Triple Down on Data, Expand Your Digital, Change Your Culture; Use This Time to Reset and Grow, Kueng Says

“It did take time to get the approval to get a new website. We had focus groups and a wide variety of perspectives. But I’m so glad MOAA did it.” said Yumi Belanga (pictured), senior director, digital programs, office of the CIO, Military Officers Association, in an excellent session with Mark DeVito, president, Beyond Definition, titled The 2020 Association Brand Experience at AMP 2020 last fall.

We started to understand our members more and how important data is in making these decisions. ‘Do we have data to probe that will be beneficial?’… We also learned a lot more about what everyone’s individual goal was. Sometimes we don’t listen. Listening and not just hearing gets to true collaboration. Step outside yourself to put yourself in their shoes.”

Belanga’s comments evoke one of the priorities—to triple down on data—of a terrific ebook published last year by Lucy Kueng, an internationally renowned expert on digital disruption, titled Transformation Manifesto: 9 Priorities for Now. It delves into how publications professionals can change for the better in the aftermath of the pandemic. She wants us to “seize the opportunities presented by the undeniable crisis we face, because those opportunities are truly huge.”

About data, she writes: “You can’t move from want to need on guesswork. You can only shift… by diving deeply into understanding customers and how you can become more important to them… Triple down on data, not just on the volume flowing into the organization but on the caliber of discussions around that data, on the insights derived from it, the hypotheses you develop and test.”

Let’s look at five more of these priorities, with some AMPlification.

1. Growth will be all about digital. “Organizations that have procrastinated on digital are in a tough place,” writes Kueng. “Their transformation runway is suddenly much shorter. They need to pull off a fast pivot—to traverse what disruption specialists call the ‘valley of death’ where [organizations] that fail to reinvent themselves for a digital world get consigned to a slow death—without the substantial legacy revenues that early movers have used to finance this transition. These ‘digital laggards’ are the ones in survival mode, facing difficult decisions.”

I was speaking this week with Lilia LaGesse, an association publishing strategist and frequent speaker for AM&P. Her exceptional presentation at a Lunch & Learn last year highlighted the three main ways that a magazine can be digital: a page-turner, web-based and immersive. She said that while the page-turner can look pretty cool and maintain existing print production process, its user experience, single level of engagement and sharability are much less than the immersive model. As Keung writes, now is a great time to play digital catch-up. Expand your presence. “Find out where your audiences are in the social media eco-system and get your content out to them there.”

2. Seize the moment to do clean-up work that’s overdue. In the same way we have been cleaning out our homes, Kueng wants us to do that with our business—and stop doing things that aren’t successful. “We have been very good at starting things but terrible at stopping them,” she writes. Look at your legacy products. Are they “hangovers from a previous era but still resourced at glory day levels”? She also wants us to pivot in the way we do age-old processes. “Remote working clearly offers opportunities to rebalance fixed costs.”

“I think what happens a lot is that you say these things are important, but you aren’t really following it in leadership with your actions,” said Anita Zielina, director of news innovation and leadership at CUNY’s Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism. “Then you have to really be willing to invest or shift money into building a product team. So it’s really kind of a transformation process than anything else, unless you’re building as a start-up. Of this means you ask yourself, ‘What can I stop doing to shift those resources into something else?’”

3. Your culture is unfrozen. There will never be a better time to change it. “Culture is incredibly efficient—it works as an internal protocol that silently influences actions and decisions,” Kueng writes. “Ensure digital voices (often younger and more diverse) have equivalent ‘voice time’ and that they are heard first… The pandemic has broken cultural inertia. Habits have been unbroken. People are expecting things to be different. This is really rare. Now is the time to make your culture into what you want it to be. The trick is to layer culture change objectives into everything else you are doing,”

This will take direct involvement from all staff, especially leaders. At AM&P 2020, keynote speaker Leslie Mac told a great story about a university where she helped conduct some diversity workshops. The heads of the department told her, “We want to spend time with you.” And she said, “That’s great, we’re all going to the workshop.” That was not in the department heads’ plans. “I stopped them,” she said. “’You have to come to the workshop, too.’ They looked at me with [deer-in-the-headlights] eyes. ‘There’s no way unless you come. You need to be there, you need to participate.’ They were really afraid of saying the wrong thing, of being uncomfortable. They came up to me after: ‘I never had this kind of conversation with staff and graduate students. The walls came down. Thank you.’ We can’t silo this kind of work.”

4. Take extravagant care of your teams. “Remote working is often a boon for productivity when tasks are known. [But] it is bad for innovation and setting up new things (and finding a workaround for this is the challenge right now)… Ramp up communication as much as possible. Gather everyone together more often. Remind them that they are part of a cohesive organization.”

Early on in the pandemic, Dan Fink, managing director of Money-Media, told me something that turned out to be prescient. “Since the pandemic isn’t expected to end anytime soon, we have ordered kits for a number of staff who were having difficulty being efficient in their home work space; things like a mouse, keyboard, monitor, office chair, etc. Most of these items are pretty inexpensive on but go a long way to helping staff be productive and letting people know how much we appreciate their hard work during this crisis.”

5. Timing is the rarest of strategic skills. Now is the time. “Agility, innovation, optimism—these were the most critical traits for now, according to 22 CEOs surveyed in September 2020. This is a rare reset moment. COVID-19 has been a crisis on so many levels but it is also a huge opportunity: to rethink, to innovate, to shed things that need to be let go of, and to build for the future.”

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