Startup Stories: Third Time's a Charm
While not a pure start-up, Farm Progress Company's relaunch of Farm Futures marked the magazine's second rehabilitation and, at the very least, resembles a start-up's dogged, entrepreneurial persistence in pursuing a market opportunity, no matter what the industry odds are.
Carol Stream, Illinois-based b-to-b agricultural publisher Farm Progress bought Farm Futures in 1989 and shut it down ten years later. That was the magazine's second collapse (its first came about in the seventies under its original publisher due to severe undercapitalization). "Farm Futures, as Farm Progress published it earlier, had a very high production quality," says president Jeff Lapin. "And the production costs combined with what was going on in the market made it very difficult to sustain."
The industry consolidated to such a degree that the advertiser pool dried up. "There was a lot of merging going on, on the crop-protection side as well as the equipment side," says Lapin.
So what changed in five years to signal renewed confidence and another relaunch in fourth quarter 2004? "The relaunch came out of a new publishing strategy that was two steps: One was to strengthen the brands at the state level, and make sure we were delivering the high end of the market at the national level to the large national marketers," says Lapin.
Plus, says Lapin, scaled down production specs allowed him to save 25 percent of what the magazine used to cost to produce, thanks to an oversized trim, perfect binding and premium paper.
The magazine launched to a nine-time schedule and a controlled circulation of 200,000 U.S. farmers and ranchers who had a minimum $250,000 annual farm income and 250-plus corn and soybean acres with editorial covering more risk, investment and business management issues than the local titles, which focused on ag production. The customers were mined from an in-house, ABC-audited database of 2.5 million names.
In the meantime, the advertising market had settled down. "Between 1999 and 2004, we saw the rationalization of the ag market taper off," says Lapin, "but there was still a solid universe of major national marketers trying to reach this large producer segment."
An admittedly large challenge loomed, however. "The biggest obstacle we faced was to convince the media buyers that we were going to keep it alive, that we weren't going to just start it up and shut it down again," he says.
Lapin says it was largely a leap of faith. An October launch meant media schedules were already in place so he relied on Farm Progress's strong market position and the brand's trust factor to convince buyers the magazine had legs. "We felt that we were going to make an investment to prove to people that we could generate a quality publication with good content that they felt would be a good venue for their message. That took the better part of a year to get that in place."
According to Lapin, Farm Progress made its investment back in the second year and the magazine is now profitable. "Our advertising support through our first half of the second year;we're on a fiscal year that begins July first;is more than eight times what it was in its entire first year,"he adds. "Our first issue had about a dozen pages. We're now running a much tighter ad-edit ratio. We try to shoot for a 50/50 ratio and we're running 25-30 ad pages now. When we close the issue and we need to beat up on the editor to cut a page here and there, it's a nice problem to have."
Lapin staffed up the title at relaunch by redeploying staff from some of the 18 state titles. An executive editor, who oversaw a group of those magazines and was tapped to run Futures, hired back some of the team from earlier versions of the magazine.
Lapin plans to keep the magazine controlled with no conversion to paid, save for some minor testing. Now that the first year has passed and the magazine seems established, Lapin says investments will turn to the Web site and events. "We're looking at mining that franchise as deeply as we can through events and seminars and so on. We're in the stages now of doing that."
||| TAKEAWAYS |||
Let the Content Speak for Itself
ï¾• Lapin made sure to provide the best content possible, noting that the content "drove this thing." Media buyers recognized the effort and stepped outside their normal schedules and budgets to participate.
ï¾• Despite two previous shut-downs, Lapin and Farm Progress still felt that the market could support a third attempt. The trick was to set high standards for content quality and level-headed production.
Challenge Your Editors
ï¾• Lapin challenged his editors to produce a full year's worth of story line-ups for Farm Futures. If they could do it without hesitation, then there was enough sustainable content.