Transcript: Conversion Architectures

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Interview with Magellan Media Consulting Founder and Principal Brian O’Leary

for podcast release Monday, March 2, 2015

KENNEALLY: In books and other media, authors and publishers traditionally have products to market and sell, whether in digital or physical formats. But an emerging business view holds that opportunity lies beyond the products. In this approach, the audience is where the money is.

Welcome to Copyright Clearance Center’s podcast series. I’m Christopher Kenneally for Beyond the Book. Already, subscription services for books, such as Scribd and Oyster, have led publishers to think differently about their sales-driven businesses.

Media consultant Brian O’Leary says the time has come for experimenting with so-called conversion architectures – business models that involve attracting an audience, retaining it, then monetizing it. Brian O’Leary, founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting joins me now. Welcome back to Beyond the Book, Brian.

O’LEARY: It’s good to be back. It’s always an enjoyable time talking with you.

KENNEALLY: We enjoy it as well, and we learn when we speak to you. And this is a conversation that is a preview, of a kind, of a presentation that you’ll be making later this month in Toronto for BookNet Canada’s Tech Forum, the largest tech-focused professional development event in the Canadian publishing industry – and of interest not only to our neighbors to the north, as they say. And so for our audience and for me, help me understand a little bit more about conversion architectures. What are they?

O’LEARY: Sure. Well, in your introduction, you had an opportunity to talk about the three components of a conversion architecture. The first is to attract an audience. That’s typically the widest part – if you think of a funnel – the widest part of the funnel – the top. And it’s the folks who might visit a Website and generally are going to be aware of a product or service that you’re offering. In the book business – in the book space – it would be awareness of a book or an imprint, something that essentially gets them into the conversation.

The second part of the funnel would be, in effect, the moment when you start to engage them. You want to keep them around. This is usually a smaller subset. The larger audience is attracted, but then some folks sign up for an e-mail. Maybe they attend a Webinar. They do something that essentially gives you an opportunity to continue to connect with them.

And then, the more touch points, the more times that you actually reach out and engage them on a variety of different things, the more opportunities you have to sell them products and services – the things that are both a book and then those things that are beyond the book.

KENNEALLY: Right. Well, you know, this sort of approach to marketing is very attractive, particularly in the digital age, because the cost has really dropped considerably. In the past, this would have been an expensive undertaking.

O’LEARY: That’s true. I mean growing an audience in any situation has always been the most expensive part of a publishing business. You see that in the magazine space in particular. But the premium is lower because the cost of acquisition is significantly less. But I think the other thing is that – that is true, that continues to be true – is that the power of content – the ability of good content to inform and engage and ultimately keep an audience is still being proven. It’s really true.

KENNEALLY: Right. Well, conversion architectures can apply to publishers, but they can apply to any kinds of businesses. It’s an approach that really is across the business spectrum. But talk about how, in your view, publishers particularly can benefit from looking at things this way.

O’LEARY: Well, I think the first thing is that you start to think about the reader rather than the trade or retail institution, if you’re a trade publisher, and other intermediaries, if you’re a different type of publisher. And thinking about the needs of the reader and trying to be more both aware and responsive to what they’re interested in obviously puts you closer to the marketplace. And that’s something that’s been missing a lot in the past.

KENNEALLY: Well, to boil it down to a couple of terms that people are often hearing in the business today, it’s moving from a B2B play to a B2C play.

O’LEARY: Sure. I mean I think that the B2B play, the one that is in place for most publishing right now, will still persist. It doesn’t disappear overnight. And it may not disappear at all. But I think that the feedback mechanisms are going to change a lot, because you’ll have direct information, content, you know, even the analytics of what people are looking at, how they’re responding, what they’re commenting on will all play a big role in shaping publishers’ understanding of both the marketplace and its trends.

KENNEALLY: Well, so when a publisher takes this approach, obviously the first step is to attract the customer. Then they want to keep them. And in your view, content can play an important part in attracting and in keeping them. And it requires publishers to think about content perhaps as a bit of bait rather than as something simply to purchase.

O’LEARY: Yeah. I’m sure that’s not the most comfortable thing for publishers who’ve classically monetized the products by selling them. But I think, if you think about subscription models as an example, it’s an opportunity to test different types of content. And the whole process of putting together an audience in a subscription service is very much conversion architecture. A lot of people are aware. Some people are at least engaged on an ongoing basis. And then there are those people who actually subscribe. So I think that applying those in different settings is going to open up different conversations about what business models make sense.

KENNEALLY: And there are some steps that you suggest publishers take. And one of them is to look at the content that you have today – kind of take an inventory of it – and see what might play a part in this approach.

O’LEARY: Yeah. I gave three basic things that publishers can do today to try and get to be more familiar. And certainly one of them is inventorying content. It’s typically not something that publishers do well. We know we have a backlist, but we tend to segment the backlist in terms of the years it was published, when it was last updated – maybe target it at specific audiences.

We don’t look at components, and we don’t look at things that might be alike that would create, for example, a good volume or maybe something that you could distribute digitally as a test, maybe as a reward for signing up for a newsletter, that kind of thing.

So becoming more aware of your content is certainly one of the three things I think publishers should be doing today. And it’s not that expensive to get involved in doing.

KENNEALLY: Well, you know, newsletters were very popular back in the day. And I don’t follow this all that closely, but my sense is that they’ve kind of fallen by the wayside as a bit old fashioned. But it sounds to me like you think they retain their value in this approach.

O’LEARY: Well, they are one of the things that you can do to retain value. But you can also retain a relationship simply by getting an e-mail and giving the people that you have signed up for your service or products information and maybe an occasional offer. I was just reading the other day – Content Marketing Institute, which is an industry organization, had done a survey of small business owners.

And the thing that they found was most effective in promoting – most effective as a content marketing tool – was giving away e-books. You wouldn’t expect that, necessarily, but that’s a role publishers can play a really big part in, because we’re good at e-books, we understand content, we understand markets. So maybe there’s even an opportunity to get involved in content marketing but still do some of the things we do really well traditionally.

KENNEALLY: Right. Well, so go to your strengths is good advice always. But someplace where there hasn’t been a lot of strength in the publishing industry is the Web itself. And there are really important techniques around search and referral marketing and even the use of social media that are going to play an important role here.

O’LEARY: Agreed. The second of the three things that I encourage publishers to do is to become more familiar with the way the Web works – how search works, how social works, what content marketing might be for them. It isn’t necessarily the case that you want to start the effort immediately, but you want to task people in the organization to be up to speed in best practices and what’s going on in the marketplace today.

But I also think it’s a challenge for – that I would challenge senior management in publishing to become more familiar, because I think it is going to become at least a component of how we market and serve audiences in the future. And so it’s not just something that you delegate. I think it’s something that you really want to understand and factor into your thinking about business models going forward.

KENNEALLY: Well, as you were saying that, I was thinking, wait a minute, Brian, it’s 2015. You’re telling people that this thing out there called the Web. But the key part of what you just said was it’s getting buy-in from senior management, who may be aware of all of this but don’t live it day to day. They really need to take it up in the same way that those digital natives working in the office down the hall are doing.

O’LEARY: I think that’s exactly the case. One of the things I’ve taken to saying in the last couple of years is that how we create and manage content has to be done in a way that is effectively distribution-ready. So understanding what distribution-ready means and how it might take place across multiple realms – not just in print or even print plus e-book, but across the Web as a whole – is critically important. And that’s not something that – it’s you absolutely need to have people working at an operating level to be able to do that, but you also want to have management fully aware of what their decisions mean and how they’re going to play out.

KENNEALLY: Right. And then, finally, you can’t simply dump this content out into the Web and hope people will find it somehow, somewhere. It’s really about developing a voice and retaining that commitment to the brand through that voice. So give us an example of how that would work.

O’LEARY: Well, I think the third thing I recommend is effectively blogging – not necessarily blogging a huge amount but doing it on a consistent basis, with the audience or audiences that you want to reach in mind. The thing that I think often people do is they blog about the thing that is of interest to them. I know I’ve done it. And sometimes that’s good enough.

But ultimately, if you really want to be effective at content marketing, you have to be blogging about what your audience has in mind or what they should have in mind, so that you can lead them a little bit. And that only comes through trial and error. So get out and do some.

KENNEALLY: Well, trial and error, which is another word or another phrase for research.

O’LEARY: It’s research, but it’s research where you’re actually going out in the marketplace and effectively talking to the people you want to reach.

KENNEALLY: Well, we have been talking to someone we like to reach, Brian O’Leary, who is the founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting. He’ll be speaking on conversion architectures later this month in Toronto for BookNet Canada’s Tech Forum. And Brian O’Leary, thank you so much for joining us today on Beyond the Book.

O’LEARY: It’s always a pleasure. Thanks for talking to me, Chris.

KENNEALLY: Beyond the Book is produced by Copyright Clearance Center, a global rights broker for the world’s most sought-after materials, including millions of books and e-books, journals, newspapers, magazines and blogs. You can follow Beyond the Book on Twitter, like us on Facebook and subscribe to the free podcast series on iTunes or at our Website,

Our engineer and co-producer is Jeremy Brieske of Burst Marketing. My name is Christopher Kenneally. For all of us at Copyright Clearance Center, thanks for listening to Beyond the Book.

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