How American Lawyer’s parent has undergone a digital transformation
Jay Kirsch was named president of media on October 31, 2016, at ALM, a media company that publishes business and legal publications.
Kirsch is responsible for developing and leading the strategy for all of ALM’s media brands.
Kirsch has a background in digital media, sales, technology, and scaling digital operations of media businesses. He previously worked with companies such as QVC, The Dallas Morning News and Philadelphia Media News to develop digital product strategies.
Kirsch was also president of AOL’s Business, Automotive and Technology group where he led digital brands such as TechCrunch, Engadget, Autoblog and Daily Finance.
ALM’s publications include The American Lawyer, the New York Law Journal, Corporate Counsel, The National Law Journal, The Legal Intelligencer, Legal Times and Real Estate Forum.
Changes that have been made under Kirsch include a transfer of the content from all of ALM’s 18 legal publications to Law.com and revamping its individual publication websites as well. In addition, the National Law Journal was turned into a monthly magazine and laid off 20 editorial staffers in early 2017.
Kirsch spoke this week by email with Talking Biz News about how ALM has transformed itself into a digital-first organization. What follows is an edited transcript.
You joined the company in 2016. What attracted you to ALM?
The strength of the brands, the management team and the clear mission of the business. The reorganization Bill Carter put in place simplified the organization quite a bit and laid the groundwork for what we are accomplishing now.
I love working on businesses in transition. It’s a fascinating time in a company when you have to move a business model and product while maintaining the core brand strengths. When you combine those details on the company with industries that are also transitioning between business models the opportunity to create value for customers and the company was obvious.
When did ALM realize that it needed to change its approach to become more digital?
I think Bill realized it in 2015 when he began the reorganization to let us build scaled solutions rather than lots and lots of little ones. Before I joined, it was clear the product process was being driven by too many parts of the organization at the same time. The result was a collection of good ideas individually that were often not connected to a common goal. In addition, the number and age of our systems created too much technical debt for the company.
How did that process start?
We had to start at the ground level. We went through the exhaustive process of writing a Unique Selling Proposition for every one of our brands. That process lets all parts of the company agree on what made each of our brands stand apart in the market and more easily see where the products had to move to either take advantage of market leadership or improve our position in each market. Product development was a key part of that process with a new leadership role that elevated the product team members within the organization. Having those voices in the conversations lead to more creative digital ideas and realistic timelines for development. When we established a product roadmap for 2017, we established a goal of eliminating as much technical debt as possible so we could then get to the fun work of innovating based on the USPs.
What were some of the biggest hurdles in implementing the new strategy?
The cultural changes needed for a shift like this are massive for people on all sides of the organization. Before we were organized like patrons at a neighborhood bar. People placed orders and the bartender made the drinks without really questioning it. We’ve moved to be more like a fine restaurant with a sommelier that hears what a customer is looking for and then makes recommendations based on taste, style, and price.
It’s a big shift for people who are used to just placing an order and getting it and for the people who now have to move from simply filling orders to being a trusted source of recommendations. It improves the experience for everyone since most people really aren’t wine experts and most people within a media organization are not product development experts. Now if someone orders chardonnay with steak product development is empowered to push back, ask questions about their personal tastes and suggest the cabernet. We’re getting there, but it’s a long process. The usual technology and budgetary challenges remain, but culture is by far the most difficult.
ALM has made some of its publications online only. How is that decided?
ALM has a long-term commitment to the best user experience for our readers and our advertising partners. That means we look at a combination of macro industry trends, specific internal product data and our plans for digital product improvement. We know our audience is moving to digital and specifically mobile platforms. When we see an opportunity to improve our user experience and deliver more of what our customers value, we make changes.
We’ve increased investment in our Business Intelligence team in terms of personnel and their suite of technology products. Our head of BI, Peter Woroniecki, is one of our most critical new hires. Peter and his team help read the market and provide the data-based insights that allow ALM to be proactive with strong moves into digital instead of reactive retreats away from print.
How were the briefings newsletters developed, and what’s been the result?
Briefings were the brainchild of Greg Mitchell, editor-in-chief of Law.com, and Richard Caruso, general manager of Legal Markets. They recognized the new structure of the brands under the Law.com domain required a new way to highlight some of our rockstar journalists for the purposes of storytelling, audience development and subscription marketing. Briefings help connect content across brands on Law.com in a UX that is natural for the reader.
They also offer a format for deeper insights and analytics into topics of strong interest to our readers. The results are really encouraging so far from a financial point of view and have helped foster a better culture of experimentation in the newsroom. We can easily develop a Briefing concept, launch it quickly and either promote it to a core part of the product or kill it quickly if it isn’t resonating with the market and try something else.
How have these changes impacted the company’s revenue and profits?
They’ve made it easier to build products at scale because they can be built once for all markets rather than having to custom build each solution for different platforms and dictated by different parts of the organization. The common mission and process makes it easier to quickly evaluate new business ideas and move them into the market. The single platform for our legal content makes the value proposition far easier to see for subscribers. We are seeing strong adoption of our new subscription and advertising products including some that have not been announced publicly yet.
How was the decision made to put most content under Law.com?
We looked at the professional workflow of a modern attorney and how she uses our content and tools. Readers’ information needs tend to be about a legal topic or specialty. That also matches the way marketers want to reach legal professionals. But when we compared those needs to our digital products, there was a big divide. We looked for a way to leverage the brand strength we’d built in The American Lawyer, National Law Journal, etc. to retain that familiar brand relationship with our users while building equity in Law.com. Concurrently we wanted to expose readers to content from all of ALM’s brands in a user interface that made it clear they were connected.
I’m kind of a data-nerd and we turned to our BI team for help in sizing our markets, understanding traffic flows and building our taxonomy into a powerful offering for both readers and advertisers.
Eventually, the depth and breadth of content plus the functionality will make Law.com the single place where every legal professional starts the day.
What’s been the biggest surprise with the transformation to digital?
The creativity its unleashed on the staff. There are a few people who really became stars once we changed the way they interact with other parts of the company.
What have the reporters and editors changed in terms of how they work?
There were some growing pains learning a new content management system but those ended quickly once we trained and showed our journalists the new system and process. The move to a truly digital-first newsroom created some critical but kind of boring changes to our print workflow. All of our content is now created in our digital CMS first.
Some of these changes were annoying, but these are seasoned digital journalists who understood the way content works online well before I got to ALM. We think we’ve built better ways for their stories to be presented, distributed and monetized.