Swimming in Blue Oceans: the pursuit of high differentiation at low cost

Based on a recent presentation at the ALPSP conference, Lynne Miller talks about applying the marketing discipline of “satisfying customer needs, profitably” to address the question of how publishers can stay relevant, and helping them make decisions about what they need to do, and importantly – what not to do. 

A strong focus for many of the publishers that TBI Communications work with, is brand development and strategy, and so I wanted to share some insights from the work we do in helping organisations decide their best strategies and then helping them decide how to execute on those in the most profitable way.

TBI is a strategic consulting and marketing services agency – we’re an outsourced agency, and that in itself is a choice for publishers, and raises the questions – what should they do themselves, and what should they commission an agency for?

The benefits of an outsourced agency is that they’re sitting outside of the internal politics, they can provide fresh insight, an honest uncensored opinion, and they’re less wedded to particular outcomes.

In a stable market where things are fairly constant, marketing can take a bit of a back seat.  Which is why for many years marketing academic content, particularly journal content, has been more of a promotional function.  But now, publishers need more strategic support and not everybody can afford all those skills – so external agencies can be helpful there.

In an uncertain and fast-moving environment it can be easier to follow what everybody else is doing – to follow the herd.

The draw to follow the herd

To call yourself a ‘second wave adopter.’ Everything feels safe, and nobody can criticise you, because everyone else is doing it, but…

The draw to follow the herd is not as safe as it looks

The challenge today for publishers is to look more closely at their specific and unique opportunities.  The market is fragmenting into specialist communities, which need different services.  It’s not a one model for all anymore, and that’s where the real opportunity is for publishers.  What communities are they serving? What specifically do they need? What reputation does the publisher already have that it could develop and build a brand strategy around to help then focus on what’s unique and special about them?  It’s about building on your core competencies and then delivering this with conviction.

Some of the important trends in our industry are:

  • Content Marketing – building a series of communications with your customers, providing valuable content that will ultimately drive an outcome.
  • Content Sharing.
  • Author Services – the shift towards author as customer, improving services to authors.
  • Impact and Public Outreach.
  • Knowledge Mobilisation – moving knowledge into active use, making connections between research and policy and practice.
  • Big Data.

Publishers need to look at addressing these things, but it’s hugely complex and challenging to know what to focus and prioritise.  But strategy is also about choosing what not to do.  It’s about being really clear on what a practical strategy is for you as a publisher, and that’s about identifying your unique and best market opportunities, then ruthlessly focusing on that.

Blue ocean strategy is a strategic approach to opening new markets and creating new demand.  It’s about not following the herd and trying to compete with everyone else in the ‘red ocean’, which is often overcrowded and can have limited growth opportunities.  But instead, looking to find space to do things differently and better, and using agile approaches to reduce investment and risk of failing.  Swimming in the ‘blue ocean’ is about creating new markets, instead of competing in existing ones; to stand apart, yet keep costs low.


It’s a world of opportunity, and the first step in making decisions about what to do, needs to be a return to business basics.  Developing a strategy should start with an understanding of where you are now, how you’re viewed in the market, and what your unique attributes are.  Then an appraisal of your market opportunity is required – understand where you want to get to, and gaining customer insight (talking to thought leaders in subject areas, librarians, authors, readers, funders, policy makers, and research officers).  The next step is defining where you want to be – which services are core to your brand, and which are more peripheral?  Focus in on some core opportunities and then use an agile approach to test new services to minimise investment, and use partners to help you assess how useful or core these are to you.

If you would like to talk with Lynne further about brand development and strategy, you can contact her at +44 (0) 1865 875896 or via email at lynne.miller@tbicommunications.com.