Do you really know your audience as well as you think?

The other week I found myself in a meeting with the CEO of a niche B2B publisher, and a senior member of his digital product team. The CEO had spent much of the previous hour bemoaning his declining print revenues, as well as outlining an advertising-driven attempt to go digital that, it’s fair to say, has experienced some pitfalls.

The digital executive (who was new and therefore not involved in the aforementioned digital transition) then began outlining, very articulately, proposals to create a high-value, subscription-driven online service out of the data published every issue in the back of the magazine. The sort of service that, were they to get it right, would generate millions in recurring, secure subscription revenue every year. His CEO interrupted him by slapping down a page of the magazine, showing an ageing executive in a suit, and declaiming “but most of our audience looks like this”.

It’s a dynamic we see time and time again across the media sector: senior executives who have come up through a print background, who have been covering a particular sector in depth for a long time, and feel like they know their industry inside out. They assume they’ll always know what will and won’t work for their audience.

The question is, which audience? The audience of today – which will in time retire? Or the audience of ten years down the line – who may see no need for a weekly or monthly print title when they could be getting real-time information elsewhere, in a flexible format that suits their working day?

And what about the people working in your industry, across different functions, who aren’t your customers? How do you know they wouldn’t be spending money with you, if only you had products that were relevant to them? How much ‘white space’ is there in your market that you aren’t currently filling? And if you aren’t filling it, what’s to stop someone else coming in and cleaning up?

Across the publishing sector there are numerous examples of this happening. Usually, it boils down to not having people with the right skills in the building. If a management team has no experience of leading a digital transition, then it’s perhaps unrealistic to expect it to have a good grasp of what steps to take and how to avoid the obvious pitfalls. It’s little wonder then that digital services still get launched that unsuitable for their intended market and, as a result, don’t come close to meeting revenue expectations.

This is where the importance of excellent product managers and customer insight people really becomes apparent. People with these skills have the ability to research a market properly and understand where the opportunities lie. They observe their target users and really start to understand the potential of the audience, its information needs, workflow requirements, and regular pain points. And they do all this before they even start to think about what product to launch.

High-quality insights people like to prove there’s a sizeable demand for a product before development starts. They also understand the importance of being able to launch a minimal viable product that can then be improved incrementally over time, with minimal fuss or cost, if it proves to be worthwhile and popular. They’d rather do this than spending millions, and months, on an all-singing all-dancing product that nobody really wants.

For many traditional publishers, taking these people on may look like something of a risk, a leap into the unknown. “I’d rather get it wrong early,” one business leader recently told me. “and risk losing a few thousand pounds, than get it wrong late and lose millions, and my career.”

Well, quite. It’s good advice.