Choosing your shots

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The new world of integrated media has opened the floodgates for possible new products and services: audio and video web seminars, educational conferences, podcasts, blogs, awards ceremonies, golf tournaments, vertical search, and on and on. But how do publishers decide which ideas to pursue immediately, which ones warrant further investigation, which ones will distract the team and jeopardize the core business and which ones can be outsourced in whole or in part?

"Like everyone, we struggle with too many ideas and too few resources," said Ron Wall, exec. VP-sales & marketing at Ascend Media. "I'm pretty well-known around here for looking over a list of strategies and asking our managers to narrow them down to a few things they know they can accomplish."

How does Wall know whether his managers are evaluating their opportunities realistically? "One of the biggest reality checks is a business plan," he said. "We don't move forward without running the projected financials, and that's something that involves everyone on the team."

While the ideas can come from any number of people—the e-media team, the editors, the salespeople or the publishers—Wall added that the implementation almost always involves multiple disciplines. "I can't think of many projects that aren't executed through team effort," he said.

"Once an opportunity is identified, we test it with our advertisers," said Dana Fisher, group publisher for Questex Media's tech-nology group. "The next step is to build a very simplified P&L, just enough to give us a financial guide so we can manage expenses in a realistic way." That includes budgeting for independent contractors for content, design and execution when necessary.

"I'd say a third key component is having an open mind," Fisher added. "Print rules cannot be forced online. Digital initiatives will never succeed if they are shaped through a print lens."

The final test is editorial. "If any new initiative does not meet the needs of the reader, it will fail," she said. "So, our reality check is always our staff editors and our extended team of contributing editors."

Evilee Ebb, CEO and publisher of IDG's Network World said, "We use a process that's scientific and also not scientific." The scientific part includes a worksheet with projected revenue and expense details. The unscientific part, Ebb said, is that she and John Gallant, president and editorial director, make the final decision based on all the information presented—and a certain amount of gut instinct.

"We take risks; we're not afraid to make a mistake," Ebb added. "But, one thing I say all the time is, 'Overthink it.' In other words, I would like all of us here to raise the objections and questions before we get into the market so that we can fix what we need to fix and so that we are prepared to answer the questions we need to answer."

Alan Gould, publisher of Lebhar- Friedman's Nation's Restaurant News, explained that his group uses a fairly long list of criteria to determine whether a proposed project will move ahead. "The project has to complement our existing business; it needs to enhance our brand; it definitely must respond to a customer's need, and the revenues and profits from the project must have some degree of critical mass," he said.

Gould said the new activity under consideration is weighed against the activities the group is already doing. "The dollars funding the project should ideally come from marketing buckets that we are not already tapping into, and the margin must be of an acceptable level as judged against comparable activities," he said. "In addition, the new project should have low-to-moderate risk associated with it."

Gould and his team also look for indications that the project may have long-term positive impact. "It's a bonus if the project can teach us something new as we execute it. It's also a bonus if our associates can grow professionally from the experience of participating in the new project, and it's a bonus if we can create something that is sustainable for several years." The icing on the cake: "If our customers tell us that the activity has helped them grow their business."

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