What Would Augsburg Do?

A couple weeks ago I attended the fall board meeting for Augsburg Fortress. Augsburg is a publisher affiliated with the ELCA, which is the largest Lutheran denomination in the United States. My connection to Augsburg is a result of a speech I gave to a group of leaders in the ELCA several years ago, and has been a remarkable experience for the last two years.

It’s remarkable for several reasons: it’s my first experience sitting on a board, so that alone makes it a worthwhile effort. But what makes it so rewarding – and so challenging – is the difficulty of being part of a traditional publisher in 2009.

Add to that that my day job – working at a company often blamed for many of the publishing industry’s difficulties – and it has made for quite the learning process.

Last spring, Augsburg’s CEO Beth Lewis asked if I’d consider leading a discussion at our board meeting focused on Jeff Jarvis’s book, What Would Google Do? We ended up delaying the talk, in part because we’d have a new class of board members joining us in the fall and it felt like a better way to kick things off with the “new” board.

On Friday, I tweeted that I’d be leading the discussion, and almost immediately Jeff tweeted right back that he’d love to eavesdrop. A few e-mails later, Jeff and I had it settled: I’d surprise the board by starting off our session by hearing from none other than the author himself – and thanks to Skype video chat, we had him projected full screen and plugged into the A/V so he could speak to us. (Miraculously, the mic on my MacBook Pro even picked up comments from people 30 feet away, making it a completely easy dialogue from 1,000 miles away.)

Jeff had some great ideas to frame the discussion: ask what business you’re really in was the key, of course. But as a brother to a Presbyterian minister, he also had a rather good insight into the challenges faced by leaders in the church: how to admit mistakes, how to foster communities in the midst of declining church membership – he spoke to these challenges as someone more than passingly familiar with the dual challenges Augsburg faces.

Beth asked what is probably the most critical question of Jeff: how do we avoid the “cash cow in the coal mine” – the part(s) of our business that generate revenues today but are neither core to the business nor likely to be a part of Augsburg’s future.

Jeff was blunt: “pretend you needed to get rid of your print business tomorrow. Just turn it off. And imagine that there’s a kid or group of kids in a dorm room today, thinking about how to re-engage people of faith. What are they working on? What are they going to do that will threaten you?”

I wanted to be respectful of Jeff’s time – he was terribly gracious to give up a part of his Saturday morning to chat with us – and we said thanks and then dove in. While I will not go into the confidential aspects of our board discussion, I did warn the board that I’d be blogging the meeting, with the goal of inviting a broader discussion – from Lutherans, from techies, from publishing vets – to figure out if there isn’t a way to be public about the challenges facing us, and hopefully identify some creative paths forward.

Our first step was to throw out the key words that the board felt mattered most from Jeff’s book. More than a dozen words went up… several of the core themes of the book, many of which were obviously applicable to our challenge: trust, transparency, platform, links, beta, imperfect, abundance.

But I pointed out that a biggie – perhaps the biggest – was missing: free. This isn’t easy for an established business to confront: how can we just give stuff away? We talked through the mechanics of free: it’s not what you give away, but how giving things away can expand the market for your other products (and/or create entirely new ones). I recommended Free to the group (one of the many reasons I love our CEO: she had a copy on her Kindle within a minute of my recommendation), and threw out a couple examples from Chris Anderson’s book to talk about how Free can be, as Jeff pointed out in WWGD, a business model.

We also talked about data: what data could we collect – not personally identifiable data, but data about congregations, about product adoption, about customer life cycles (do families whose children attend Sunday School have adults who go to adult bible study more often? Do families who attend adult bible study volunteer more at church, donate more money to the church, or recruit friends to join?) – and how could that data be valuable to others?

What’s exciting to me is that Augsburg is already a company asking “what if?” and acting on it. The best example of this is sparkhouse, a completely new effort funded by Augsburg as an entrepreneurial startup intended to completely reimagine faith-based publishing. And that’s not the only one: Augsburg has built up a number of social networks – see Creative Worship Tour as an example of how Augsburg is connecting like-minded individuals around the world to facilitate interactions and foster community around new ways of managing weekly worship.

While these are great steps, they are by no means guarantees of success. Jeff talks a lot about the news industry: declining circulation, uncertain revenue future, competition from new players who didn’t even exist three years ago. But he could just as easily be talking about the church: membership is down, the average age of congregations is going up, and people are less and less focused on denominations at all when it comes to their faith. Add to that the well-known challenges of being a book publisher today and it’s clear that Augsburg has its work cut out for it.

Which is why I wanted to have this discussion out in the open.  In WWGD, Jeff talks repeatedly about “publicness” – and he spoke movingly of a comment left on his blog over that weekend about a widow who lost her husband to prostate cancer. (Jeff has been documenting his own battle with prostate cancer – and his successful surgery and ongoing recovery – for months.)

Someone (or someones) out there will have ideas that we need to be thinking about. If you’re that kid in her dorm room thinking about reinventing publishing and community for people of faith, I want to hear from you. What would an Augsburg platform look like? (I got to define API to the board during our meeting – I doubt there are too many other publishing boards talking about APIs!) Which questions aren’t we answering? Which aren’t we asking?

My fellow board members are going to be hanging out here; I’m hoping that we can foster an ongoing discussion about our future here. Thanks again to Jeff – for writing a thought-provoking book, for giving of his time this morning – and thanks to all of you, whose input and guidance I cannot wait to read.