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How to Advance AX (Author Experience) Maturity: 6 Strategies

March 22, 2023  |  By

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In our recent article, Author Experience (AX): An Essential Framework for Publishers, we described why author experience (AX) would become – where it is not already – a top priority for scholarly and professional publishers, as well as societies with publishing portfolios.

By AX, we mean the sum total of all the ways an author engages with a publisher – from the first moment of interaction (e.g., a call for papers), through article submission, peer review, the acceptance or rejection decision, proof correction and other steps of production, and post-publication support. While each individual touchpoint matters, it is the cumulative impact of these numerous interactions that leads authors to develop perceptions and opinions about a publisher’s and a journal’s brand. For this reason, the AX mandate is much broader than tweaking author submission systems and processes, or improving author proofing: organizations that deliver a meaningfully different author experience go beyond these process improvements to center AX as an organizational priority and infuse AX into their cultures.

While authors have, of course, always been essential to professional and scholarly publishers, the rise of open access business models has reshaped this relationship. The publishers that have been first movers in thinking about author experience are notably all “born-OA” publishers – including Frontiers, MDPI, eLife, Hindawi (now part of Wiley), BMC, and PLOS. A focus on author experience has contributed to the success of their business models. As OA publishing grows in prominence, many publishers are realizing that cultivating positive author experiences (AX) is critical to driving author submissions, loyalty, and brand advocacy – all of which grow author market share (by attracting new authors and retaining them as repeat customers) and revenue.

Author Experience as part of Customer Experience

Author experience is not a wholly new concept. AX is a subset of customer experience (CX). Authors are not always performing the role of “author.” They can wear many customer “hats” as they interact with an organization, including the hat of member, peer reviewer, podcast listener, society committee member, continuing education consumer, event attendee, and other roles. Authors are also readers, and strategies to improve research workflows, audience engagement, and reader experience sit alongside AX within the full customer experience spectrum.

However, due to the unique relationship between publisher and author, we recommend the more nuanced term author experience (AX) to highlight strategies explicitly focused on developing positive author perception. The author journey and the tension of the editor–author relationship (in what other industry do brands reject customers?) present challenges that require dedicated focus.

The Six Pillars of AX Maturity

This article is part two of our Author Experience (AX) series. The first article focused on the “why” of AX; this article focuses on the “how.” To help anchor the concept of AX more concretely, we present the six pillars of AX maturity. We define AX maturity as building and growing positive author perceptions that translate to increased submission, resubmission, and referral. As organizations build and master these six pillars, they advance their AX maturity:

  1. Differentiate strategy and brand
  2. Elevate marketing and invest in marketing technology
  3. Measure, track, and understand AX
  4. Embrace experience design
  5. Align editorial and marketing
  6. Build an AX roadmap

1.    Differentiate Strategy and Brand

“Brand strategy is the business case for change at a brand level.

– Mark Di Somma, Branding Strategy Insider [1]

Brands are intrinsic to human nature. In a world where we are inundated with information and product overload, brands expedite decision-making, thereby making our lives easier. A brand is a heuristic shortcut that conveys what an organization stands for, the products it delivers, and the experience the customer will receive. Whether consciously or unconsciously, the power of branding impacts all of us. Think of the brand “Ritz Carlton” and the experience you expect it to deliver (luxury, comfort, and service). Now, juxtapose that with the associations you have with the brand “Walmart” (convenience and value). The impressions that arise when we think of each brand are distinct, but broadly invariable across consumers – demonstrating effective branding by both organizations.

Branding is your organizational DNA, and as such, it is inseverable from organizational strategy. A successful AX strategy requires organizations to think very carefully about the clear benefits of the products and services offered from the author’s perspective. For example, developing a portfolio of transfer journals, investing in faster publication times, and delivering best-in-class author marketing are business decisions that will impact your brand value proposition. Organizations with higher levels of AX maturity have invested time and energy into defining differentiated, compelling, financially viable, and author-centric value propositions.

Societies are in the unique (and fortuitous) position of having strong organizational brands and loyal communities. Societies that effectively connect their organizational and journal brands are much further along in AX maturity than societies that operate in silos.

Marketing is responsible for bringing a brand to life. This includes brand management, brand storytelling, and the use of creative strategies and marketing channels (social media, web, email, events, ads, and more) to engage audiences that include current and prospective authors.

2.    Elevate Marketing and Invest in Marketing Technology

“Modern marketing is the ability to harness the full capabilities of the business to provide the best experience for the customer and thereby drive growth. In a recent McKinsey survey, 83% of global CEOs said they look to marketing to be a major driver for most or all of a company’s growth agenda.”

– McKinsey & Company [2]

Historically, scholarly publishers have emphasized B2B (business-to-business) marketing strategies that support the institutional site license business model. For most organizations, this model’s market dynamics – a relatively small number of sales-led deals, highly discoverable content, and strong institutional renewal rates – have resulted in anemic marketing investment. Further, the definition and remit of marketing in scholarly publishing are often constrained compared to organizations that operate in the consumer space, for example. And it is not uncommon for societies to under-invest in marketing their journals as compared to other industries that serve professionals.

In sharp contrast, effective AX requires B2C (business-to-consumer) marketing. Publishers must market directly to authors, as growth in author submissions is critical for revenue sustainability in an OA model. B2C marketing relies heavily on modern marketing principles – it is data-driven, technology-enabled, and customer-focused. Success in B2C marketing requires new skills, strategies, and tools.

This shift to B2C marketing, together with an industry-wide historical underinvestment in marketing, has put many publishers on the back foot when it comes to author experience (AX). Developing effective AX strategies will necessitate that organizations, especially societies with decentralized marketing, reevaluate their marketing structures and how they streamline experience across business units. This means societies that outsource publishing will likely need to change how they work with publishing partners. Customer data and marketing-driven experience must be society-owned to deliver a unified experience.

Delivering a unified author (or customer) experience requires an investment in marketing technology (MarTech), which helps publishers and societies:

  • Collect behavioral data from known customers and anonymous visitors when they interact with digital properties and marketing campaigns.
  • Unify all first-party customer data into a single actionable customer profile. First-party data is information an organization collects directly from its customers, making it organization-owned data. It is held in organizational systems (e.g., association management systems, customer relationship management systems, author submission systems, email service providers) along with behavioral and engagement data collected on an organization’s digital properties.Because it is owned data, it is not subject to the current restrictions on third-party cookies.
  • Enrich first-party data: Organizations can purchase or license external data sets to fill in missing pieces of customer data (e.g., an author’s publication count across all publishers).
  • Use predictive intelligence to improve marketing performance. Authors’ propensity toward channels, messaging, and offers is highly individualized and should not be reduced to a limited number of personas.
  • Micro-target authors by building highly refined segments. Marketers can message niche cohorts of authors based on multidimensional segmentation criteria, such as geography, content affinity, affiliated institution, engagement scores, and past authorship.
  • Understand touchpoint impact, i.e.,how content and campaigns influence author engagement and submission.
  • Personalize author communication throughout the various stages of an author’s journey and across channels (e.g., a society site, blog, and journal website) to create a cohesive omnichannel experience.
  • Ensure customer privacy is protected and all customer data legislation is followed.
  • Streamline outreach and adjust cadence so that authors are not the recipients of too much messaging.

Successful MarTech adoption is not just about picking the right tools (although that is, of course, important). It’s also about the change required within an organization to successfully adopt those tools. Technology-led MarTech projects (i.e., RFIs, vendor selection, and implementation projects driven by IT rather than marketing experts) are rarely successful. In addition to technology expertise, MarTech projects require engagement from the marketing team and a marketing leader with strong MarTech expertise to guide the vendor selection and implementation strategy.

3.    Measure, Track, and Understand AX

“… a brand is not owned by the company, but by the customers who draw meaning from it. Your brand isn’t what you say it is. It’s what they say it is.”

– Marty Neumeier [3]

It is critical to understand how authors feel about their interactions with your brand. Often, author surveys are focused on production or editorial processes and underrepresent questions that speak to other parts of the author’s experience. If you are not collecting feedback about the entirety of an author’s experience, it can be challenging to identify factors that are negatively (or positively) impacting their perceptions. An author’s positive experience with the production of their journal article might be overshadowed by a negative experience as a journal reader or society member, leading them to be reluctant to submit to the journal again. Touchpoints outside the production process also have significant impact on experience.

Developing a full view of an author’s experience requires capturing feedback in numerous ways. In addition to traditional author surveys, other means of gathering feedback should be considered – including pulse surveys (e.g., a quick pop-up on journal platforms), social media sentiment (what is the tone of what authors are saying), behavioral data analysis (tracking engagement), and user experience (UX) analysis (visualizing journeys and funnels). A well-rounded feedback strategy involves various types of data collection and analysis.

Once research results and feedback are collected, they need to be shared broadly within the organization. It is critical that the right people have access to author feedback reports and are held accountable for making necessary changes. For example, editors need to see comments from authors who found time-to-decision to be too long, technologists need to know when authors experience system bottlenecks, and marketers need to know what authors value. There is no point in collecting data if it is not shared; all members of the team need to make appropriate changes to improve AX.

A critical step on the AX maturity journey is to develop and measure key performance indicators (KPIs) related to author experience. KPIs align an organization around the metrics that matter, ultimately driving performance. We recommend that all organizations regularly measure a handful of KPIs in the form of author feedback scores:

  • Author Satisfaction Score: The extent to which an author has a satisfactory experience with the publishing process.
  • Author Resubmission Score: The likelihood that the author will submit a new paper to the journal in the near future.
  • Author Recommendation Score: An indication of whether the author would recommend or refer the journal to their colleagues.

Organizations should also track and benchmark key publishing performance metrics that are impacted by author experience, including:

  • Article market share within the publisher’s discipline – both at the journal level and across the portfolio
  • Number of submissions
  • Cost and revenue per submission and published article
  • Publication turnaround times, especially time to first decision and submission to first publication
  • Editorial workloads (overworked editors rarely provide a good AX)
  • Citations per article
  • Cost per download (APC price divided by average downloads over, say, 3 years – are authors getting good value for their money?)
  • Diversity of editorial board

4.    Embrace Experience Design

“Personalization drives performance and better customer outcomes. Companies that grow faster drive 40% more of their revenue from personalization than their slower-growing counterparts.”

– McKinsey & Company [4]

Experience design ensures that customer experience is seamless, relevant, and frictionless. Authors engage with consumer brands daily (buying groceries, booking travel, visiting retail websites). When authors engage with publisher processes and websites, they bring the same expectations they have for consumer experiences.

Mature AX organizations focus on experience design, which includes, but is not limited to:

  • Striving for frictionless and intuitive author-facing systems and processes. This requires regularly monitoring author workflows and impediments to ease and speed.
  • Clearly conveying author information. Information architecture, visual design, and multimedia are required to make information accessible and easy to skim.
  • Presenting a consistent voice. All author communications and resources should be reviewed and edited by a single team to ensure uniformity (and appropriateness) in tone and style.
  • Mapping the author’s journey and personalizing messaging throughout the journey stages. Remember that the author’s journey continues past publication. Cultivating ongoing engagement and loyalty is incredibly important and should be a top strategy for both marketing and editorial teams.
  • Breaking through silos. Authors expect organizations to know who they are, in all their roles (e.g., member, reader, author, reviewer) and to communicate to them in a coordinated manner.

5.    Align Editorial and Marketing

“Customer experience silos are kryptonite, weakening your super-friendly staff, touch-points, and designs.”

– Lynn Hunsaker, CustomerThink [5]

In an OA world, community development and author recruitment should be part of editor job descriptions. Editors are closer to the author community than marketing staff are likely to be, and they speak the language of authors more naturally. Passively selecting from among papers that have been submitted is not sufficient for the creation of an impactful journal. Effective editors are proactive in securing high-quality content, actively persuading authors to submit their best research. Authors submit to the editors they trust, either because they know them personally or because of their reputation in the field.

This broadening of editorial responsibility requires careful planning to maximize impact and minimize customer confusion. A mature AX organization will:

  • Create clear role definitions between Editorial and Marketing, specifying how the teams work together. Social media and event presence are examples of areas where the strategy must build on each team’s unique expertise in a coordinated fashion.
  • Develop a campaign planning process to align Marketing and Editorial on special issues, calls for papers, special collections, etc., prompting the orchestration of collaborative campaigns.
  • Develop a portfolio strategy that facilitates transfers between journals. Retaining rejected submissions within a portfolio is increasingly important for publishers; ensuring that the AX is seamless (e.g., by transferring named-referee reports between journals) requires collaboration between the editorial and marketing teams. Authors need to know how the transfer process works before they submit their paper.
  • Ensure a solid customer data foundation and clear rules around who can email whom, when, and what. The single biggest killer of effective AX (and CX) is when different teams communicate with the same individual in a disconnected manner, with an inconsistent tone of voice. There are also customer data privacy and email deliverability implications to consider.
  • Provide editors with data so they can quickly find the authors they wish to recruit. Editors are in a battle for article market share and need the means to easily identify relevant author candidates. Publishers should have a clear view of which authors are publishing in competitor journals, but not their own.
  • Train editors on how to best engage potential authors. This is new ground for many editors. Community and audience engagement is a specialized skillset.

6.    Build an AX Roadmap

“Digitally led businesses are overwhelmed by opportunities. Identifying the top 100 ideas is easy, identifying the top 10 is hard. Being intentional about where to focus is a significant management challenge… there’s rarely a shortcut to doing the analysis.”

– Michael Ross, Harvard Business Review [6]

For something to improve, it needs to be prioritized. We recommend dedicating resources to creating and advancing your AX roadmap. Effective AX requires collaboration across numerous functions, and a single roadmap ensures that all teams are marching to the beat of the same drum.

An AX roadmap describes what the organization needs to do to enhance AX maturity. It helps organizations avoid chasing the next shiny thing, instead following disciplined prioritization. Mature roadmaps inventory not only the benefits of investing in each initiative but also the associated costs. Methodologies for this prioritization should be transparent and supported by author feedback and data. By developing a prioritized and cost-identified AX roadmap, organizations can connect AX investment to KPIs and financial results.

While AX is not “owned” by a single functional area, an individual is needed to guide the AX roadmap. AX can be treated as a special initiative with a deputized executive leader at its helm. Alternatively, a single role can be recruited to focus on the AX roadmap. As AX matures, it often makes sense to put CX/AX in a functional home. As we stated earlier, it is essential to avoid separating AX from your organization’s larger CX agenda.

Navigating the New Customer Paradigm

Authors are customers, and organizations today must deliver value across the entire author journey – making AX a top organizational priority and delivering superior marketing to ensure authors have the best possible experience and keep coming back. We hope these six pillars are helpful as you set forth on your own AX journey. We’re here to help if you need support along the way.

Contact us to discuss how C&E can help build and implement your AX strategy.

[1] Mark Di Somma: “Confusing brand strategy with creative strategy,” Branding Strategy Insider (accessed 19 March 2023).

[2] Sarah Armstrong, Dianne Esber, Jason Heller, Björn Timelin: “Modern marketing: what it is, what it isn’t, and how to do it,” McKinsey & Company, 2 March 2020.

[3] Marty Neumeier: “The New Brand Model,” accessed 19 March 2023.

[4] Nidhi Arora, Daniel Ensslen, Lars Fiedler, et al.: “The value of getting personalization right – or wrong – is multiplying,” McKinsey & Company, 12 November 2021.

[5] Lynn Hunsaker: “How to solve customer experience silos,” CustomerThink, 15 December 2016.

[6] Michael Ross: “3 Core Principles of Digital Customer Experience,” Harvard Business Review, 9 March 2023.

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Colleen Scollans

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Colleen Scollans leads Clarke & Esposito’s Marketing & Digital Transformation Practice. She is a seasoned marketing, digital strategy, and customer experience leader. Prior to consulting, Colleen was the Chief Marketing Officer for Oxford University Press’s (OUP) Academic Division. See Full Bio

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