Sanj Kharbanda is senior vice president of digital markets at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, where he manages the publisher’s digital marketing strategy, including for trade publishing, K-12 and consumer markets.
At Digital Book World 2016, Kharbanda will be moderating a panel called “Standing Out in the Stacks: Marketing That Works.”
We recently spoke to Kharbanda about how HMH has weathered the digital transformation, what his thoughts are on the future of the industry, and what his DBW panel will focus on.
You’ve been working in digital specifically at HMH for nearly seven years. Coming from a traditional publisher, what was the mindset you guys had in trying to create a sweeping digital transformation?
I was fortunate to be put in a group that really got the responsibility of driving this transformation within our trade publishing business. And our mantra was “innovate, incubate, integrate.” We always thought, “How we do we try something that makes sense—that fits in this digital space?” But always with the view of whether we can scale it. And then once we scale it, how do we bring it into the organization?
So leadership gave me that responsibility, and to answer your question of how we did this: we really did it because there was a great commitment from the leadership team. Our CEO, Linda Zecher, was very clear from the start. And it was less of a focus on the format, and more of a focus on the outcome. We didn’t think of this process as trying to create a book or an app as much as we thought about what’s the best way for this content to shine.
And I think because that was our underlying philosophy, it became a little bit easier to do everything.
What’s the next frontier for digital book publishing? Or put another way, what are the biggest issues or obstacles facing this sector of the industry, and how do you envision tackling them?
I look at where we are right now, and I think we’ve barely scratched the surface. Every publisher has done different experiments in different ways—whether it’s enhanced ebooks or apps—and the marketplace is still nascent. I feel like we’ve been doing this forever, but it’s really only been maybe eight years. I don’t necessarily like the word “obstacle,” but the one piece I think we need to focus more on—and in the conference we’ll hear so many things about it—is data and analytics. That’s really the area where the industry needs to grow.
But also, a big change that will impact many aspects of where we go forward is the increasing role of mobile in commerce. Format becomes a part of the equation. I don’t like the word, but “discovery” becomes a part of the equation. If indicators are that mobile is going to become a bigger piece of how we conduct commerce, then we need to get much better at making sure that we as publishers are there when the customer is deciding to buy, and that we influence the decision to buy. And so we need to get better at how we bring our content—even just information about our content—to the customer, in the right way.
So how do you feel about the state of the industry right now? Do you feel good about it?
I’m thrilled about it. You don’t want me to get on my high horse, but honestly if you look down the road, you look at self-driving cars and virtual reality—to me, those are opportunities for us to get our content in front of audiences. In a very simplistic way, if you look at self-driving cars: if you’re commuting to work or spending 45 minutes in the car driving, maybe you’re listening to an audiobook but you’re not doing a whole bunch of other stuff. There are so many other ways for us to bring content to you instead of in just one format.
We’re just at the beginning of the road. So far, what we have done is take books and create representations of those books on screens. And we’ve tried enhanced ebooks and we’ve tried apps, but the market is still figuring things out. But when all of these other technologies come, I think there will be so many more opportunities for us to be there.
At DBW this year, you’re moderating a panel called “Standing Out in the Stacks: Marketing That Works.” Can you give us a brief overview of what you guys will be discussing?
The panelists come from very different parts of the business, and the goal is to share effective strategies and tactics. I encourage folks to attend: these panelists (true marketers!) are more interested in creating a conversation with the audience. And based on my conversations with them, I know we will all learn new ways to look at our campaigns.
Why do you come to DBW each year?
I’ve been there every year since it started, and I still think it’s the best place to learn. It is a great place for us to engage in topics that are of great relevance to everyone in this space, and it puts me in a place where I have the opportunity to look at my ideas through a different lens. And it obviously goes without saying, it’s a great networking space.
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