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Problems with Online Magazine's IT Provider

Posted on Saturday, June 29, 2019 at 3:47 PM

A reader's question: How can I get out of a troubled relationship with our magazine's IT provider and give my publication a better future?

By William Dunkerley

Q. The relationship with our IT provider for an online magazine has suddenly become a problem. We publish two business-to-business print magazines, each serving separate fields. They are well established and very profitable. Three years ago we looked into doing a startup in a new area and decided that it should be an online publication. That's where the IT provider came in. He offered us a turnkey opportunity that was hard to pass up. All I had to do was hire an expert in the subject field. The person I found said he could handle both the editorial and ad sales. So this seemed like a real easy-entry proposition for us.

After three years the results we were getting were just okay. I had expected better. But with little invested on our part, I was taking a wait-and-see position. But then the problem hit. We received an official notice indicating that our IT provider is in financial trouble. Because of our dependency on those services, this is really serious. We got a good deal from him. Mainly it's a discount in return for letting him place ads of his choice in our publication. He also solicits customers for his IT services from our advertisers. The online publication he built for us is top-of-the-line. It has all the bells and whistles. I'm afraid a straight deal with another provider will cost us a lot more.

The IT company's financial problems is just one of the problems. In our magazine the IT provider is shown as the publisher. I think he even trademarked the name of the publication. At first I questioned him on this, but he said it was standard practice for arrangements like ours. Isn't this going to be a problem if I have to switch providers? All things considered, I'm in a jam. What's your advice?

A. Your situation appears quite problematic, and the problems exist on several levels. You'll need an intellectual property attorney to untangle the matter of who owns what. There are some questions you should be prepared to answer: Did you give the IT contractor the right to represent himself as the publisher? Or to register the trademark? Was it registered with the United States Patent and Trademark Office or just at the state level? Had you made use of the publication's name prior to your relationship with the contractor or his registration of the trademark? General attorneys are often not well versed in intellectual property matters. This is a job for a specialist.

The IT contractor may have taken advantage of you in other respects too. You told me of your satisfaction with the "top-of-the-line" appearance of your publication. I took a look at your site and agree it has "all the bells and whistles," as you put it. To me, however, this looks like overkill. It is full of unnecessary design gimmickry that adds little to the reader's experience with your publication.

Frankly, your publication looks more intended to be a portfolio piece for the designer than a publication designed to meet the needs of your readers. The fact that the IT company is actively soliciting business from your advertisers only adds fuel to that suspicion. You don't need all those digital tchotchkes. Go for something more straightforward and reader friendly. Keep that in mind when interviewing potential new providers.

Beyond that, there is good news for your publication. You may not be happy with that news, though. But here goes:

Your publication is difficult to read. The start of most articles is obstructed by pop-up ads. On top of that, the reader is confronted with frequent autostart videos. Together these things make it hard for readers to start reading an article. And in order to continue reading, the reader has to keep closing other instances of intrusive advertising that pop up along the way.

Even worse is the fact that many of the ads are irrelevant to the subject interests of your readers. B2B magazines typically carry ads for products and services for which the readers are active buyers. Indeed, the ads are often considered part of the content the readers desire from the magazine. You wouldn't expect to see ads for horse feed in a magazine for auto mechanics, for instance. Are these irrelevant ads being inserted by the IT contractor per the agreement you described?

The overall layout of the publication has the appearance of a cookie-cutter design approach. This could be a result of the overuse of a template or theme. This creates a sense of monotony and tedium when reading articles. Design consistency is generally good, but it should serve as a visual fabric to connect things rather than to establish a dull and generic appearance. It would be better for each article to have some degree of character of its own. This will help to attract reader attention and build enthusiasm for reading further.

You told me you hired a subject-matter expert who is handling both editorial and advertising. The publication has lots of ads. But I don't know how many are freebies inserted by the IT company versus paid ads that you sold. So it may be that the amount of paid advertising is not optimal. In fact, an aggressive ad sales effort could be worth more than the discount you're getting from the IT provider. With the same person handling both editorial and advertising, you are at a disadvantage here. The job with which this person is saddled would seem to be an impossibly large job for anyone. In fact, it is impossible for anyone to do all those things for an important publication like yours with the necessary degree of attention and professionalism. I suggest you reevaluate your staffing here.

Earlier I said that there is good news for your publication and then proceeded to rattle off a litany of problems. How is that good news?

Because you have an enormous opportunity to improve things.

In closing, I have two recommendations. First, find a good intellectual property attorney for help untangling the unusual circumstances with your IT contractor. Second, consider the critique I've offered and make concrete plans to change things for the better. It is indeed good news that this option is available to you.

William Dunkerley is principal of William Dunkerley Publishing Consultants, www.publishinghelp.com.

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