Several months ago, the publishing industry lost one of its the most passionate advocates and visionaries. I lost a great mentor and friend. William B. Ziff Jr. was a driving forces for decades in special-interest publishing. Many believe he was the genre’s chief architect.
Year after year, Ziff studied consumer and business markets and, most important, the people who comprise these markets to fully understand their needs. He had a zest for learning and understanding every detail of consumers’ needs in making all types of buying decisions. He committed his life and the people who worked for him to a relentless crusade to understand buyers better than anyone else in the market.
Armed with this tremendous insight, Ziff built magazines. He clearly understood the tenuous relationship readers have with content. If content was useful, relevant, and purposeful to reader need, it would attract buyers. A community would form; readers consuming relevant content would become a fertile landscape for marketers who needed a venue to display their wares. No one in the publishing business was as resolute in constructing magazines that served readers. The connections between relevant content and readers were legendary in the publishing marketplace.
No other publishing company weathered more fluctuations in market demand more successfully than Ziff Davis.
Ziff had many disciples. We all learned a great deal about the challenges of building communities through creating relevant content. We sometimes learned the hard way when our content drifted away from reader need. The resulting lack of circulation damaged our customers. I often wonder how Ziff would have dealt with the challenges that marketers face in building more effective e-mail newsletters and a variety of other e-mail driven messaging. I challenge myself to craft the way he would have dealt with the unique challenges and opportunities in the e-mail platform.
I think he would have been incredibly excited to work in these times, when all of us are really publishers. He would see e-mail as digital ink, providing an incredible opportunity to craft even more compelling relationships with customers.
Each of us has a list of subscribers, customers on our e-mail lists. Some transacted with us recently, some haven’t. Our challenge is to understand our subscribers’ needs, then publish content we deem appropriate and relevant to serve these needs. When readers consume our e-mail content, they become more loyal and view our messaging as purposeful, that is, not spam. We’ve all experienced the result when the right content reaches the right audience at the right time: better open rates, better click-through rates. A profitable transaction occurs.
I think a lot about how enthusiastic Ziff would have been about the tools available today to glean consumer understanding. The ability to observe and track behavior as content within the e-mail envelope is exposed and delivered to an audience. It’s special-interest publishing to an audience of one, as opposed to much broader segments. Ziff would see the editor’s challenge as building an e-mail publication for each individual reader based on her unique desires and needs. The role data from all customer touch points would play in shaping reader profiles would be front and center in his organization.
Ziff would be enthralled by the testing capability e-communications would provide him. I can see him launching all types of e-mail publications in real time. Gone would be print publications’ long lead times. Imagine a world where one could learn almost immediately if assumptions made resonated with readers and customers.
Ziff would commit himself to constantly monitoring e-mail publications’ performance and modifying content, always sharpening his focus and relevance with his readers until he was sure each reader received only the most relevant communications from his content warehouse.
He wouldn’t worry about search engines or portals. He would see them as providing unique information, not competing with the relationship-building available through effective e-mail communications that customers opt into. He would applaud the YouTubes and MySpaces for tapping into younger readers’ desire to build communities on video sharing and related interests. He would chastise the rest of us for not developing our own special-interest e-mail publishing relationship between our content and customers. He would quickly point out the missed opportunities in not crafting dialogues with customers through e-mail and the Internet.
If he were alive, I’m convinced Ziff would build in the e-mail arena. Many would marvel at his ability to understand markets and consumer needs in this hyper-changing world. Others would ponder the secret of his success in the new e-publishing platform. With a twinkle in his eye, he would remind them of lessons learned many years before, too quickly forgotten.
For Ziff and his disciples, the path is well-trodden and the secrets intact.
I miss him dearly.
Until next time,
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