In the hunt for consumer revenue, publishers are hiring e-commerce marketing veterans

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With most of the digital ad dollars going to Google and Facebook, publishers are chasing hard after subscription dollars. The New York Times is trying to triple its subscription revenue in part by pitching people other services outside of news, such as recipes and crossword puzzles, while Time Inc. is drumming up new consumer products that are independent of its magazine titles, which include Fortune and Sports Illustrated.

Competing for consumer dollars today requires skills that are different from those of the traditional circulation department of the past, though, which has publishers looking for help from outside the industry.

Glossy magazine publisher Condé Nast has hired consumer marketers from such consumer companies as Expedia, Barclaycard and eBay. In addition, the company has hired data scientists, borrowed payment technology tactics from e-commerce companies and today compares itself to digital subscription companies rather than other publishing companies.

The Wall Street Journal has hired people with psychology, statistics, information systems and business analytics degrees, said Karl Wells, gm of WSJ Membership. “The shift away from being a department focused on circulation to a department driven by digital subscription growth fundamentally changed the way we worked, including the variety of skill sets we sought out,” he said. “The team we’ve built is a combination of marketers who are data-curious, data-literate, digital-first and can balance the need for art and science.”

Time Inc., similarly, has hired most of its new consumer marketers from companies outside publishing, including Amazon, Visa, Netflix and Procter & Gamble. “Anecdotally, the legacy publishing business was notorious for a very insular way of hiring,” said Greg Giangrande, head of human resources at Time Inc. “Years ago, the feeling was, you need to know our business to be able to get hired here. That model has shifted. We need to act like companies that have had it in their DNA from the beginning.”

It’s a lesson publishers that sell specialized (and high-priced) memberships already know well. Publishers like Politico and National Journal know that selling annual memberships that start at $5,000 a year is a drawn-out process that can unfold over multiple meetings and require people who have deep knowledge of the product and the industry of the people they’re selling to.

The shift by publishing companies echoes that made by banks in the ’90s, when they hired people from packaged goods companies, said Peter Kreisky, a publishing consultant. “Consumer marketing in the digital era is a whole new ballgame, and traditional publishers are ill-equipped to compete with those who have been in a direct marketing mode,” he said. “I think there’s a major catch-up that’s underway.”

At companies including the Times and Time Inc., there’s a greater focus on keeping current subscribers and upselling them new products and services because it’s less expensive than acquiring new customers. That requires knowing what drives engagement and using modeling to anticipate when someone is at risk of canceling. With digital paywalls, subscriptions and memberships, publishers’ offerings are all the more complex. And consumers have been trained by companies like Amazon and Netflix that have elevated user experience to new levels, so publishers are looking to people from those companies to bring that experience over.

The Times has hired several people from outside publishing, including Clay Fisher, svp of consumer revenue, who like several of his colleagues comes from DirecTV. They have more acquisition and retention background than is typical of publishing, Fisher said. “We benefit from their experience in more advanced and mature subscription businesses, higher transaction environments (this translates to faster learning), and more advanced digital operations,” he said.

The consumer marketing mandate today also includes being able to come up with entirely new products, as Time Inc. did with People Perks, a $60-a-year rewards program; and PetHero, a $20-a-month subscription service for pet owners. “In another era, that never would have happened out of consumer marketing, to conceive and launch entirely new digital products and services based on the data and analytics and marketing capabilities,” Giangrande said.

As for the cost, Giangrande said people from tech companies are used to lower base pay and higher bonuses, so the net pay is about the same. But publishing companies have gotten burned before when they’ve brought in people from tech companies and culture clashes have ensued. The competition for talent is stiffer. Because they’re going after the same people now, publishing companies can just as easily find themselves poached by consumer and tech companies. “They’re competing for talent with not other magazines, but Netflix and Amazon and Google,” Kreisky said.

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