How Cengage, HarperCollins, and Scribd Are Using Data Analytics
A month later, the Book Business Live Executive Summit on Digital Publishing is still fresh in my mind, and despite a couple blog posts and articles I've written since, I feel I've barely scratched the surface of the lessons shared at the March 31st gathering. Book Business readers will soon be able to take a deeper dive into the topics discussed during the panel "Transforming Your Company for the New Era of Book Publishing" through a feature that I wrote for our Spring Issue (look for it online and in the mail next week!). But I also wanted to provide a few takeaways from another panel that day, "Unlocking Opportunities in Data Analytics." Although I've written about the importance of data collection and analysis in book publishing before, this panel took a very high-level approach to the data issue and panelists projected well into the future how they expect data will impact the way they sell and market books.
Panelists included Tom Breur, VP of data analytics at Cengage, Adam Silverman, senior director of digital business development at HarperCollins, and Andrew Weinstein, VP of content acquisition at Scribd. Here are some of the big takeaways that hit home for me.
1. Publishers are finding value in new kinds of data, in particular data around UX. Publishers can gather information around more than just book sales and social media activity. As publishers build more direct channels to their readers, whether through ecommerce, proprietary apps, or events, a wide variety of data is becoming available to them. At HarperCollins, said Silverman, they are learning how to build more positive user experiences in their apps. "The interesting thing about having the [ecommerce] app is you hear back from the customer very quickly about things they don't like. You also can see what gets used in the app and what doesn't. It gives us an idea of what they're looking for in engaging in this sort of media that we never had before."
Cengage, which has made heavy investments in learning software, is also closely tracking how consumers are using their products. The publisher has invested in technology that allows it to track every action taken by a student or instructor on all of its major learning platforms. "You're talking about terabytes of data for every mouse click on every different platform," said Breur.
2. Trade publishers are using data to drive greater discovery. At Scribd, Weinstein is focused on deepening engagement so that readers continue to renew their subscription. The subscription service is encouraging greater engagement by providing targeted book recommendations. "We collect information about groups of subscribers that behave similarly, and we test how different recommendations will work for that group," said Weinstein. Scribd also measures how different editorial, non-algorithmic recommendations may drive engagement in genres a reader or hasn't explored before.
HarperCollins is focused on discovery too, said Silverman. "If you're going to spend a lot of time trying to get your content in as many places as possible, then what are the ways in which you can get to the ideal reader to discover that content? How do you create marketing material? How do you communicate through social media?" This is where trade publishers are putting the greatest focus, said Silverman. Trying to use data to impact book creation, he added, is still a long way away.
3. Pulling out actionable insights from data is an iterative process. One of the biggest misconceptions Breur noted among publishers who haven't dealt with data previously is that they believe they will get the data they want in the first try. Often, he added, they don't even know what type of data would be most helpful. "I think it's important to work in reverse order," said Breur. "Instead of coming to me with, 'I want this data,' publishers should think about the critical business decision they are trying to influence as a result of the data. That often leads to a very different kind of discussion than 'I need sales data.'" Using these types of discussions as a framework Breur and his data team can develop agile processes to get data to publishers quickly then refine that data as its use cases become more apparent.