Blog May 24, 2023 |

Why Scholarly Publishers are Prioritizing First-Party Data: A Q&A With Colleen Scollans

To stay relevant and increase revenue, successful organizations realize they must put customers at the center of everything they do. Scholarly and professional publishers and associations are no different.

As Clarke & Esposito’s Marketing & Customer Experience Practice Lead, Colleen Scollans knows a thing or two about customer centricity, marketing technology, and digital transformation in the professional and scholarly communications sector. We recently sat down with her to talk about the latest trends in the industry, why first-party data has become more important than ever, and how a customer data platform (CDP) like BlueConic can help scholarly publishers transform their audience relationships and unleash business growth.

BlueConic: What are the top data and technology challenges facing the scholarly and professional publishing sector?

Colleen: There are several, but the biggest challenge is the shift to the author as the customer. Historically, the primary business model for most scholarly and professional publishers has been institutional sales. In other words, the relationship has primarily been a business-to-business (B2B) one, in which sales reps sell to academic universities and/or medical systems. But outside pressures for open access publishing have inverted this business model and put a greater focus on author marketing, which is business to consumer (B2C). The business model and marketing use cases are now much closer to those of consumer media and ecommerce companies. This represents a significant change from what scholarly and professional publishers have been used to.

Evolving consumer expectations is another big trend. Researchers aren’t just researchers and doctors aren’t just doctors. They are individuals who exist and interact daily in the modern digital world - they shop online, book holidays online, etc. – and they bring expectations from these experiences to their interactions with a scholarly or professional publisher’s website. They expect the marketing to be targeted, and the recommended content to match their behavior and interests. In many ways, scholarly and professional publishers are just starting to catch up on all the things we’ve seen consumer media and ecommerce companies doing for years.

Finally, there’s a trend impacting medical publishers reliant on advertising for revenue. Pharmaceutical companies and their advertising agency intermediaries are now demanding more sophisticated ad targeting and reporting. This is making it essential for medical publishers to understand who their customer is and to deliver a personalized experience – all helping create a higher quality ad product for their advertising partners.

BlueConic: What are some of the most recent shifts in the market – and in consumer behaviors – that have made first-party data initiatives so essential? 

Colleen: Associations and publishers need to move beyond marketing just to their members and known customers, developing a broader audience mindset. Most publishers sit on a wealth of data but can only identify a small percentage of their readership. They have people who are consuming their content every day, but they aren’t able to capture all that valuable first-party data for audience intelligence, activate it for on-the-fly personalization, or use it as the basis for micro-segmentation.

Even for those organizations that are able to capture some of this data via an AMS (association management system), CRM (customer relationship management) system, or marketing automation tool, they often can’t activate it at the speed they need to deliver personalized experiences. Capturing first-party data has become essential not only for understanding who readers are and what they are interested in, but also for delivering the highly relevant, real-time experiences that readers expect.

BlueConic: Why has a customer data platform (CDP) become an essential tool for scholarly and professional publishers?

Colleen: As mentioned earlier, while scholarly and professional publishers have a lot of data, most of it is anonymous, it’s typically not unified, and it’s hard to activate. I wouldn’t say a CDP is the answer for solving all these challenges – it’s one route and one piece of a much larger puzzle. Many of the early adopters of CDPs are consumer media publishers and ecommerce companies, and the use cases for scholarly and professional publishers are very similar to use cases in those sectors. This is why, for many of our clients, a CDP is a good foundational choice in their modern MarTech stack. With that said, technology is only part of the answer – strategy, marketing organizational design, and change management are equally important.

BlueConic: What are the most common CDP use cases for scholarly publishers? 

Colleen: At the most fundamental level, it boils down to unification and identification. Targeted marketing requires incredibly good data – including behavioral data. Establishing this foundation fuels everything from delivering relevant content recommendations to driving readership and usage to developing highly targeted author outreach campaigns.

The AI or machine learning capabilities in a CDP can also be helpful for this sector. Most scholarly publishers have small marketing teams, so predictive analytics, personalization on the fly, and other use cases where data can be used to automate, test, measure, and optimize marketing processes are valuable. These capabilities enable these otherwise lean teams to be incredibly efficient while driving the best outcomes for the business.

AI-optimized journey orchestration is also useful as we look to move readers through some of our most common journeys. For example, most publishers are looking to advance anonymous readers to email subscribers or MyAccount registrants. As we focus more on the “author as customer,” there is a lot more attention to the author’s journey and how to cultivate a positive author experience and earn author loyalty. Long gone are the days when personas and blunt messaging worked. We need to deliver carefully crafted messages to the right person at the right time, via the right channel. First-party data and AI are critical for testing and optimizing these journeys.

BlueConic: What should scholarly publishers look for when evaluating a CDP?

Colleen: For me, it's more about the process. Scholarly and professional publishers need to understand what business goals they are trying to achieve and what marketing technology capabilities they require to meet them. They also need to establish what their priority use cases are and what their current technology does (or doesn’t do). This is the starting point for assessing whether a CDP is even worth investigating. There needs to be a strong business case for the investment.

Once this audit is complete, scholarly publishers need to go through a thorough RFI process. Like most technology, the devil is in the details. CDP vendors do a really good job of selling, but it’s not until you get under the hood and ask the probing questions that you can begin to understand the differences between them. So, conducting a thorough evaluation is key to ensuring you make the right decision.

Finally, scholarly publishers need to consider the total cost of ownership – not just the annual license, but how they are going to maintain the technology on an ongoing basis. What are the resources you’re going to need? What is truly self-serve? Can the tool grow with you as your use cases evolve? Will the CDP require internal technology people and/or external implementation vendors? This last point is where the big-name marketing cloud vendors can be problematic for clients that do not have large teams and budgets. At C&E, we put a lot of effort into understanding how a tool will be used so we can help clients find the vendor that is the right fit for their size, scale, and culture.

Successful strategic adoption of a CDP is really important. Teach your marketing team how to fish, and then have them go fish."

Colleen Scollans, Marketing & Customer Experience Practice Lead, Clarke & Esposito

BlueConic: What teams/roles should be involved in a CDP evaluation?

Colleen: We work with clients of varying sizes and the organizational designs can be very different. The most important roles to involve in the process are the marketing, marketing operations, technology, data and analytics, and digital product and experience teams. The project should be driven by the use cases – which are largely marketing and digital experience use cases. As such, it’s our view that CDP evaluations are best led from the marketing or digital experience side of the house, rather than technology.

Some organizations may also benefit from support from external sources that can bring experience and objectivity to the process, while making all teams feel comfortable and confident in their decision.

BlueConic: Once selected, what steps should be taken to ensure a successful CDP implementation?

Colleen: I’m a big believer in the phrase, “don’t boil the ocean.” While understanding how a CDP can help companies achieve their long-term goals, the scholarly publishers and associations that are most successful with a CDP take an iterative approach. They start by focusing on their priority use cases, understanding how the tool is being adopted, and prove its value before moving on to their next batch of use cases.

They also have to be good at explaining and selling that value to the organization. Leadership gets tired of tools that take a long time to implement so the ability to show short-term wins (e.g., increased author submissions by 20% and click-through rates by 30%) is critically important.

Finally, it’s important to remember that the technology is just the enabler. There is no magic when it comes to technology, including CDPs. Yes, you need tools that are easy to use, but you also need to have the right skills, resources, and training in place to make the most of your CDP implementation. For instance, some companies don’t have the ability to segment their audiences today. With a CDP, you can build robust behavioral and predictive segments. But how will you make sure that segmentation happens? Who is the person building the segmentation strategy? You can now test messages. That is great, but do you have a messaging platform? Scholarly publishers need to think about CDP capabilities and the skill sets and expertise they need to act on them.

BlueConic: Looking ahead, what are some of the greatest areas of opportunity for scholarly and professional publishers and associations?

Colleen: There are a lot of opportunities stemming directly from having more audience intelligence. For example, scholarly publishers can start experimenting with broader audience monetization strategies that are enabled by understanding their audience better.

Moreover, our industry has access to external databases with additional information about researchers and clinicians. Bringing that data into a CDP not only enriches the audience intelligence they already have, but also makes it readily available for targeting, segmentation, predictive modeling, and more.

Finally, I expect to see scholarly and professional publishers start behaving more like consumer brands – especially consumer media and ecommerce brands. With access to unified and actionable first-party data, scholarly publishers will be able to increase engagement and cultivate loyalty in ways that are similar to what consumer brands are already doing today.

About Colleen Scollans

Colleen Scollans leads Clarke & Esposito’s Marketing & Customer Experience Practice. She is a seasoned marketing, digital strategy, and customer experience leader.

Prior to consulting, Colleen was the Chief Marketing Officer for Oxford University Press’s (OUP) Academic Division. As global CMO, Colleen led over 250 marketing, digital strategy, and data/analytics professionals worldwide.

Colleen resides in Montclair, New Jersey, with her husband and stepdaughter. She is a citizen of both the United States and Ireland.

About Clarke & Esposito

Clarke & Esposito is a management consulting firm working with professional associations and societies, universities and university presses, software companies, commercial publishers, and other organizations that create, curate, or disseminate educational, professional, and scholarly information.

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