How HarperCollins's Chief Digital Officer Uses Big Data To Make Publishing More Profitable

As more readers favor Kindles and iPads over pulp-based books, Chantal Restivo-Alessi of HarperCollins is mining digital data to determine how publishers can maximize profits.

Having worked at EMI records for over a decade, Chantal Restivo-Alessi knows what it's like to have the digitization of media cannibalize your industry. "I went through the digital revolution early on with music," the HarperCollins's Chief Digital Officer told Fast Company.

The music establishment made mistakes, she admits. "In the early days, it was a lot of resistance in participating in the new business models," she added. But because of that unfortunate experience, Restivo-Alessi, who has worked on the business side of various creative industries, is primed to guide the publishing giant into its inevitable future—hopefully, without losing paying customers. "If you lose young consumers to piracy it is extremely hard to compete with zero," Restivo explained as one of the main lessons she learned from her days at EMI.

Chantal Restivo-Alessi

At the helm of HarperCollins's digital arm, Restivo-Alessi is determined not to let that happen again. Fast Company spoke with her about how she plans on doing that. And, in this year of big data, it comes as no surprise that data factors into the publishing company's plans. "Data actually has to impact every single function. It's not something that impacts only one part of the organization," she said.

FAST COMPANY: Was the foray of HarperCollins into data your doing?

CHANTAL RESTIVO-ALESSI: It predates me. My boss, Brian Murray, came from consulting so he's very comfortable with data and analytics and he decided to start investing in this space by hiring the right people. They’re really hard to find, I think. People who are comfortable with the data, but are also comfortable with talking to people and communicating to people what the data actually means—it's hard. You don't want to have the introverted person who can't, then, relate to his colleagues.

Presumably, you're one of those "right people" that Murray hired. How does your role at HarperCollins as head of digital publishing involve data?

Digital changes our ability to acquire more data, which is good and bad. The good side is it gives us the opportunity to look at things that we do and also what we acquire in a different way. The bad thing is that the risk is you have too much noise and you need to make sure you’re identifying exactly what you’re looking for rather than being swamped by data.

Swamped, really? Does that happen?

Sifting through the data is a lot. We’re really trying to find what buckets of data we should combine and aggregate. There’s a lot of talk, for example, about social listening. What parts of that do we bring closer to, say, the sales information and how do we bring them together in a way that is visual enough? There’s a lot of noise there because there are other marketing activities that might take place at the same time. We’re really early days to at least try to bring some of the data sets together—even deciding which ones, rather than trying to do it all. We could be here doing the monster of all projects.

So what are some of the data-driven projects you have decided to take on?

The first one is insight. Where we are making the first inroads is really allowing ourselves to acquire more consumer data—primary and secondary—and do it in a more cost efficient way. Also, we're in the early days of then having a way of providing a digested presentation of the data to our publishing colleagues so that they can incorporate that information in the way they run the business.

The other is a little more sensitive, but I can tell you just in general it's the area of digital sales and pricing. Again, because of digital, much more data is available so you can start inferring and analyzing impact and demand elasticity. That team doesn't report directly to me, but it is a part of my job, as a part of looking for what works in the digital space and what best practices we can share.

Have you learned any surprising things from using data in these two areas?

Not really surprising, but interesting conversations. There have been a few aha moments, where the data has explained performance. You start combining the pricing strategies and marketing strategies, with the findings on consumer insight, and that explains why brand x, book x, or series y was not successful, for example. It was a shame that it was post, but it’s still useful and moves you forward for next time.

In other cases the data has supported strategies that the publishers may have wanted to implement or communicate to an author, but didn't have enough ammunition. So they could illustrate to authors, for example, how another author was encroaching into their fan base, and therefore what was required from our author in order to regain brand positioning and stay relevant to a consumer base.

It hasn’t been completely shocking yet. I haven’t heard anything and said: "Oh my gosh! I didn't expect that at all." But it has been useful. It's been an additional useful tool at our disposal.

Has there been any resistance to using data?

Most important, for me, is making it user friendly, so that you have engagement from the business, and over time you will improve what things you decide to do and what things you decide to discard. Just getting the engagement, the willingness for people to use that data, as well as what they've always been doing for many years based on experience, based on knowledge that they’ve acquired through the years, is important.

I’ve worked almost my entire life—with the exception of a small blip in banking—in creative businesses. I have a lot respect for what creative people can really bring. It's something that's mysterious. If everyone could do it, everyone would be a billionaire. Identifying the hits and working with the talent is a really hard job. You have to respect the intuition as much as you respect the data.

[Image: Flickr user Federico Feroldi]

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  • The concept of an "inevitable future" is great... Recently attended a CEO roundtable for an industry I won't call out here but I was amazed at how much talk and strategy was focused on the past investments and strategies instead of focusing on the "inevitable future" for their market/industry.. very alarming. I find, in dealing with startups, that this is their big advantage... Great interview, data and noise will always be a challenge, knowing what data is important and which noise to listen to a skill set that as pointed out is hard to find in many individuals with supposed experience...