Legal Publishing and Market Research – Getting It Right

Robert MacKay, the philosopher publisher from New Fetter Lane, recently posted yet another thoughtful piece on a matter of interest to legal publishers and their customers under the title The Customer is Sometimes Right (April 29, 2014).

This time, Robert addresses the subject of the dynamic that exists, or rather should exist, between the publisher and the customer in the development and re-development of major legal information products. Specifically he comments on “the methodologies used to define and understand user needs by way of direct customer contact”.

As Robert says, the next product or service that will astound us will not come from the type of market research done today, but by people who are much more reliant on their own vision and expertise, working quietly on their own far from the public eye.

Nonetheless, understanding and speaking to customers is of critical importance, even if it is rarely if ever the source of the next big idea; it would indeed be “the height of arrogance and stupidity not to speak to customers” and not to absorb and digest what they have to say. I know from experience.

No real dialogue

The real issue as I see it is the manner in which the all important dialogue with customers takes place. Robert gets to the heart of the problem when he mentions the use “structured forms of questions to elicit responses and opinions on matters in issue” which seems to be the norm these days.

During my career, I observed any number of surveys or questionnaires used to develop new products and redevelop existing ones. In my experience, rarely did these surveys or questionnaires generate meaningful input from customers regarding product development. To me at least it seemed as if this method of conducting research was more form than substance, more like a publisher “ritual” or a piece of “performance art” than meaningful dialogue with customers.

Form over substance.

Several factors influenced the nature and quality of the the questions asked and consequently the responses received from the questionnaires and surveys.

Research to educate the researcher. The questions asked in any questionnaire necessarily reflect the researcher’s knowledge of the subject matter of the research. When the research was conducted by a research consultant with little knowledge of the legal publishing industry, the questionnaires usually included simple questions intended to educate the researcher. In such instances, the questions asked for information already available in the publisher’s own records or in legal directories and rarely if brought any new information to the table.

Research to justify decisions already made. Sometimes the research is be done after a product had been developed, to justify what had already been done, when only token changes in the product, if any, were possible. This was particularly true in the case of digital products, where changes resulting from a questionnaire or survey reflected what the developer was capable of doing, rather than what might need to be done to address customer concerns.

Research to validate corporate strategy. Following the acquisition and integration of smaller, and arguably more market sensitive, legal publishers into large multinational companies, customer questionnaires and surveys seem to be designed to produce outcomes that supported global strategies of the corporations. Domestic market issues at odds with the global strategy were rarely addressed.

Research with the best of intentions. Questionnaires sometimes unintentionally lacked the nuances required to connect with the customer in a meaningful way. One example I recall related to conducting online research in English and French. In France, a databases would be in French and searched in French; in England a database would be in English and searched in English. In Canada, however, a single database frequently includes both English and French content and needs to be searched in both languages. The questionnaire missed a key difference in developing a bilingual product for the Canadian market.

Rarely were the results of these flawed questionnaires and surveys challenged and the results in terms of customer satisfaction (or dissatisfaction) with publishing decisions based on such surveys is evident.

Getting it right

Early in my career, I relied too heavily on my own vision and putative expertise in redeveloping the Canadian Abridgment. I completely failed to understand the need to connect with customers. Fortunately for me, the customers stepped forward to help me see the error of my ways and to suggest a meaningful process in which the publisher explained its objectives, and in which the customers shared their comments and suggestions. The result was a collaborative effort that met both publisher and customer needs.

This process was well documented, initially in and article that Martha Foote in her 1994 article on The New Canadian Abridgment published in the Legal References Quarterly, and more recently in the video prepared for the 50th Anniversary of CALL and available on Youtube.

The keys to the successful outcome of this process were the passionate involvement of the customers in devising the questions to be asked of the publisher, and the editorial staff’s commitment to analyze and respond to every question raised by a customer with an open mind and a positive attitude.

Every member of the Canadian Association of Law Libraries was invited to submit comments and suggestions and every comment and suggestion was considered by editorial staff to see if it was feasible. Every idea suggested and the publisher’s response to it were then presented in a public forum. A mechanism was created (the Canadian Abridgment Editorial Advisory Board) to guide and monitor the implementation of the plan made by the publisher regarding the redevelopment of the Canadian Abridgment. Annual reports were prepared and presented on the progress in implementing the plan.

Perhaps the customer research involved in the redevelopment of the Canadian Abridgment cannot be replicated in current market conditions. There is not the passion for a particular product on the part of the customers that existed with regard to the Canadian Abridgment. In addition, the perceived need for secrecy in product development and redevelopment makes it a much more difficult environment in which to have meaningful dialogue between the parties.

Both the publisher and the customer have an interest in getting it right. Much needs to be done to rebuild the relationships, and the confidence and trust, that once existed between the publisher and the customer. Given the uncertainty in the industry as to what comes next, the future of legal publishing may depend on it.

Endnote. (N.B. For those not in the know, New Fetter Lane is the location of the former home of Sweet & Maxwell located at the historical centre of English language legal publishing where Robert launched his publishing career.)


  1. Hi Gary,

    Not surprisingly, I agree with your every word and am most grateful to you for your generous comments.

    I’ve to some extent tried to pick up on the theme of pretend or non-engagement in my next Slaw column, being published on September 11 and entitled “Legal and Professional Publishing: Has it Become Desperately Dull?” wherein, quoting myself:

    “I wonder if I’m correct in thinking that it used to be enormously pleasurable, rewarding and creative but now appears, with some exceptions, to be desperately dull? Its dullness is reflected in its lack of innovation, its shift away from new product development and its failure to excite and engage with its customers and with its own people”.

    In your own article, I think you are completely correct in your identification of the “form over substance” motives of some research, which really serves to highlight the dishonesty behind much of it. I sought to make the point about some of the faux research done by legal publishers (and others) in

  2. Hi Gary and thanks very much for your generous words.

    It will not be at all surprising to know that I agree with nearly everything you write. In fact, I’ve sought to pick up the theme of lack of customer engagement and its consequences in my next Slaw column, due to be published on September 11, entitled “Legal and Professional Publishing: Has it Become Desperately Dull?”, quoting myself:

    “I wonder if I’m correct in thinking that it used to be enormously pleasurable, rewarding and creative but now appears, with some exceptions, to be desperately dull? Its dullness is reflected in its lack of innovation, its shift away from new product development and its failure to excite and engage with its customers and with its own people.”

    I particularly empathise with your points concerning issues of form over substance which to me highlight the dishonesty or deception that may characterise some of the research we see from the professional publishers and others. I attempted to highlight this, to an extent, in: