BISG- industry must adapt to "big data" shift

BISG- industry must adapt to "big data" shift

Two New York meetings—the annual Book Industry Study Group (BISG) Making Information Pay conference on "The Age of Big Data" and a smaller Women's Media Group seminar on "New Tools for Transforming Publishing" conducted by HarperCollins' Carolyn Pittis—explored remarkably similar themes.

The world is being upended by unimaginably vast amounts of data generated by and underpinning digital social change. Our industry fundamentally needs to shift mindset and learn to harness algorithms if it's to survive the "Big Data" tsunami—gazillions of bytes tracked from all we do online—and thrive in the longer term.

No single generation has witnessed so much change, and it's only going to grow exponentially—fragmenting, recombining, and redistributing power, as Pittis, senior vice-president of Publishing Transformation, pointed out.

As she and BISG's presenters emphasised, analytics must come out to play throughout an organisation, informing the thinking of every function, from back end to sales and marketing, rights and editorial. Ultimate responsibility should probably migrate to the c.f.o., but the key is for analytics to be embraced by every level, from execs to troops on the ground.

After all, lassoing data is what Amazon is all about, and as Enhanced Editions founder Peter Collingridge told BISG, "publishers' biggest customer is now their biggest competitor. Amazon has a 17-year headstart knowing how to woo the customer and make decisions based on data rather than intuition."

For a publisher to sustain relevance requires ubiquitous scalable access to information, data and content, a willingness to share with authors and agents, and an openness to challenging the status quo. "Empower employees about how they spend their time," Pittis urged. Too much is wasted on re-communicating information and seeking short-term rewards while procrastinating long-term interests. Companies are overinvesting in social media—"a lot of it is a waste", she declared.

Collingridge serendipitously illustrated her point for BISG, with graphs showing how a $30,000 digital marketing campaign had no effect on actual sales.

Our dependence on email may also have to change, Pittis warned. We're overwhelmed by it, and what was suited to the 1990s may not be effective going forward.   

Kyle Marx, vice-president of business analytics at Readerlink, prime distributor of trade books to 23,000 storefronts— big boxes like Walmart, Target, the national chemist chains—told BISG how his company set about constructing "an insight-rich, data-driven structure" at a time when it's not only fighting for every square foot in stores, but like everybody else, fighting for every minute of attention share in a distracted population.

Readerlink used outside vendor Information Builders, whose marketing vice-president Jake Freivald also presented at BISG. The vendor's job was to set up systems "to smelt useful information from the rough ore of too much data", as Freivald put it. An in-house Readerlink team was created under the c.f.o. to work with them; a basic sales and marketing reporting "dashboard" (offering online charts, graphs and so on that visually manipulate data to make it accessible and useful) took 30 days to build. It was followed by operational supply chain dashboards, a publisher portal, retailer apps and so on.

"Transparency is key," Marx emphasised, as well as figuring out "which metrics matter. Out of 300 metrics, 15 turned out to be most important to us."

Marx gave one telling result: the company wanted to validate drive-time claims by its 1,600 field reps, who cover three or four stores daily. Using data from the reps and Google, the drive-time "variance" was decreased from 35% to 4%. "The reps weren't happy," likening it to being tracked by Big Brother, "but it was helpful to the company." Future projects will consider traffic pattern analysis within stores, why heavy shoppers are not buying books, etc.  

The number one piece of advice from Freivald: "do rapid prototyping; spend time 'playing' with how to manage end-user data. You'll find people who get it and love it, people you'll want to nurture."      

Kyusik Chung of Goodreads—a US social networking site boasting eight million users set up "to help readers find books and share them with friends"—said that although title flow "is focused on popular books" when readers first register, in the end attention is focused more on the long tail. Goodreads recommendations "are designed to hit the midlist sweet spot".

Charles Duhigg, a New York Times journalist and author of current bestseller The Power of Habit, provided an attention-grabbing end to the BISG event, exploring whys and wherefores of habit formation—the "loop" of "cue, craving, reward"—and how analytics might help foment or change habits.

Forget Duhigg's anecdotes about Febreze, Alcoholics Anonymous and email (the number one reason to create a habit is to relieve tension, and compulsively checking email satisfies cravings for a moment of distraction). Instead, think Hilary Mantel and Wolf Hall (Bring up the Bodies would do just as well).

Duhigg found "the complexity of Wolf Hall surprised on every page." It turns out that "introducing intermittent rewards that surprise you" improves habit formation. These are the most powerful kinds of rewards—the concept underpins slot machines, after all.

The number two reason for habit creation is to alleviate boredom, and that surprise reward "is what books do better than anything else." They're "perfectly positioned to take advantage of things that are habit-forming." So there's hope for us yet.