Industry Innovator: How ALM Is Transforming Disparate Data Assets Into Valuable Insights
If 2015 was the year of data for publishers, 2016 may be the year that some publishers realize the full potential of all the data they’re collecting. Increasingly, the word “research” is being tossed around in B2B circles, suggesting that not just data or information, but market insight and understanding will be a particularly valuable tool in the arsenal of next generation B2B media companies.
Having spent much of his career in information and technology services, Bill Carter, president and CEO of ALM, is looking to further ALM’s legacy of market intelligence. But where some B2B executives have tried to distance their companies from the “media” or “publishing” tag, Carter sees media as inextricable from his vision for ALM. “I view us more as expanding the definition of a media company and what that means, rather than saying, ‘No, we’re really information,’ and dismissing that media piece. I do think the media and events parts are critical to actually getting the information part down right.”
Digging for the Insights
Carter sees a lot of opportunity in collecting data, extracting insights, and incorporating that insight into ALM’s business and products. However, connecting all the dots of the data ALM sits on has presented some challenges.
To illustrate this, Carter offers the example of ALM’s many dispersed offices, where people work on different publications and are engaged in various initiatives to collect data and turn it into insights to share with their readers. For instance, in New Jersey employees were rating judges and in Atlanta they tracked billing rates on attorneys in a variety of practice areas.
Meanwhile ALM had an online repository of data, where some of these surveys and benchmarks were loosely collected, including the company’s famous Am Law 100. “I’m very deliberately using the word repository,” says Carter. “It was literally the spreadsheets out there. If you wanted to go back to 1985 you had to pull down the 30 spreadsheets and start to crunch numbers.”
Carter did a sample analysis to demonstrate to the organization the value that could be derived from linking and analyzing its disparate data sets. As a use case, he reviewed five years of performance in the Am Law 100 (which ranks law firms by gross revenue), along with a separate data set on the age distribution of partners and historical patterns of when people typically attain partner status. Carter gleaned that two firms appeared to be clearing out anyone not a partner (likely to protect the partners) and were probably on unstable footing. Within six months those two firms merged.
In so doing, Carter demonstrated one case for the value of ALM’s rich data insights. “I said, ‘You know, we have an opportunity to become the Gartner Group for the legal industry to produce these types of reports, link this data, and provide those insights.”
Executing on Insights
One obstacle to raising its data IQ was finding the right talent and skillsets, and to jumpstart its research and data capabilities, ALM acquired Kennedy Consulting, Research & Advisory (KCRA) at the end of 2014. KCRA, which serves the management consulting industry, provided ALM with the systems, processes, culture, and skill sets to do the type of analysis Carter envisioned. “What we’ve been doing now is, as we’ve added analysts focused on the legal industry we’ve paired them up with the analysts from the management consulting and it’s helped us really get our efforts going.”
Carter anticipates that going forward content and data will both be critical to ALM’s business, noting that publishers have a distinct advantage that pure information services companies do not, which is access. Carter, who previously spent time at Thomson-Reuters and LexisNexis, says that if he were to call a law firm, they probably wouldn’t pick up or call back because they would view him as a vendor. “When I call from ALM, people want to talk because we write articles on their firms, we write articles on them, and they view us as part of the community. Being a media company and writing these articles is actually critical for getting the data. Thomson, and Lexus, and other players in the space just don’t get this type of data that we can get.”
Another challenge, says Carter, is that ALM needs to “teach lawyers and law firms how to look at this data, how to analyze this data, and how to use this data.” While the ALM publications and events help provide high-level analysis and summaries on running their companies better, research offers greater depth. Carter thinks ALM needs to lead the industry on how to use research and the online tools it has put in place. And at least for now, Carter sees ALM’s research offerings more as syndicated research than custom research or consulting.
An important component of delivering insights to its audience is ALM’s ability to scale these efforts, says Carter. “The thing with scale is that you also have to make sure you’re standardizing things, that you have more efficient and standardized processes, that you don’t have seven different platforms proliferating in content management systems. One of the cultural shifts has been getting people to think in terms of scale and that we have to become much more operationally standardized. That may mean we can’t go chasing some new tool just because it’s got some fancy new feature but causes havoc on the rest of the system. We have to think very carefully and methodically about what’s best for the company overall.”
In terms of overall revenue streams for ALM, Carter expects a greater shift toward subscription revenue, both of media products and data products, while he expects advertising and events to remain strong. “I think advertising as a percentage will decline. I think events will grow as a percentage.”
ALM has made notable moves to expand outside its traditional legal market with the acquisition of KCRA and Summit Professional Networks. Yet Carter sees a lot of opportunity where ALM’s main legal audiences overlap with the highly-regulated, complicated industries lawyers serve, such as insurance, financial services, pharmaceuticals, telecom, technology. “It got me thinking that the attorneys need to know what their clients are reading. They want to interact with their clients. These lawyers were trying to get in front of these hedge fund guys. They want to attend the same events.”
In December ALM will be launching “a cross vertical event” around cyber security. “The idea is we’re going to bring in risk management professionals, we’re going to bring in the lawyers who serve those clients, we’re going to bring in other verticals like financial services, and allow these people from different backgrounds to network and share ideas. I think events are going to be bigger because it’s a connection point for these highly-regulated, complicated industries that we’re going to be part of.”
Related story: Managing Change Requires More Than Empty Rhetoric
Denis Wilson is editor-in-chief of Book Business and Publishing Executive. In this role, he analyzes and reports on the fundamental changes affecting the publishing industry and aims to serve content-driven businesses with practical and strategic insight. As a writer, Denis’ work has been published by Fast Company, Rolling Stone, Fortune, and The New York Times.