before it. Publisher start-ups have a tendency to make the most of the resources at hand. Only when something sees wild success and the publisher knows investing in extra resources will pay for itself, do they make the investment.

Make your POCs (proofs-of-concept) yourself and make them live. If it flies high, then bring in some talent. Apple’s “get it perfect before you ship” methodology is for physical products; Eric Ries’ minimum viable product is better for software and media. Ship your own ideas, then iterate.

Operate in the now

I hesitated to say real-time, as it feels like empty rhetoric. By operating in the now, I mean not trying to plan further than six months down the road. That also applies to messaging; don’t hesitate to say something because your product strategy will probably change in a year. Start-ups know that the ground is always shifting; basing today’s actions on tomorrow’s reality is a fool’s errand.

Your content strategy’s long-term should be six months at the most, and your short-term should be in more or less constant adjustment. The faster the workflow, the better. Get two people making something in one day/week; not one person making something over two or more days/weeks.


Examples of companies acting like publisher start-ups

SEOMoz – The one, the only. This is not a company. This is not a site. This is an organized community of explorers, with a core mission: Identify how to maximize traffic to a given website, with pretty much any tool at your disposal (and a hefty focus on search engines).
Random media hacker dudes – There are too many to name, but two of my favorites right now are Justin Briggs for this amazing piece, and Alexis Ohanian (previously of Reddit, now with Hipmunk). This TEDTalk by Ohanian is like a 5-minute media hacker crash course:

Eloqua/Marketo/Hubspot/Pardot/Silverpop – The five big marketing automation vendors aren’t necessarily locked in zero-sum competition, but they’re absolutely engaged in a hot content marketing war. They’re experimenting like mad, cut-throat about exposure and inventing new formats and workflows at speed.
OKCupid’s OKTrends – They weren’t the first to see the value of data as content (giving us a surprising glimpse of ourselves in macro), but were one of the best at using it in content marketing. Sadly they couldn’t get the workflow down to where it needed to be. Remains as one of the great content marketing experiments.
Unbounce/KISSMetrics – These were some of the earliest start-ups to do content marketing in anger, and succeed by it (and because of it). Both of their blogs can be considered templates for thinking like a publisher start-up.
AMEX Open Forum – The first and the best content marketing/community hybrid. AMEX simply gave an existing community of small business leaders (the crowds they gathered to a physical exhibition) a virtual place to interact. They thought “experience”, little bets, transparency and DIY all at the same time (a ballsy move for a credit card business).
Maersk Line – The unexpected social media hero of 2012 was a shipping company. Few people understood how closely-knit the shipping world is, though. They did, and they’re using it very effectively. A post from their social boss reads like an instruction manual for publishing start-ups.
Jeremiah Owyang – He’s not just a great analyst for Altimeter, he’s also got sharing hard-wired into his DNA. Despite the fact that he’s got a punishing workload, he’s constantly building information repositories to which anyone can contribute. Consider these two examples.

Find your media hackers and let them rip

They might already be working for you. They might be you. But I’m pretty convinced that the publishing start-up starts with these novel hybrids. Find ‘em. Then build a structure around them that allows them to create value.

After that, aside from measuring stuff, just get out of the way.

Do it. Consider it an experiment.
You can always go back.

(I bet you won’t want to, though).


A wonderfully exhaustive post. But, as my mother says, I’m old and have a right to say whatever I want. And I just want to point out one little thing. You started out with:

‘“Think like a publisher” works when you’re exhorting a cultural shift in marketing from talking about yourself and your products to talking about your market and your users. You want to talk about the market and make content that people want to read, or watch or listen to, like a publisher.’

Bravo, exactly. And this is exactly what happened about 50 or so years ago, spearheaded here in the US by some nutty advertising fellow named Bernbach or something. It was called the Creative Revolution. It managed, in the better examples, to actually talk about a product AND the users at the same time, in 60 seconds or a single magazine page, with content that people wanted to read, watch or listen to because it was funny, heartwarming, charming, witty and human. In the best examples, it actually did quite a bit to change people’s minds about their habits, what they needed, what they bought, what they drove, and what they thought about a number of social issues.

Yes, the world has changed (and given the comment I just left on Doug’s post from Monday I may be seen as an advertising apologist by now), but none of what then made advertising pretty great has become irrelevant. It’s just kind of moved on into another sphere. And here’s a secret: if you do advertising like that today, it tends to work just as well as it did then. Much as the Strategic Planner once usurped a chunk of the writer’s job, a slice of the account person’s job, and all of the researcher’s job to become what he/she/it became, content marketing is ‘usurping’ (mind the quotes) what advertising and marcom sometimes was and should always have been and be. When we can put that sensibility into any form of communication (well, it’s not that easy in a press release, granted), and use those various forms in concert, that’s when we’re really cooking.

One (aging) writer’s opinion. (I’d put a smiley face here but it’s really kind of obnoxious. Besides, mine is starting to really show its wrinkles.)

Excellent points, John. I’ve heard David Ogilvy cited in a similar role to Bernbach.
Great copywriting touches universal themes.

One thing I don’t think Ogilvy/Bernbach meant to do was create an ongoing experience around their content – that is, they usually focused on a one-off experience that led to an action (go buy something). A publisher start-up would seek to establish an experience that enticed or even required repeat visits.

I think we’ll see a movement more and more where advertising’s expected to be (even defined as) marketing efforts that drive a specific commercial action, and everything else marketing goes into some hybrid of what we’re calling content/social marketing.

Well said Ryan, great article!

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