The power of storytelling in a period of relentless change, the challenges of managing a multigenerational workforce, and the evolving possibilities of social media were among the topics examined at the inaugural PubTech Connect, a daylong conference on the intersection of publishing and technology held at the NYU’s Kimmel Center on April 20.
Organized by Publishers Weekly and the NYU SPS Center for Publishing, PubTech Connect brought together an eclectic mix of traditional publishing and new-wave media firms, public service administrators, academic pundits, and innovative technology platforms. The digital era is well underway, and PubTech offered an opportunity to renew discussion about the challenges and complexities it has brought to the marketplace.
The participants at PubTech—including Sree Sreenivasan, the chief digital officer of New York City (who spoke about the city’s parking-meter app, ParkNYC); representatives of file-hosting service Dropbox; and even General Electric—were from a variety of businesses beyond the book world that are also facing the relentless demands of digitally driven change. The panel featuring a series of “legacy brands,” including National Geographic, Cadillac, and the aforementioned General Electric, was a refreshing conference experience. How often at a publishing conference do attendees hear from a company like Cadillac—which moved its marketing agency from Detroit to New York’s SoHo neighborhood in an effort to reinvent itself—or General Electric?
Some speakers challenged generational stereotypes, emphasizing that markets and the workforce that serves them are “multigenerational.” For Lindsey Pollak, author of Becoming the Boss: New Rules for the Next Generation of Leaders, and for Muse CEO Kathryn Minshew, who made similar points in her afternoon keynote, the key to attracting and managing a millennial workforce is offering its members communication and transparency—providing this new generation of digitally savvy workers frequent feedback, customization, and “giving everyone [in the business] a say.”
Dropbox showed its commitment to allowing all of its employees to interact with every aspect of the business by opening the firm’s internal calendar to them. “Everyone can see everyone else’s calendar in the entire company,” said George Baier IV, Dropbox’s head of media solutions, “which is an incredible amount of trust.”
The necessity of transparent and effective communication grows out of the need to foster an in-house climate open to innovative disruption. During a conversation with Kinsey Wilson, the New York Times’ editor of innovation and strategy, Sreenivasan described the goal as “finding new ways to interact with old problems.”
J.P. Eggers, associate professor of management and organizations at NYU’s Stern School of Business, argued that building innovative business models in the digital era requires “tolerating failure.” During a presentation called “A Change-Management Perspective,” he said that failure “is central to innovation.” He added: “If you only look at successes, you miss an important aspect. Failure is common and instructive.” Why? Success can lead to “judging results instead of the process” by which a company gets to the result, and relegate a business to focusing only on “safe, incrementally successful projects that offer less risk.”
“Reaching Your Next Audience,” a panel on the risks and rewards involved in digital marketing, offered examples of using failure to improve and target its storytelling, another frequently recurring topic at the conference. In an example of how even a youth-focused brand like Vice can misjudge its audience, Ciel Hunter, Vice Media’s global head of content, described the problems the company faced crafting social media content for Snapchat. “We tried to do it the old way, with long-form content, and had to evolve,” she said. “Don’t take your audience for granted. Learn what they care about. We had to find a form of storytelling geared to an audience that wants experience and authenticity.”
Hunter emphasized that “Vice uses different platforms to reach its audience” and works to find out “what kind of creativity works on each one.” Meanwhile, Chantal Restivo-Alessi, HarperCollins chief digital officer and executive v-p, international, noted that traditional publishers have embraced social media. “We need to put different skill sets with our traditional methods,” she said. “We need different teams within the company that can work with each social media platform. Using YouTube, or Facebook, it’s easy to deploy authors with our limited budgets.”
PubTech included a series of workshops that helped turn such abstractions about market strategies into concrete exercises. In the case of a session with Kristin Fassler, Penguin Random House marketing v-p, attendees were challenged to devise a publishing, marketing, and retailing plan for an imaginary new book by Beyoncé. The challenge: the book would be released much like Beyoncé’s innovative musical and video works, without any advance public notice, and initially would be sold via a single retailer.
After a feverish brainstorming session, one group (which included this reporter, a publisher, and a couple of Ingram reps) offered a plan by which Beyoncé would not only set up her own publishing imprint but also sell the book all by herself, with Ingram fulfilling physical and digital book sales, from orders via consumer smartphones using text messages and websites.
As Restivo-Alessi reminded the audience during the “Reach Your Next Audience” panel, after more than a decade of the digital transition, traditional publishers do indeed get it. She declared: “Publishers are not old and uninnovative. Publishers have adapted to new communication channels.”