Developing Customer-Friendly New Products

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"We need to rethink the relationship we have with paying readers," writes Jim Brady, CEO of Spirited Media and public editor of ESPN, in NiemanLab's wonderful Predictions for Journalism 2018 series. "It's not enough for us to say, 'What we do is important, and you to help fund it.' We need to listen to and engage with those who we're asking to support us. Put another way: We can't just be of the people; we need to be with them."

Given Brady's anthem, here are five ways niche publishers have successfully worked more with their audiences:

1. Reach out and touch a new group. "Nominate your favorite doc or healthcare professional to be a 2018 favorite!" That's the headline on Hudson Valley Parent's website for their very popular contest. Publisher Terrie Goldstein observed that she rarely had doctors advertising with her. So she created a brand new program called Favorite Docs, built a new logo, and sent promotions that went to every area doctor's office. It was a big success as readers sent in their nominations, and doctors started advertising to support those nominations. "We had a health care directory, reviews, recommendations," Goldstein said. The website gets 25,000 visits a month. She added sponsored editorial, allowed advertising doctors to use the logo on their sites, and made six months the minimum buy (90% of the doctors bought a year package). "You need to be there when they're making a decision," she said.

2. Visit and observe. American Dental Association's chief communications officer Stephanie Moritz conducted a listening—and observation—tour of her members' offices. She saw that they were often busy but took time in the day to check Facebook. That led her team to try Facebook Live video streaming—and have success. That "observation" piece can be important. I once recall Greg Merkle, VP user experience at Wolters Kluwer, telling us that, "Sometimes, innovation is subtle. Through observation you can find little shifts."

3. Look at what else your audience is following. At her BIMS keynote, Elizabeth Green, CEO of Brief Media, talked about the concept of the "one and only" being a key to renewals. When she saw how popular author Donald Plumb was in the industry and with her audience, she approached him and said that they could give him more exposure. That led to content that could be accessed daily—instead of a one-off book—plus the launching of a new app and a Q&A session at a popular conference. "No other conference has this amazing privilege," she could tell her audience.

4. Incentivize them to reach out to you. And provide several channels. EB Medicine won a 2017 SIPAward with a program designed to provide emergency departments with Clinical Learning to Eliminate Avoidable Risk. The program came about because a large customer group approached them in 2011 looking for a way to train its clinicians on risk management best practices. They had no supporting or reinforcing educational materials or test/measurement methodology, not to mention the lack of a route for users to earn much-needed CME credits for their lessons." EB Medicine won for Best New Success Story.

5. Build from something you have. "We put on a two-day project management boot camp," said Greg Hart, marketing director for PSMJ Resources, during a session on Building a Company-wide Culture of Innovation. "It went over budgeting, scheduling and other important areas" that were in their information arsenal. "It proved to be one of our most popular products! The market actually took it on themselves to be PMSJ-certified. We would get calls, 'How do I get PMSJ-certified?' "We had been looking for another recurring revenue product." Instead of doing the heavy lift of building something from scratch, Hart said building from something you have will often be the answer.

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Ronn Levine began his career as a reporter for The Washington Post and has won numerous writing and publications awards since. Most recently, he spent 12 years at the Newspaper Association of America covering a variety of topics before joining SIPA in 2009 and SIIA in 2013 as editorial director…