Sean Briggs, CEO at Creative Workflows has over 25 years of knowledge and experience working with leading companies and brands within the media industry. Sean is based in the UK but works internationally with all sizes of media companies and solution providers.
The biggest part of his career involved working in consumer magazine publishing, particularly for Hearst UK. His role there was to establish the editorial and production workflows for consumer brands such as Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, Esquire, Elle and other high-end consumer magazines.
Sean was also the person leading those titles into digital formats, and when iTunes launched “Newsstand” several years ago he was the person preparing PDF replicas for all the titles: “That was the quick and easy solution at the time”, remembers Sean.
He goes on to say that they partnered with a digital distribution company based both in the UK and USA and got everything ready for that launch. Prior to the launch it felt like a bit of a roller coaster ride, however. “We went from using Zinio which probably gave us 3,000 digital editions a year to something like 400,000 downloads in the first weekend. That was a very successful start to digital editions.”
“In the meantime Hearst UK’s parent company started producing interactive editions. They brought in developers to achieve this because they thought that’s what the audience required, but we discovered later that actually, audiences weren’t that interested in interactivity they were more interested in readability”.
“So we quickly looked at ways of making that content available on the phones and tablets so that it was more readable. We looked at Adobe DPS but that was too labour intensive at the time and in the end we offshored the production of the mobile design with UK teams maintaining control. It was quite a challenge setting all of that up and getting it to work efficiently.”
When did you start your own consulting company?
After leaving Hearst in 2013, I founded Creative Workflows Ltd. I’ve been working with all sizes of media groups since then. My first big publisher was Burda Media in Munich where I worked with their senior strategists to find a way to move their titles towards a more 360 way of working, bringing digital and editorial print teams together to become more collaborative. Since then I’ve worked with companies like Immediate media, PCS publishing, and Arts organisations such as Wigmore Hall, and others including media vendors. Having worked in the UK magazine industry for many years I am now enjoying bringing my knowledge and experience to all sizes of publishing, arts and media companies.
Where do you feel most magazine publishers need help?
Publishers are all trying to save costs and generally speaking they look to reduce staff numbers rather than invest in technology. I’ve argued many times it’s not always the best way of doing things. It is possible to increase the output without increasing the number of staff or the workload.
Skilled staff is critical, so it’s a repurposing of their skills and often a cultural shift that is required to show improvements, but this has to start from top management.
When it comes to distribution, traditional print publishers need to move into the digital channels, whether it’s Twitter, Facebook or Instagram but also into other media channels e.g. Instant Articles, Apple news, Accelerated Mobile Pages, and others, because at the present time it’s not enough to just have a responsive website and say as a publisher, ‘Look we are addressing our mobile users’, you have to place content where your reader spends their time.
One of the channels is print, the others are media channels, social channels, and websites. What we’re trying to get publishers to do is create story content at the start of the workflow, then drop it into the most appropriate channels, automating as much of the process as possible. The technology is available and becoming affordable but it is the cultural shift that is required and that publishers find most difficult.
In many cases the print environment is stretched to a point where all they can do is print, if you come along and say, ‘right now we also want you to put into Facebook Instant Articles and Apple News and we need you to write headings for Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest etc…’, the panic in their eyes says it all.
What I’m doing at Creative Workflows is saying, ‘Look, we can make some time’. To begin with is often not believed, then we start looking at their processes and we look at where the bottlenecks are, where the duplication of effort is and we begin removing those. We automate mundane tasks and together that does create more time.
I still think magazine content is of a high quality and the stories are still relevant. People want to access that content. What publishers now have to understand is that readers are not interested in going to the newsagents and buying a magazine or even going and looking for a particular brand’s website. What they want is that content to come to them. So if they live in Facebook the magazine’s content has got to go on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram, wherever the audience is.
Yes, you might be able to persuade them to come to your app but the app has to work on a smartphone. It takes a lot of effort to make a good-looking App, so many vendors are now trying to automate some if not all of that production process. The ones that seem to be most successful are the ones who go back to the original content and then flow it into pre-defined templates.
Does it make sense to invest in an application if you already have a responsive website?
There’s still some conflict there. Digital editions tend to be controlled by the print environment and the website tends to be controlled by the digital department and in many magazine companies those two departments are in conflict instead of working collaboratively.
Again the more forward thinking companies have started to pull these groups together, persuading them to work as one unit, resulting in better experiences for all audiences.
The trend is people moving to their own channels and expecting content to come to them rather than them go and seek out the content. Certainly when we look at the industry as a whole, print is still falling by about 10-15% yearly and now we’re seeing that some branded websites are falling by about the same ratio. The largest sustained growth is on mobile.
Publishers haven’t yet hit the correct formula for digital editions and the reason they’re finding it so difficult is specific to the brand. You have a company which might have 20 brands or 70 brands and the hope from everybody is you find one solution, one way of working and then apply it to all of your titles. That doesn’t appear to work. You’ve got to look a little closer at your demographics and study the data on how the audiences behave in those different channels and then set the appropriate content in front of them. That’s challenging, really challenging.
Could you please explain how a 360 strategy would apply to publishers?
Nowadays we have access to lots of data/statistics and digital editions have been excellent because they surface what readers are most interested in, what they dwell on and what social channels they’re most active in. Publishers are starting to use social tools so they can see how people are reacting to the stories rather than just knowing the age and demographic of the reader.
Consider a story that takes off on Twitter. You can bring that back to the website, set up a discussion channel and encourage reactions. If it’s something about a fashion piece you can follow up in the next edition with more on that story or get a response from the model that was used in the fashion shoot. That starts to create/generate a micro-channel. I think Elle UK did it first and they did it very well. They grew their digital audience hugely by being able to keep the ‘conversation’ going.
What would you recommend to anybody that wants to start their own publishing business nowadays?
The main thing is to think about publishing in a totally different way.
First of all, you don’t all need to be in the same room in central London, it just doesn’t need to be that way. Quite often that will break the start-up model because of the costs of having an office and housing people in it.
The second thing is that the content should be thought of as self-contained stories and the story destination more than one product, i.e. print and media channel, social channel and application. Each brand will need its own approach to reaching different audiences and that might include events, or merchandise etc.
Would you still recommend print?
Yes absolutely, print is still working and I do feel a little more optimistic than I did a couple of years ago. In 2015, in the UK, out of the top 100 consumer titles, only 5 were showing any kind of increase in readership. Last year that number was up to 16 showing growth.
As long as publishers realize that they need to work in a different way now, optimising their workflows and getting departments to be more collaborative. Work from the start with different destinations in mind. Adapting and innovating using their brands strengths to engage audiences in new ways whilst maintaining core values.
Publishers know how to put compelling stories together but they still have to learn how to get that content in front of a new and ever-changing digital audience in the most efficient and compelling way possible, if they can solve that and monetise these new channels then their future is very rosy.