The emerging “me at the center” customer expectation is a compelling consequence of the digital, mobile age. Maps re-orient themselves to where you are instead of you having to find H-3 or some other grid quadrant. Content follows you and stays in sync with you. Your phone number is permanent and provides connections for voice and texting. Your DVR can be scheduled and managed remotely.
Technology companies are racing to cement “me at the middle” as a reality, making things easier for consumers, anticipating an irresistible trend. Meanwhile, publishers — concerned with optimizing their systems for production rather than for consumption, worried about reining in costs to preserve comfortable cultures, and catering to authors with projections of prestige — remain “we at the center.”
Amazon’s Kindle platform is perhaps the best case of a modern technological publisher putting me at the center. Yes, the Kindle is a device (and, yes, lending is coming), but the Kindle’s most important aspect will most likely end up being its platform — which integrates the device thanks to its ingenious connectivity. The Kindle device can be constantly connected, so that the platform is aware of what point you are at while reading items on the device. Access the same text later on a different device, and you’re put at the place you stopped, thanks to a platform that synchronizes things for you. It puts you at the center. You don’t have to do anything.
Netflix is moving in the same direction. One of the most interesting things I discovered using my new Apple TV came about when I was waiting for the Apple TV unit to arrive. To warm myself up, I tried streaming some TV shows from Netflix on my computer. It was fun enough, but I stopped one half-way through one, deciding at that moment to wait for the device. When my Apple TV unit arrived, I plugged it in, accessed Netflix — and was told what I’d just watched and asked if I wanted to start watching it where I’d left off.
This was a device I hadn’t owned when I’d watched the show, but the Netflix platform put me at the center. It felt a little magical, I have to admit.
Pandora is also pursuing a “me at the center” strategy by making its player compatible with every possible device there is, from Blu-Ray players to gaming systems to car stereos. Google’s attempts at this so far (e.g., Wave) have not really panned out, but you can feel them stitching things together to meet this expectation. And Apple has Mobile Me, their platform for synchronized files and access.
Yet we traditional publishers continue to rebuild our Web sites, dangle uncoordinated apps and syndications in front of our users, and allow intermediaries to separate us from our true audiences (i.e., institutions, aggregators, and tertiary storefronts).
The general culture of publishing has problems when facing a challenge like this. We’re still about serial publication, inherently author-focused, and somewhat comfortable in our cultures. As David Worlock writes in an excellent post about the forthcoming book “Creative Destruction“:
. . . real world companies receiving the painful jolt of a swift kick in the digitals can and must re-invent themselves through a three stage process of re-generation. This involves a transformation of their core business, the discovery of big adjacencies, and the ability to “innovate ’round the edges.”
We could use a kick in the pants. We’re being surrounded by players who are poised to dominate our commercial futures, and we’re not positioned to compete well. Customers don’t care who provides them with the best experience, price, and variety. They will take what they can get. If we think the prestige of our brands or the power of our ingrained traditions will hold this at bay for long, history isn’t on our side. But again and again, we seem to think that digital = new. It doesn’t. Digital (gaming, music, publishing, telephony) is more than 30 years old, deeply entrenched, and it isn’t going away. In many companies, digital is still viewed as “experiments” instead of core; performance is measured in months instead of years; commitment is brief and furtive instead of firm and absolute. Worlock nails it when he writes:
By far the larger part of the management of consumer book publishing known to me have, while embracing a digital strategy, regarded everything that emerges from it as a defence mechanism to protect the printed book. . . . Managements seem to view continuity as a strategic aim, and re-invention as a car crash unless it has instant acceptability.
We’re still filled to the brim with people who can run the familiar terrain of periodical publishing, our cultures quietly reinforced through daily action and practice even if there is a clarion call from the customer for change. We have a skills gap we can hardly detect because we have plenty of skills but can’t see or deal with the fact that they’re incomplete and just slightly wrong. From top to bottom, our organizations need to be retooled, especially philosophically, as Worlock writes:
The problem we all face is not just that it is very hard to get people who are not used to it to start analysing the active, problem solving applications of content in the lives of their users/consumers, but it is well nigh impossible to do that if the end purpose is to defend the rigid linear internal production workflow model of the publisher, who cannot conceive of relinquishing his containers or his pricing models, or the accident-waiting- to-happen business model of advertising.
It’s tempting to think these changes will only be reflected in our digital divisions or offerings, but the fact is that we have to change fundamentally — our digital strategies are too often predicated on broadcasting from the big Web site; our cultures are often defensive, entropic, and arrogant; and our business goals stream from complacency and caution.
As Jack Welch famously said, “When the rate of change outside exceeds the rate of change inside, the end is in sight.” For publishers, the problem is that the customer is essentially being pulled away from you, moving into a world in which each of them is at the center of an information sphere filled with interesting material, sufficient serendipity, and trusted filtering — the likes of which traditional publishers can’t provide by persisting in familiar habits.
Publishers continue to conceptualize the world as “we at the center,” and it has the tinge of the royal “we” to it. The fact is that customers — in a world of abundant information, seamless technology appliances, and radically different business models — see a world with each of them at the center. Whether we’re part of that or not — well, it really doesn’t matter to any of them.