Six Implications of Digital Vertical Niches

Promises made, must be kept!
I promised I would post notes to go with my Pecha Kucha speech from TOC FrankFurt at the start of the week but it has been quite the week, so here, a little later than promised, they are!

For those who attended TOC Frankfurt the notes give some more detail on what I said (or would have liked to say) at the event and fill in what I couldn’t fit in.

Pecha Kucha
I want first, to say a few things about the format:

    1) It is great fun
    2) It is very hard
    3) I tried to do too much
    4) I learned an awful lot
    5) I’d do it again

So to my actual thoughts
I think that digital change is fundamentally altering the world of publishing. Like a glacier it reshapes the geography that it passes over. But in many ways that’s not very useful to a publisher, what is useful is to think about how you might react to this change and what specifically you need to be thinking about.

One of the ways to react is to develop vertical niches in product categories where you are, as Dominique Raccah put it at TOC, “Essential to the conversation!”. A vertical niche is a community organized around a particular type or genre of content, for instance, Irish History, Military History, Science Fiction or Cookery. I’ll leave it up to you to find the niches and communities that suit your market, you might even decide that you can do better than the existing ones (if there are existing ones), or indeed you may need to create some because they do not exist yet.

But what do you need to be thinking about in order to achieve a digital vertical niche or a community? I highlighted 6 things, there are more implications and perhaps these 6 are not even the most important but they are the 6 I wanted people to think about.

    1) Sales Channels
    2) Brand
    3) Content
    4) People
    5) Education
    6) Time

Sales Channels
Creating a community changes drastically the ways and opportunities for selling. For one thing it changes publishers, traditional Business to Business companies into direct to consumer companies. So your sales channels will change. That is okay though because the types of products you’ll be selling will change too. Publishers need to think about how community will change their niches/market segments/genres. If you are a publisher of computer books for instance, it seems to me that some kind of partnership with O’Reilly’s Safari is inescapable in the medium to long term (40 or so publishers agree). I strongly suspect that have created a beast of a similar nature. Competing against it may well be folly, so how do you engage and use it as a sales channel? If your segment does not yet have its Safari or, how can YOU create it?

I used to think that we could as easily dump the plethora of imprints that major publishers control and develop a more streamlined brand much as Thomas Nelson did recently. But recently it has occurred to me that many of these imprints can be rejuvenated as niche brands, focused exclusively on single vertical of content, filled with meaning and relevant to consumers. Of course this would require a new way of thinking as well as new honesty with readers too and a willingness to allow imprint to develop an identity of their own.

If your thinking about how sales channels, products and brand are going to change then the way you look at, commissioning and using content will alter completely. In my speech I gave this quote from Mike Statzkin and I think it brings into focus the kind of thinking publishers need to do about their content offering:

The bottom line is that we can expect to see reshuffling as publishers trade off areas they can’t afford to market to for others where they’re going to expend the marketing effort and want to have the most possible content to dominate the niche and from which to extract a payoff for their efforts.

You need to double down in the niches where you can add value and create a community. Otherwise you will spread yourself too thin. That may mean allowing imprints to develop as stand alone companies, trading lists, shuttering imprints or simply commissioning tonnes of new content in a niche you already dominate.

If your are going to develop a community around your content then you need to consider people. Not just editors, authors and readers, but community members and the crucial voluntary leaders of those communities. How do you intend to grow an authentic community without recruiting readers and community leaders? Does an audience exist online to do that yet? How can you grow this organically? In a digital community, your content will be worthless without people and engagement. Without people your brand will not grow and your newly thought out sales channels will yield no revenue.

So assume you have the right content mix, your brand has succeeded in attracting attention and you have successfully engaged volunteer community leaders how will you keep other readers interested? The key readers are new arrivals to the community. Do you have the content to hand to lure them in, is there a receptive atmosphere that encourages participation and education of people new to your topic area or genre? Or does your community intimidate newcomers and leave them cold? You need to think about how you will draw those newcomers in and educate them. This will be hard.

All of this is going to take time. And a lot of that time is going to look very unproductive. You need to be ready for that. If you work in a publisher with a decent editorial staff, you’ll be used to that in any case. Of course, once you have a functioning community and so long as you don’t undermine your community and lose it, the community will be easier to maintain than to build. It will be as they say defendable and will create something of a barrier to entry* in your genre.

And that, was pretty much what I wanted to say. I know it didn’t quite come out that way, but you live and you learn Pecha Kucha!

* Though my thinking on this is that if you have a truly open community, new publishers will be part of it either as partners or as members. Either way they will add value and ensure that your members see more reason to stay in your community or vertical.

15 thoughts on “Six Implications of Digital Vertical Niches

  1. As someone in the audience, I’d offer that what you said measured up just fine to what you wanted to say 🙂

    A thought on re-reading your work: it explains why the recent discussions about “controlling the interface” are off the mark. The question isn’t really who owns the device that people prefer to use, but who “owns” the community that you’d like to reach.

    1. Thanks Brian,

      I totally agree on the interface point.

      On the owning the community I am beginning to wonder. In some senses you are clearly correct but:

      1) Communities are rarely owned
      2) Openness brings value in a community

      That implies that while you might found and “run” a community but if you do so correctly it should be open to rival publishers to engage in. That way you increase the appeal of the community.

      But “own” will do for now!

      1. (Sorry, Eoin–what I meant was that you misspelled “Shatzkin” in the blog and slide. Just fyi. Can’t help it–used to be a copyeditor.) 😉

  2. @Eoin… we’re on the same page. More accurately, I could write, “Own the best access to the community” or “Own the (current) position within the community as the best resource”. To do either, you’d have to be open to the best content, even if it comes from a rival.

    If you do own the best access, you get a chance to charge for your own content and for access that you give other content providers. That’s why ownership, however we choose to define it, becomes an advantage.

    Thanks for putting these thoughts up on your blog. I’ve just linked to them from my own.

  3. You seem to be saying, by using words such as “create,” “develop,” “build” and “maintain,” that a publisher could start and build a new community around its content. I think you have it exactly backwards. The community exists first, and a successful publisher’s task is to (1) understand the community’s needs, (2) listen to the conversation that the community is having, and (3) offer products responsive to the needs and engaged with the conversation.

    I’d suggest that something created around a product line isn’t a community at all, and has little chance of coalescing into one.

    Rather than saying a publisher can “own” a vertical, might it be more accurate to think in terms of level of engagement? So, the publisher who truly understands and is actively participating in a particular niche area finds a way to offer its own products, competitors’ products, free advice and content, basically any products or information members of the vertical can use…and the important (albeit admittedly completely subjective) measure is the community’s sense of whether the publisher is really an active and engaged member or just a corporate entity out to make a buck.

    Would love to read your thoughts on specific publishers that have successfully “created” a vertical niche, rather than identifying an existing community and trying to sell to it.

    (Perhaps I’ve read the post above too narrowly; if so, sorry for the nit-pick. Many thanks for your great blog and thoughtfulness on this and related topics…)

    1. Tim,

      Thanks for this.

      No, I think your concern over terminology and thinking is valid. I like your three points in terms of engaging with a community, I don’t think I would gainsay any of them. Perhaps though I gave too narrow an explanation of what I mean.

      A few points I might respond to.

      1) Creating/Developing community:
      While I think something created just to sell books and exploit a community will fail, a community fostered by a publisher in the right spirit and culture can thrive, just as is. They thrive by adding value to the community and enhancing engagement. But as you imply, it must be real, open and honest.

      2) Communities exist in the wild and can be engaged with there:
      I’m distilling you here but I think you are saying by using the tools of honest engagement then you will succeed in becoming part of the community. I’ve no problem with that and I have problems with the concept of “owning” a community as I indicated above.
      But I question your idea that these communities exist in the wild. Outposts of these communities exist sure but a unified conversation no. By providing a platform for that conversation a publisher can without “owning” the community help curate, enrich and develop it.

      In summary there is no doubt that publishers are no necessarily creating these communities but they can provide the tools for them to coalesce in a digital environment around the thing they value (content).

      PS Thanks for the compliment!

      1. “In summary there is no doubt that publishers are no necessarily creating these communities but they can provide the tools for them to coalesce in a digital environment around the thing they value (content).”

        Well put–I completely agree.

        Cheers, Tim

    1. I’ve been putting off reading that piece for a while, but I figured if you link to it Litlove, I really should read it. It’s fantastic. I don’t agree with everything but still, some top-notch thinking!


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