Don’t be an iPod dock, and other CX lessons for publishers.

This post is based on a talk I gave recently at DigiPublish NYC. To view the full talk and slides, check it out here.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Fresh off a flight, exhausted and at the start of a recent trip, I stumbled into my hotel room. I happened upon an iPod dock like the one pictured above. It was hard not to notice this clunky piece of hardware ostensibly here to make my stay more convenient, yet outdated and of absolutely no use to me. How long has it been since iPhones used that charger? Seriously.

This sleeker, seamless alternative would have been ideal:

And yet I probably wouldn’t have noticed the charging station until I needed it.

You know a bad customer experience when you see it, and you know a good one when you don’t.

In this post I’ll focus on lessons for publishers, because I spent the first 20 years of my career as a publisher or building products for publishers. But no matter what your industry, you cannot afford to provide a bad customer experience (CX) today. I could run through the gamut of CX horror stories just in the past month that prove this to be true, but instead I’ll focus on how we got here.

The transformation of B2C dynamics

Two trends developed in parallel and created a radical shift in how businesses connect to customers. The first is consumer-centricity, a.k.a the rise of the “empowered consumer”. Mobile and bandwidth opened the door for consumers to have on-demand access to a company, and particularly to content. As a result, customers increasingly expect a better experience, instant support, and less human meddling.

In October 2000, Primedia bought and I was tasked with helping to integrate the business. I sat across from the publisher of one of Primedia’s biggest brands, Modern Bride, as she drew the brand in the middle of a whiteboard and the various revenue streams around it. “We’re Modern Bride. Every bride in the world comes to us. Our job is to aggregate that audience and sell them subscriptions, access to them in ads or ancillary products.”

It may have been true then, but the power dynamic has completely flipped to the consumer today, and rightly so.

Yet just as consumers have become more central to the businesses that serve them, paradoxically they have become more elusive. That’s because the explosion of social channels and mobile also introduced multiple channels and devices that the consumer could be on, resulting in nearly endless permutations of the customer journey.

The fragmentation of the digital landscape is the second trend that shapes our new reality, and it’s one that comes with clear winners and losers. Those who control the networks and devices consumers are on — the so-called walled gardens of Google and Apple — control the content your customers get, how they get it, and how it’s measured. The rest of us are feeling our way around the maze, although some intriguing partnerships are emerging to combat Google and Facebook’s stranglehold on data and ad revenue.

Social gets a lot of attention, but an estimated 46% of Bitly’s 9 billion monthly clicks that don’t come from social remind us that email, SMS, search and other channels play just as big a part.

Everyone is everywhere except on your site.

CX is the new king

Conventional wisdom in the digital age tells us that “Content is King” but we are reaching a point of saturation. Content is available everywhere, and freely. Content is cheap. More quantity, higher quality, and more innovative content isn’t a strategy — it’s table-stakes.

Where do businesses turn to now? CX is the only meaningful way your brand can compete. This is not new insight — I’m piling on to what others in the field have studied and observed. Gartner’s Augie Ray declared that CX is the new king, and Forrester’s Harley Manning has shown that a superior CX drives superior revenue growth when customers are free to switch business and competitors’ CX are somehow differentiated.

Anatomy of a good CX

I like this definition of the customer experience from Gartner:

Let’s break that down to understand the components of a good CX.

  • A good CX is emotionally resonant. Consumer product marketers have long figured out the emotional value of a brand or product, but publishers are playing catchup. To be clear, this isn’t about your brand’s tone and persona. It’s about how customers feel about you. When was the last time you thought about how your customers “feel” about you?
  • A good CX is about consistency. The switching cost for consumers of content is low to nonexistent, so why should they give you a second chance if they encounter a subpar experience? You’re only as good as your last touch.
  • A good CX is in every touchpoint. Each channel your brand uses is an opportunity to create deeper connections, but a risk if it’s not used properly. Your killer email marketing can’t succeed if there is a weak link somewhere else in the chain.

Your Action Plan

By now I hope you all know not to do this, but being a CX-forward publisher doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice revenue. Two examples from my own household are encouraging.

To my astonishment, I recently caught one of my kids browsing the Food Network’s Snapchat channel. I don’t think he’s ever watched the Food Network on cable, but here is a brand that understands the need to meet consumers where they are, and cater content to their interests. Further, they integrated native content with Taco Bell in a way that didn’t sacrifice the CX.

The second example is my own daily use of Alexa and the NPR news flash. NPR has embraced a new form factor and epitomized consumer convenience: my news brief is on-demand and I can pause and restart it whenever I want. And they’re still able to monetize with a brief, non-intrusive Comcast ad at the start. For every poor publisher experience to avoid, there’s at least one good one to acknowledge and emulate.

Beyond that, here’s my parting advice on how to navigate the customer-centric and fragmented environment, create a great CX, and increase your revenue.

  • Own your customer data. As long as Facebook and Google know more about your customer than you do, you’re at a disadvantage. Personalized (note: not creepy) experiences can delight customers, but relying only on third party data gives you an incomplete and sometimes inaccurate picture. Invest in consistent and fresh behavioral data.
  • Prioritize zero friction. There will be times when it’s tempting to sacrifice a frictionless experience for cost-efficiency or the pressure to ship in a channel. Remember to calculate the potential loss of customers after a bad experience, as their switching costs are virtually zero. No presence in a channel is better than a lousy one. No iPod dock is preferable to an obsolete one.
  • Sell more stuff. The good news about consumer-centricity is that you can be more than what, traditionally, your brand or the term “publisher” has limited you to be. Ask yourself how the customer feels about your brand, and then figure out what else they would buy. Since you own your customer data (right?) and today’s tech allows you to do it at scale, you can retarget your customer with products and offers that augment their experience.

There’s a lot of pessimism about the state of the industry. The challenges are real and the new environment will kill publishing as we know it if there’s no radical change. Yet putting the focus on the customer experience presents an opportunity for publishers to be, once again, customers’ fiercest advocates. And that is a powerful and positive combination.


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