Toward a New Understanding of Publishing (Part 1)

In the age of digital media, we believe every brand must become a publisher. Here’s why.

(Part 1 of a series, Part 2 is here)

Ask most media professionals to define “publishing” and they’ll most likely resort to something akin to the standard dictionary entry: “The business of issuing printed matter.”

By that definition, publishing ain’t much of a growth business.

But here at FM, we’d like to recapture what we believe is the essence of the term. To us, publishing means something far more than putting words and images to paper. Back when paper and printing presses revolutionized how humans communicated, we ended up conflating two very important concepts. One was the message – what was being said, and in what context. The second was the medium – the transport for that message. The two became seen as the same thing in printed matter, and the traditional definition of publishing was born.

It’s not an accident that we identified the message (what is being said) with the medium (how that message gets into our minds). After all, before print, all we poor humans had as a medium was our voices. Back then, with apologies to McLuhan, the medium truly was the message.

Think of publishing as speaking – a conversation – it’s clear that publishing means far more than printing. Publishing means connecting a community through the art and science of communication. And nowhere is publishing more vibrant – and conversational – than through the medium we’ve come to call the Internet.

The Early Web

A brief (and admittedly simplified) history of publishing on the Web helps put that vibrance into context, and provides context for why we at FM believe that in the age of digital media, every brand must become a publisher.

Cast your mind back to the early web – the mid 1990s, when Yahoo was literally a directory of links, and the hottest thing on the web was a site called “Cool Site of the Day.” Back in those heady days, the web was all about putting up a site declaring your presence – thousands of new “brochures” sprang up each week, from corporate websites to personal journals to “new media” sites which translated traditional print models like magazines to the Web format.

The thing that made this new “brochureweb” so cool was the link – the ability to add context and connection between each individual “piece of printed matter” on the web. Add to linking the ability to comment upon that link – what’s known in academic publishing as “annotation” – and a revolution in publishing was born.

Note the big names in this early web – the companies that became extremely valuable – Yahoo, Alta Vista, Lycos, Excite. What did they all have in common? You guessed it: They all took the “noise” of the early brochureweb and filtered it for signals. By commenting on and curating all those new web pages, then declaring which were worth our time, they all became important (and highly valuable) brands on the web. They were the web’s first meta-publishers.


But publishing on the web didn’t evolve to a new level until sophisticated search engine burst onto the scene in the late 1990s, changing forever our understanding of how media works.

Search – in particular Google, driven as it was by the magical signal of link influence – made nearly every static website available, findable, and ranked. Suddely it wasn’t enough to simply find great links and curate them, you had to do more. Because search made every piece of content findable, content itself was loosed from the chains of portal-based distribution – it mattered less where content was (the home page of a portal), and more what that content was and who thought it was worth paying attention to (ie who linked to you, who was “talking about you”).

We’re now in the midst of a second and related sea change in how publishing works: social media. We are today with social media where we where with search nearly ten years ago – at the starting blocks.

And to bring this short history to the point: social media and search directly impact Brands. In Part 2, we’ll dive into how, and why in the age of conversational media, Brands must become Publishers.

(As with most of my writing, I consider this to be a draft, with you, the reader and community, as the editor. So please use comments or email to tell me your thoughts!)

7 thoughts on “Toward a New Understanding of Publishing (Part 1)

  1. I look forward to part 2, although I’m more interested in whether in this age of conversational media, Publishers must also become Brands.

  2. 37 Signals is a great model. All the employees contribute to their blog and it’s got a great audience. Every post has something to do with their brand.

    They have a great podcast. They do live videos.

    And now they’ve got a best selling book, too.

    It’s about teaching and spreading knowledge through all every publishing tool available.

  3. Great topic, John. Bearing in mind the need for a complete and well-designed strategy, there are a few simple actions brands can take to begin the transition from brands to publishers.

    First, brands need a way to publish. Brands should identify and establish platforms either owned or third-party for the delivery of community-oriented content. Facebook and Twitter are examples of existing social platforms with little barrier to entry that brands can leverage to publish their message.

    Once the platforms have been established, brands must fill them with engaging content that focuses on the interest of the community, not solely brand products or services. Objectivity is the toughest challenge for brands as publishers. The content must be useful and unbiased to avoid appearing promotional and self-serving. The goal is to foster customer relationship management.

    Next, brands must connect with communities by facilitating dialogue to deepen that relationship. Open discussion forums where people may operate as they please, leave readable comments, view comments from others, and exchange information, are one way of approaching this. Moderation without censorship is the key.

    Lastly, brands must understand what is happening in their community by listening to and participating in its conversations and responding accordingly. By doing so, brands are able to make adjustments to their offerings and image that will keep the community involved, while simultaneously attracting new members. That is customer relationship management in action.

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    John Battelle on said:

    Good points Matthew. Thanks for reading.

  5. John, Joel Spolsky — one of the smartest brand builders around — just stopped blogging. He basically shut off his social media efforts. What do you make of that? In his mind, it was too fraught with conflicts and was not longer worth his time. Is he the exception that proves the rule? I am personally quite torn on the utility of social media. I find Twitter at turns stimulating and really annoying. Aardvark works rarely. Facebook I do like but that’s because it is a more defined type of social. And yet, for things like trips to far away places, email recommendations from friends still reign supreme and old media dinosaurs like NYT and WSJ still drive the news cycle. So I am not sure if there is actually a shift going on as much as a giant fluctuation where all these things co-exist and become useful for different parts of our lives depending on what we want.

  6. Hey Alex – I respect Joel a lot. But I’m not sure he’s typical of most brand builders. He’s a programmer – apparently a brilliant one – and very successful at his focused business – a great brand in a very particular field. I think we have TONS of work to do in instrumenting social media so that it’s more useful. And I think marketers can help get this work done.

  7. I guess this topic is in the air. I’ve been thinking a lot about how all companies are media companies now. I recently saw the VP of marketing of LEGO US and he said they consider themselves a media company. I found that shocking — last time I checked, LEGO made toys. But they also produce magazines, collaborate on movies, video games, etc. I also spoke to a Verizon exec who said they too consider themselves a media and entertainment company. They’re not a phone company anymore. All this leaves me wondering, and I suspect you are wondering the same thing — what about traditional media? They’re seeing their power taken away. They no longer own the communication game if every brand is a publisher.

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