Marketers value the direct customer connection, and custom publishing offers a unique opportunity to do so. The three projects profiled here show how it’s done.

Long considered the red-headed stepchild of publishing by U.S. publishers (although historically a major part of European magazine publishing), custom publishing has more than come into its own. While both consumer and b-to-b magazines struggle to keep advertiser levels up, custom is an increasingly bright light for the industry. Dedicated custom publishing shops are flourishing and more magazine publishers are creating their own in-house custom units, rather than dropping the load on existing editors to do in their spare time.

Custom publishing is also being recognized for excellence in editorial, design and strategy, not just by trade associations like the Custom Publishing Council but broader organizations, including the American Society of Business Publications Editors and FOLIO:’s own Eddie and Ozzie Awards.

But the prevalence of custom publishing also means the strategy and execution of a project need to be better than ever before. According to a report released earlier this year by the Custom Publishing Council and Publications Management called "Characteristics Study: A Look at the Volume and Type of Custom Publications In America, " spending on publishing increased 7 percent to $55.6 billion in 2006. However, custom circulation fell 18 percent, down for the first time since 2001. Publishers are competing not only with other publishers on the custom front but also their own advertisers trying custom publishing for themselves.

Here, FOLIO: presents three custom case studies that get the job done right.

Amp’d Up
A mobile brand opts to promote itself with a print magazine.
by Matt Kinsman

Wireless carrier Amp’d Mobile positioned itself as an upstart in the crowded mobile category, adopting a niche strategy that targeted young adults. But one of its most successful marketing initiatives was a relatively analog solution: a custom magazine produced by marketing agency Magner Sanborn. "The initial idea came from inside of Amp’d," says the agency’s owner, Dennis Magner. "They were a lifestyle brand, intended to appeal to a young audience, someone who is 18 and has a craving for content, specifically on a mobile platform. It was important to connect with this audience on their terms and a magazine seemed like a logical way to do that."

With a target market of 18-to-30-year-olds, the magazine needed to strike the right balance between communicating Amp’d products and services and editorial that was appropriate for the readers. "A lot of it was pop culture-music, gaming, movies, entertainment," says Magner. "Amp’d saw themselves as an entertainment company delivered through a mobile platform. We were speaking to an audience, who while they’re more apt to be on mobile or Web or e-mail or text, really just wanted as much content as they can get. If that means texting and watching TV and e-mailing someone and at the same time reading a magazine, they’ll do it."

Magner Sanborn had previously worked on a custom publication for AT&T. The agency fielded an internal team of writers, designers and managers that coordinated the project but also outsourced to freelance writers and designers as needed. "If we were writing an article about the Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival, we wanted someone in the know," says Magner. "But 80 percent of the work was handled internally."

Top Priority: Authenticity

The magazine required a sense of authenticity for the audience (especially since it was pushing service plans in the same issue). The design was aggressive, in keeping with the overall Amp’d brand identity. Content needed to be so current that timing an issue date was complex. "We couldn’t drop an edition before a new product launch," says Magner. "The schedule was a bit fluid, as we were making adjustments for functional messaging of the brand. We had to make sure the lifestyle content was still appropriate and current." The magazine won a Silver Pearl Award from the Custom Publishing Council for Best Cover Design for distribution over 250,000 and a Silver Pearl for Best Best Tie-in with Marketing/Mutimedia Campaign, and a bronze for Best in Custom: Honoring Overall Excellence

The magazine was distributed through Amp’d retailers, included big box stores such as Best Buy and Circuit City, on a quarterly schedule, starting with the Fall/Winter issue of 2006. Magazines featured different covers tailored to different markets.

There were about 1 million copies distributed, and the company ended up reprinting the last two issues. Magner says there was great feedback from retail channels at point-of-sale and Amp’d noticed a jump in Web traffic after each print issue hit.

Magazine As Marketing Collateral

The last issue was in Spring/Summer 2007, when Amp’d folded as a company. "In the end, Amp’d ended up pulling some of their other collateral and we were able to find efficencies that helped them recoup the costs of the magazine," says Magner. "The magazine was so much more sticky than a brochure-people would actually pick it up. The biggest challenge with a magazine like this is it’s a large endeavor and you can let the process or organization drive the outcome when what you really want is the end recipient to drive the outcome."

Capturing the Spirit of Southwest
An in-flight channels the newsstand.
by Joanna Pettas

Pace Communications has taken significant strides with Spirit since it relaunched the custom magazine for Southwest Airlines this past January. Spirit has recently won a number of gold, silver, and bronze awards from both Folio: and the Custom Publishing Council, in the areas of editorial, design and marketing strategy. Its circulation, at 472,566 per issue, is greater than that of four other top in-flight magazines.

But, in some respects, Spirit compares itself more to newsstand magazines than other in-flights, says executive editor Brad Cope, particularly in its use of long-form fiction and nonfiction. "It’s more difficult to get good features in print, other than in magazines like The Atlantic or The New Yorker," he says. The magazine, which averages 235 pages per issue, attracts top writers, according to Cope, by offering them a venue. Spirit also brings in strong writers-like Steve Friedman and Peter Heller-by paying well, treating writers well, and reaching consensus on edits rather than handing down an "edict from Mount Sinai," he says.

Cope credits much of Spirit’s recent success to the way it channels the "fun-loving" attitude of Southwest into simple, entertaining and useful content for the "every man." "There had been some disconnect in the past between the culture of Southwest and the magazine, which led to an unusually complex RFP," he says. "They wanted a lot of detail and specificity about the features, departments, tone, and types of writers we would use." Pace drew on the Southwest mind-set and demographic as a guide and was able to "get the audience right," says Cope.

Highly Packaged Content

Spirit serves "the people" with what Cope calls "highly packaged" content. "Readers want to know how much time stories will demand of them, and we make that clear to them at a glance," he says. "Often the commitment is minimal-one page long, striking visuals, lots of white space and scant copy." Many of the shorter pieces are service oriented, but even features have a how-to aspect. One, which told the story of a surfing instructor who gets people to quit their day jobs, included a sidebar on how people can act like real surfers in different parts of the country. This story garnered a good deal of interest and feedback and fits in with one of Spirit’s goals: to run several stand-out features like this one throughout the year that "get people talking."

A couple months ago, Spirit ran a service piece on thumb wrestling. As Cope described, "The last page showed a wrestling ring that allowed combatants to shove their thumbs through the paper and try out their newfound knowledge on the spot.", which won a gold in editorial for best new publication online from the CPC, includes a "travel wizard," with extra content on stories in print. Adding value to the Web site was a priority because, according to Cope, Southwest passengers are Web-savvy and book a significant amount of tickets online.

Pulling off a magazine of this size with a total full-time staff of 20 and an edit staff of six is a challenge, Cope says, as most of the department writing is done in-house, but he believes it keeps quality control high. Also, he says, finding qualified people who live in-or are willing to move to-Dallas can be tough, but they get around this by leading with the belief that Spirit is unique: it offers a "highly packaged, service-oriented magazine that we believe is part of the future of the industry," Cope says. "Being in on the ground floor of that is a kick."

The ‘Smart’ Magazine
Food closes the multiplatform loop for the Food Network and Wal-Mart.
by Bill Mickey

The Scripps Networks, the lifestyle media network that broadcasts the Food Network and HGTV, among others, needed a print extension for their networks. Lacking the infrastructure to pull one off for the Food Network, they turned to The Magazine Group to create a custom solution, called Food, that pulled in Wal-Mart as an exclusive co-op advertising and distribution partner. The partnership has resulted in three themed publications with more than one million circulation, and more titles planned for the coming year.

The Food Network had tried the advertorial route, but wanted something more robust to capture the much sought after 360-degree brand positioning. "The Scripps Networks, which doesn’t have an Oprah or a Martha Stewart Living, has had to rely on advertorials inserted into magazines," says Michael Zamba, vice president of custom publishing for The Magazine Group. When the Food Network secured Wal-Mart as an online and on-air advertiser for a week-long preamble to 2007’s Super Bowl XLI, they partnered with The Magazine Group to extend the sponsorship to print, creating Food to serve as a brand extension for Food Network content and an exclusive print vehicle for Wal-Mart to sponsor and distribute from its stores. "Even though it’s custom publishing, we actually call it a ‘smart magazine’ because it unites the best of traditional, editorially relevant, publishing with the best of custom publishing-dedicated distribution, highly targeted print runs, and even a theme," says Zamba.

A Super Bowl-themed issue was created with content that matched the packaged programming approach the Food Network uses. "A key asterisk here is Food Network is more than stand-and-stir. It’s more than recipes. It’s about lifestyles and it’s about entertaining," says Zamba.

Despite Wal-Mart’s sponsorship, editorial was kept free of any mention of the retailer, relegating it to display advertising. "The policy at Food Network is no product placements," says Zamba. "The content stands on its own. But that’s what Wal-Mart wanted anyway. They wanted to get as close to the flame as possible and this allows them to do that."

Splitting the Approach

The project was developed from an initial "warm-up" pitch from the Food Network to Wal-Mart. "We’re integrated with the Scripps sales team," says Zamba. "They call up the client and if it’s something they’re interested in I’ll then do a conference call with a more refined proposal."

Once the deal is closed, Zamba’s team takes over on all project management, including client relations. "We’re interfacing with Wal-Mart directly on ad materials," he says. "For Scripps, we handle writing, editing, design, trafficking of the ads and all the sign-off."

As sole sponsor of the Super Bowl issue, Wal-Mart distributed over one million copies of Food through 2,000 of its super centers across the country. The magazine is kept at a slim 24 pages and a 7×10 trim size that, says Zamba, floats. "Everyone puts the big magazines at the bottom. We do 24 pages and a smaller trim size, so we float to the top."

Food allows the Food Network to offer their clients a full suite of marketing solutions. "They value print, so this is a way to unite a good print option with what they’re doing on-air and online," says Zamba. "And it’s an argument that advertisers and agencies are paying attention to."

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