The Myth of “Verticalization” – Community Ain’t Easy

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Vertical Speed Indicator by Barnaby K via Flickr

Vertical Speed Indicator by Barnaby K via Flickr

It’s a brand new year, and that means the publishing conference calendar is about to hit overload for the next several months, as pundits o’plenty will mount their soapboxes to advocate for their business models du jour, usually delivered with a not-so-subtle undertone of condescension for anything that doesn’t align with their murky view of the future… and what an incredibly myopic and uninformed view it usually is!

One of the perennial memes that will surely be flogged again and again is that of community, variously referred to as niche, genre, branding (um, no) and/or, the worst buzzword of them all, “verticalization.” I’ve been entertained over the past few years as trade publishers (and those who seek to “advise” them on how to navigate the digital shift despite having little experience outside of traditional publishing) fumble with the idea of verticals, rarely looking to their magazine counterparts who’ve been doing it for a long time and could teach them a thing or five, or the comics and gaming industries that know all about audience engagement, collaborative world building and participatory storytelling.

As anyone who’s actually worked within a “vertical” knows, whether from a niche consumer or business-to-business angle (or, heaven help them, for a non-profit organization or political campaign), just because a subset of people share a common passion doesn’t mean they’re a single-minded group that can be engaged in one templated way. Every vertical that presents a viable business opportunity is going to have its own sub-communities and overlapping layers, with some often in direct opposition to others.

Case in point, this fascinating post from 10 years ago, “When Cards Go Bad,” wherein Mark Rosewater, Head Designer of Magic: The Gathering, explains to an angry player/customer the reasoning behind the existence of “bad” cards:

To recap (or to fill in for those unwilling to read the long version):

  1. By definition, some bad cards have to exist. (The most important reason.)
  2. Some cards are “bad” because they aren’t meant for you.
  3. Some cards are “bad” because they’re designed for a less advanced player.
  4. Some cards are “bad” because the right deck for them doesn’t exist yet.
  5. “Bad” cards reward the more skilled player.
  6. Some players enjoy discovering good “bad” cards.
  7. Some “bad” cards are simply R&D goofing up.

The entire post is a worthwhile read whether you’re into gaming* or not, but his explanation of the second point is of particular interest for those looking to ride the vertical-niche-community-branded bus:

The problem is players tend to define “bad cards” as cards that they personally see no reason to play. But certain cards aren’t meant for them in the first place. A good example would be Goblin Game from Planeshift. This card was designed as a fun, kooky card for social players who enjoy things like Unglued. (As a quick aside I should point out that despite rumors Goblin Game was not from Unglued II.) It upset a number of serious players. Because, to them, it was a waste of cardboard…

One of Magic’s strengths is that it is many things to many people. Its adaptability allows each gamer to shift the game to his or her liking. The downside to this cool aspect of the game is that players have to realize that they will open up cards designed for other types of players.

Magic: The Gathering is about as niche it gets, and even within that niche, they have to grapple with the fact that “it is many things to many people,” and they recognize that as a strength, not a weakness. Especially interesting is that, despite celebrating its 20th anniversary next year, MtG has 12 million players and is growing:

That growth has come in two ways: the player base has grown by over 80% during that period [2008-2011], and per player spending has grown by 16%…

“For the more than 12 million players around the world, Magic is more than just a product and more than just a game, it’s a lifestyle,” he said.  “The average tenure of the Magic consumer is over eight years.  And the more engaged the Magic consumer becomes in brand the more value they are to us as a business, as we migrate them toward successively deeper levels of engagement with complementary analog and digital experiences.”

Stop.

Read those two paragraphs again, and ask yourself how many “traditional” OR “new media” publishers you can name that can make a similar statement?

A 20-year-old “legacy” trading card game that reaches 12 million people (16 to 35-year-olds, predominantly male high school or college students; aka, those guys who supposedly don’t read books), has successfully managed the digital transition and is growing, and whose head designer has been writing a weekly online column and engaging directly with fans for ten years?!?

When’s the last time you saw Mark Rosewater speak at a publishing conference? Or anyone from Wizards of the Coast for that matter? And don’t get it twisted, Wizards of the Coast is just as much a “publisher” as Random House, Macmillan, et al., and far more diversified than most.

“Verticalization” isn’t a panacea; it’s just a silly buzzword for another way of doing business, one that’s neither better than its alternatives nor a guarantor of success. In fact, one could easily argue that “going vertical” is actually much more challenging than going horizontal, as the latter is often more amenable to appealing to the lowest common denominator.

Kind of like most general consumer magazines and publishing pundits.

/meh

*On gaming: I’m not an MtG player, though I have recently become obsessed with PoxNora, a collectible, turn-based, tactical, online fantasy game that, besides being fun to play, has totally flipped the script on my ownership vs. access bias. I found Rosewater’s post via PoxNora’s forums, in the midst of an interesting debate over its mix of good and “bad” runes (cards). You want to see what a passionate community looks like in action, spend some time poking around in there and then ask yourself if you’re ready to “go vertical.”

Guy LeCharles Gonzalez

As in guillotine. Old/new media pragmatist. Sometimes loud, sometimes poet, always opinionated. Beer, bourbon, books, games, running.

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6 thoughts on “The Myth of “Verticalization” – Community Ain’t Easy

  1. Jared

    “Verticalization” may be a buzz word, but I think it is hard to deny the powerful effect that the Long Tail has had on the economy, particularly in publishing.

    I think Seth Godin has it right when he says, “find books for your readers instead of readers for your books.”

    As it stands many publishers don’t know their readers (they know who they are but they don’t know them) and are losing touch with their vertical communities. I don’t see how publishers or authors have any other choice.

    Reply
    1. Guy LeCharles Gonzalez Post author

      While I agree with Godin’s underlying premise, “vertical communities” is a squishy term that gets thrown around a lot without much insight on what it really means. One could argue that “traditional” publishers have long served “vertical communities” via genre imprints, the big differences nowadays are the opportunity to sell direct, and to go beyond just print books. Macmillan’s group of community-focused sites are one oft-referenced, fledgling example, and my previous employer, F+W, has a number of even better examples.

      At the end of the day, though, “vertical” isn’t a do-or-die option for every publisher, it’s one of many, and no easier than any other.

      Reply
    1. Guy LeCharles Gonzalez Post author

      In terms of online communities and permission marketing (which are usually what people are referring to when they talk about verticals), I’d recommend starting with the following books:

      1) The Cluetrain Manifesto (http://cluetrain.com/book/)
      2) Permission Marketing, by Seth Godin
      3) Groundswell, by Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff

      From there, it really depends on the communities you’re looking to engage with, but the first step would be to find where they gather and start by observing.

      Reply
  2. Peter Turner

    Thanks, Guy, for this great post. I’ve been meaning to stop by and share my two cents for a while now.

    While I totally agree with your comments here, I might frame them a bit differently. One big reason why vertical communities (aka niche social marketing) is a bear is that you actually need to know what the f**k you’re talking about. The narrower the niche, the more you need to know what is of value to your community–otherwise they simply don’t need you.

    The other big issue is that publishers (aka content creators) need to think different when they empower communities via verticals or social niches. Nobody cares about the “country of origin”: what’s a Knopf or a Penguin or a Harper. Zip. But, the ability to discern what is of value to content consumers is an on-board talent that every publisher has; but they’re utilizing it in an increasingly outmoded fashion.

    What matters most–as many people, like yourself–have said before is that you deliver some unique value to your community. What’s frustrating and concerning is that the skill-set to provide this is on-board at all the major publishers but the willingness to reorganize, redirect, and be inspired just doesn’t seem to be there (mostly).

    Sorry for the rant.

    Reply
    1. Guy LeCharles Gonzalez Post author

      No apologies necessary for informed rants!

      Being in the midst of a similar reorganization on the magazine side (again!), I can sympathize a bit with book publishers who find themselves stuck at the crossroads as it can be a difficult transition, especially the larger the company is. Overcoming entrenched habits and workflows is hard, even when most people are onboard with the shift, and it only takes a couple of vocal dissenters to muck up the works.

      When I was interviewing earlier this year, I was surprised to see how many publishers were right on the cusp of getting it, but hadn’t quite nailed the restructuring needed to create the new roles and identify the right talent, whether in-house or external. And of course, it doesn’t help when there’s so much ill-formed advice out there on how to do it coming from people who’ve never done it.

      And I’ll end MY rant right there! ;-)

      Reply

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