In scholarly publishing, the last decade has explored a new business model – Open Access. This model has quickly overtaken other forms of technical or format innovation. Indeed, we still see a majority of full-text research articles consumed via PDF, a format launched in 1993.
The emphasis on making research publications freely available to all users has caused scholarly publishers to focus on reducing costs and gaining scale, rather than on innovating for the benefit of readers and users. The complex ecosystem of scholarly publishing, which includes funders, promotion and tenure committees, and citation indexes (to name just a few of its curlicues), and its overwhelming reliance on the site licensing revenue model, generally makes its readers the least important constituent of all.
It seems likely that in the long term, publications will no longer deliver growing financial returns to the societies and associations that publish them. For many societies these revenues are the lifeblood supporting the organization’s broader activities. Does the decline of publication financials spell impending doom for the society model in general?
What are the innovations that could help transform a declining revenue model into a once-again thriving and reliable source of funding for the advancement of scholarship?
Diversification of ServicesFirst, diversification of information services is key.
Most societies already create diverse forms of content to serve varied purposes. Conference outputs, like posters and proceedings; continuing professional development, including training, assessment, and certification; so-called “grey literature” of every shape and style; and “soft content,” including news, blogs, and other non-peer reviewed or discretionary information. Many organizations produce some or all of these forms; few have them organized systematically and oriented towards audience development.
Re-establish Connections with Individual ReadersSecond, once an organization makes a systematic effort to become a media-generating (rather than just a journal-generating) operation, the opportunity is to charge into the breach of the publishing ecosystem I described above.
The flank it has left exposed is the under-appreciated reader. Societies and associations are perfectly positioned to use digital tools to re-establish a connection to the individual, currently being ignored in the rush to Open Science, institutional and consortial arrangements, and by the genericizing effects of scale.
A Deeper Understanding of MembersOur organizations have always understood the individual. We call them members. We touch members in many venues for diverse purposes—publications, conferences, training and development, special interest groups, news, advocacy. And yet there are two substantial shortcomings in the way most societies and associations have addressed membership.
First, despite the diverse interactions that occur between an organization and a member, we generally do a very poor job of identifying that member and cataloguing those interactions in a comprehensive and unified way.
We might know that Jane Smith subscribes to the journal, and that Jane Smith attended the annual meeting, and that Jane Smith earned 14 CME units last year. But do we know which articles Jane read in the journal (and which news and blogs she read on our website)? Do we know which sessions she attended? Do we know the specific topics of the CME credits she earned, and how she scored, and what are her strengths and weaknesses against the subject matter? Do we, in sum, have an accurate, granular, personal knowledge of Jane’s specific interests and how we can best serve them?
And even if we do have relatively sophisticated engagement tracking within each of the business areas (and I’m afraid most of us continue to struggle with that), do we have a centralized, comprehensive data source that collects and evaluates that engagement data and makes it usable to further personalize and enhance future engagement?
The second shortcoming with respect to membership is that we tend to limit our focus to members. But a member is in a small subset of the total audience for our organization’s activities. For every person sufficiently committed to us to pay the annual fee, there are many multiples who are not quite interested enough to join, but are interested enough to engage (and pay) at a lesser level.
Ponder this math: if there are ten times the number of your members who are each interested in 1/10th the level of cost and service, capturing them would double your current membership revenues. Of course this simplistic example elides the specific product/service mechanics and pricing, but it illustrates the core principle at work.
This observation has always been true, but only recently has it become viable to identify and engage with these smaller but more numerous customers.
Data Intelligence InnovationThe tools to harness user interaction data, and to make that data actionable for marketing and sales purposes, are in play. A few of the most sophisticated associations (HIMSS is a good example) have developed effective audience intelligence solutions and used them to dramatically expand audience monetization.
At Silverchair— provider of one of the leading content hosting and delivery platforms for scholarly and professional publishers—we have spent the last year building an efficient platform for audience engagement. Hum, our new subsidiary, is a new category of essential software that integrates data from all of an association or society's digital touchpoints to provide better and more personalized digital experiences. Societies and associations will use Hum to understand their audiences across business activities, and to address and monetize those audiences with personalized engagements.
Our hypothesis is that by addressing the constituency that is both most ignored and most foundational to publishers—individual readers, users, learners—we can create new growth for societies and associations.