Philippe van Mastrigt

What Publishers Can Learn From the Tech Stack Study

The Paris Institute of Political Studies, also known as “Sciences Po,” has just released its first update of "The Tech Stack,” a study initiated in the past by Marion Wyss, a former consultant who is currently working at the paywall solution software company, Poool. This study provides a better view of the "tech stack" used by publishers in France for digital publishing (not print!). Its scope ranges from editorial to web…leading into digital subscriptions and paywalls and then finally to email.

You can find the study here (in French).

The results of the subscription management platform part of the study confirm that publishers need to be careful when evaluating and choosing a subscription management platform. From the study’s findings and after working 11 years on the publishing side and more than 13 years on the software side, here are some of my recommendations to publishers:

You may want to reconsider the “self-built, in-house solution.”

When publishers rated their systems, many reported a growing dissatisfaction with their “in-house-built” platforms. Because this kind of solution requires you to internally invest all the resources for the design and maintenance of the system, publishing companies are solely responsible for everything. 

One might think that an in-house solution would perfectly fit a publisher’s needs, but according to the Tech Stack study, this is often not the case. In fact, publishers frequently complained that they were disappointed in their system’s lack of agility and inability to meet the unique complexities of subscription management. Adding to their headaches, these systems were also not equipped to meet their ongoing expectations for data management, payments, agile marketing, or ecommerce.

Print still matters. 

The Tech Stack study focused merely on digital subscriptions, leaving no thoughts to print. This didn't surprise me, as print is often the blind spot when one discusses digital subscriptions. I notice that there are usually two teams within an organization. Each team tends to be entrenched either on the print side or the digital side, one often ignoring the other. Despite the study’s lack of coverage on print subscriptions, it is still the case that print is a large part of the publishing business in terms of revenue. Therefore, publishers should still consider print as a top priority. 

Digital Subscriptions are not merely the extension of Print…

From the Tech Stack Study, it appears that some publishers are using subscription platforms that were originally designed for print and have only been tweaked to manage their digital subscriptions. These kinds of subscription platforms are merely driven by their print legacy and are not equipped to manage digital subscriptions and all their related complexities, such as time-based and token-based models, multiple participants accessing content, and the bundling of print with digital access (see here our article about the synchronization of print and digital). 

It has been my experience that not only do I not hear how print interacts with digital, but I also never hear anything about how about how print combines with digital. This is despite the fact that it has been found that when print is packaged with digital access, print actually sustains digital growth!

Managing digital and print on the same platform is key for a successful publishing business. I would suggest that publishers consider bundling their print and digital offerings and leveraging them as an upgrade for initial digital subscribers. Additionally, I recommend that they find a subscription platform that can downgrade, upgrade or migrate customers between print and digital access, especially for customer retention strategies. Publishers need to look for subscription management platforms that provide the ability to bundle print and digital in a variety of ways (read more here from Dan Heffernan's post about the choice of a subscription platform). 

It’s not all just “running in the background...”

I find that subscriptions are usually only understood by a handful of people inside of a publishing organization. Some ignore the fundamentals, even though subscriptions are the main way their product is serviced. I remember attending the INMA subscription summit in New York in 2019, just before Covid. As I was discussing subscription management with other attendees and describing the Advantage platform, many had difficulties understanding how to associate our software to their publishing landscape. They could not tell what was really doing the job in their organization. During another session, I noticed there was low interest in the inner workings of subscriptions.

A consequence of this lack of knowledge is that when publishers are evaluating their current system or deciding on a new system, they often do not necessarily know the right questions to ask. This can result in the implementation of a too complex and unmanageable system. To avoid this, it is vital that publishers have knowledge of their business cases, ask customer service questions, and address accounting topics in their initial requests. It is expected that systems and processes should be malleable as marketing and sales are king. 

Subscription management is at the heart of a publisher’s business. It is the place where orders are entered, uploaded, or passed through APIs…where payments are processed, customer service transactions are completed, services are provided, general ledgers are fed, and both business rules and offers are set up... There’s a lot of complexity, far more than many other systems, and there are numerous integrations between all the systems.

The “Advantages” of our platform

The truth is, there is no solution that will magically remove the essential issues that need to be addressed when it comes to subscriptions. Our industry continues to produce countless demands that involve extreme flexibility, which are often ignored by those who are the source of the request. Therefore, there is a need for training, knowledge and expertise about subscriptions and associated processes.

Meanwhile, Advantage has always been ahead of the pack on flexibility. With its numerous options, business models supported, transactions enabled, and integrations offered, it has become the core system of many publishers across industry segments (academic, SMTP, BtoB, BtoC …), frequencies (dailies, weeklies, magazines, and journals) and countries. Where it comes to digital, we developed the concept of time-based and token-based subscriptions in the early 2000's, surpassing the classic issues-based "print" model. And when it comes to combining print and digital, Advantage has a ton of options that can make this part of any publisher’s business strategy.

Additionally, our monthly releases continue to deliver new functionality, technical innovations and many more integrations, keeping the pace of the quick changing publishing landscape and increasing importance of digital offerings. For us, what remains core is to support any business, be it considered "legacy" or "the future.” 

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