What’s the biggest challenge you’ve overcome in your publishing business? Increasing audience conversion and retention? Bumping up digital advertising yields? Effective content repurposing?
All of the above?
The chances are that there’s another publisher out there right now wrestling with exactly the same problems. And, if they knew that you had dealt with the issues they’re stuck on, they might just pony up to get you to help them out.
Media organizations large and small have spotted the opportunity to monetize their success in navigating the maelstrom of modern publishing. From global names like the Financial Times, Bloomberg and Axios to independent contract publishers like the UK’s Think Publishing, all are selling on the practical wisdom gained from doing what they do well.
Some benefited from making the move to digital early and are putting the secrets of their transition on sale. Others have developed new ways of doing old things and have priced up their processes. Still more have just been doing what they do for a very long time and are happy to let smaller players buy into their expertise.
A perfect example of capitalizing on expertise is FT Strategies, the consultancy arm of the Financial Times. Their pitch explains that, as they transformed the 130 year old legacy print operation into a highly successful digital brand, they built “practical best-in-class expertise” that they will now share with other businesses trying to thrive in the digital economy.
When the division’s 2019 launch was covered by the consulting industry news site consultancy.co.uk, they recounted a consulting Gold Rush among ‘long-time incumbents’ across a range of industries. Established firms were selling advice to one-time competitors facing the problems that they had already tackled.
The disruption implied in the expression “May you live in interesting times,” is a curse to most, but a blessing to consultants. And in publishing, the ubiquity of problems with falling readership, rising digital competition and declining advertising revenues represents a very interesting opportunity for outfits with answers.
FT Strategies actually began with a curiosity about software sales: could The Financial Times commercialize some of their proprietary data technology. Vox Media and The Washington Post have both gone down that road; Vox has 350 clients on its Chorus platform and WAPO’s Arc XP platform supports more than 1,500 sites in 24 countries.
But the FT didn’t travel that path. Supporting a SaaS offering is a massive undertaking and the team worried elements of their offering could be commoditized. Better instead to offer advice on how to make the best use of available technologies.
What might be FT Strategies’ smartest move was its choice to focus on one key area of publishing strategy: subscriptions. At the peak of the paywall pivot, having just announced a million paying readers, the firm hitched its consultancy wagon to the reader revenue cause.
Speaking to the Media Voices Podcast in 2021, FT Strategies MD Tara Lajumoke said her team was not trying to be everything to everyone. “We have a deep set of skills, and experience around recurring revenue models,” she explained. “Subscriptions represent a huge part of the work that we do.”
That highly specific set of skills is allowing FT Strategies to look beyond publishing and begin offering consultancy services to other sectors, including finance. In 2021, the firm more than doubled its headcount and worked with almost 200 clients in more than 30 countries.
Expertise in the niches
Of course the FT is not the only media business offering consultancy services. Top-tier media organizations from Bloomberg to Axios sell advisory services. But you don’t need to be a multimillion dollar conglomerate to sell consultancy. You just need to be smart in your niche.
In the UK, Rethink is the consultancy arm of Think, an independent contract publishing agency that focuses on serving membership organizations. Rethink was launched in 2021 to formalize work the business had been doing for years as an on-going part of its customer service.
Ian Mcauliffe, CEO and founder of the £15 million business, has said that the company’s clients, many having just one title, didn’t have the scale to do the things a bigger publishing company can do. “They can’t compete,” he explained, “So we were increasingly being asked for advice.”
The company now offers a range of consultancy services built on 20+ years of contract publishing experience, from benchmarking costs and developing sustainable commercial strategies to increasing the value of a publishing business and preparing it for sale.
The foundation of a consultancy strategy
Adding a consultancy arm to your publishing business can be seen as just another revenue diversification play, but I think it’s a bold one. To sell consultancy services, you need to have several critical components in place:
No one is going to pay you to tell them how to fix their publishing business unless you are seen as an exemplar in your chosen field. The FT’s digital transformation narrative, and its standout success in subscriptions, is an important foundation for its consulting operation. That doesn’t mean you have to have the profile of a 100-year old international news organization. Being the best in your niche is enough.
Seth Godin describes this as being famous to the family: “You don’t need to be Nike or Apple or GE. You need to be famous to the small circle of people you are hoping will admire and trust you.”
Being famous will get you noticed, but when it actually comes time to pitch your capabilities, it is crucial that you can prove that you’ve been there, done that and made a lot of money selling the t-shirts. The success of the “Smart Brevity” editorial strategy from Axios is there for all to see.
In just a couple of years the company has grown its local newsletter portfolio to 14 with revenues of $5 million. That success has let it leverage its trademark newsletter formula into a software and consulting business that sees clients pay $10,000 a year for help replicating their winning formula.
Building on your own company’s expertise is a strong foundation for a consulting business that’s tightly focused on your niche. The people that helped drive your success should be able to look at similar problems in other companies and develop practical solutions.
However, scaling into other areas is a different matter and a broader knowledge of business practices will be really helpful. The FT’s appointment of Tara Lajumoke illustrates perfectly the power of bringing in outside talent. Before joining the FT, she worked for McKinsey in London and Goldman Sachs in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and the US.
Cozy chats about what to do next aren’t going to cut it if you’re looking for billable hours; your clients will need to be able to put your advice in action and evaluate progress against key metrics. That means building your playbook to enable your staff to deliver detail on the strategies and methodologies that have worked for your business.
In the case of Axios, they actually wrote a book on it. Smart Brevity, the power of saying more with less teaches the how-tos of the approach and shows real-life examples of the technique in action.
Consulting as part of diversification
Can consulting become a real revenue stream for publishers? Yes, absolutely. But like everything else in this industry, it’s not a silver bullet. It can make commercial sense to leverage the learnings of success, and failure, to help other businesses face up to the challenges of digital transition.
But like everything else in publishing it will take talent, time and laser focus to turn what you know into cold, hard cash.