(This posting reviews a presentation entitled "Keeping pace with online publishing challenges: why and how" given by Randy Petway, VP Ingenta, at the Ingenta Trends event held in London in December 2007).

Even now, the online revolution remains the biggest challenge facing publishers today; many have not yet scratched the surface of the digital potential of their content, while those who have made some progress are nonetheless challenged by the speed of technological evolution, which increasingly disconnects key sources of competitive advantage from their traditional core competences.

The digital challenge can be broken down into a number of elements:
  • user expectations, particularly as users become more familiar with the web and other software applications
  • technology shifts - and knowing which ones you need to keep up with
  • rate of change, which is much quicker in the online world than in the print world
  • how to monetise content; even mission-based publishers should be seeking to maximise the revenue potential of their content.
Continuously-evolving user expectations
Online shopping (Amazon) and social web (Facebook, MySpace, orkut, YouTube, reddit, StumbleUpon...) sites not only encourage more users to spend more time on the web, they shape those users' expectations of how websites look and, more importantly, how they function. And users of these sites are more in our target demographic than we expect, with 53% of MySpace users and 42% of Facebook users in the 35+ category. Furthermore, a strong brand or compelling content will not protect providers from the need to innovate. Fodors, an authoritative and well-known brand founded 70 years ago, with a 10-year-old online presence and 700 global correspondents, has lost ground to Trip Advisor, a 7-year-old newcomer which can boast more traffic than its older rival. Trip Advisor is interactive and incorporates user-generated material along with practical functions (e.g. trip planning) which attract and engage users more than plain old-fashioned reviews.

Technology shifts and rate of change
The adoption curve for new technologies is increasingly steep. Three years ago, only non-adopters had heard of AJAX, but 62% of CTOs surveyed during 2007 were expecting to have it in use by the end of the year. Analysing adoption of Facebook applications tells a similar story - Funwall, introduced in Aug 2007, had 4 million users by December - and 1.5 million of those had signed up in the last 7 days alone. The converse of such quick adoption, of course, is quick abandonment when things go wrong - a minor bug in Facebook app Superpoke saw it lose hundreds of thousands of users in a few days; they migrated to a substitute application that did not have the bug.

Monetising content
Content delivery processes used to be binary; publishers delivered their content to consumers. But now we use multiple channels to reach users, and package content with supplementary elements which have begun to be perceived as part of the product (community and mobile features, for example). A consistent platform is required to support this level of functionality - one that allows for modules to be bolted on when new features are required. Topical features include:
  • Granularity - of content, of licensing, of reporting, and so on
  • Microsites - interlinked but separately-branded sites that support a publisher's house of brands
  • Virtual bookshelves through which publishers can participate in the buzz around their product (author blogs and "view inside" snippets, etc.)
  • Community features such as user-generated reviews and recommendations
  • End user personalisation, allowing users modify their experience according to their preferences (for example, users over 36 tend to be searchers whereas those under 36 tend to be browsers)
Given the futuregazing required to develop appropriate modules, and the complexity of building, implementing and maintaining them, many publishers choose to outsource their platform to a third party that can deliver and develop it in a cost-effective manner. As Home Depot would say, "You can do it. We can help".