When Peggy Walker took over as president and COO of Vance Publishing in April 2005, it was a time of big changes for the company. As with many publishers, the brutal ad recession of 2001-2004 forced Vance to re-evaluate the largely decentralized approach it had taken since its founding in 1937.
"We did due diligence on our own markets as if we were making an acquisition," she says. "When I joined the company I really didn’t know the industries that we served. I could figure it out but didn’t know them deeply." Structurally, the decentralized organization didn’t allow Vance to take advantage of digital and data opportunities because there was no corporate resource for it. "Every single division was funding its own growth," says Walker. "There weren’t enough resources in each of the divisions."
Walker received anecdotal feedback from staffers but wanted something more concrete. She hired an outside business analyst and went market by market to gauge performance over the last three years and identify growth rate, emergence of niches and financial projections. "That enabled us to focus our product development efforts and gave us direction," says Walker. "It wasn’t just for the magazines, it was other opportunities that might be classified as digital, data, events, anything that can form a strategic direction."
That meant shifting the company’s inward focus. "The staff was involved in dozens of different small projects that drew resources away from two or three larger projects that could have yielded bigger pay-offs," says Walker. Vance began re-aligning its divisions, such as putting all food titles under one group, as well as woodworking and décor products into another. When the dust finally settled in the fall of 2006, Vance had realigned the company into six divisions under three business units.
Part of any repositioning is getting buy-in from staff: "When we said we’re going to devote new resources to things like digital development, everybody said that was fantastic," says Walker. "But we said, ‘We’re not going to just layer the costs in, we’re going to evaluate where the money’s being spent now.’"
The company went through a 60-to-90 day process of sitting down with each manager. Several positions were eliminated, which required not only managing remaining staff but advertisers that had relationships with those individuals. "I’m not going to sit here and say everybody nodded their heads but everyone understood it and it went more smoothly than I thought it would," says Walker.
Vance is still working on its e-media push and looking for qualified staffers. "Like the rest of the industry, we’re facing pressure on print but digital media is growing in the 20 percent range," says Walker. "That’s with the current staff. We expect that to accelerate as we bring people in to develop, support and market those products."
Adapting to the Community
Much of the repositioning being done by publishers is online, as Web products move away from e-brochures for the print magazine to standalone products. The rise in "community publishing" means big changes for some. IDG Entertainment’s GamePro.com repositioned last May to boost the interactivity of the site. "We thought we were missing out on providing a home to our community," says marketing director Simon Tonner. "The site went from complement to the print publication to more of a home to the online community."
The first step was adding functionality to allow the audience to interact, including comment tools to all stories and a more comprehensive forum tool that allowed online users to chat with each other. The site enabled users to create their own blogs and user profiles, similar to a MySpace page, and developed a point system that permitted more functionality (such as the ability to add avatars or becoming a featured user on the site) depending on how much content users submit. "It’s no longer just us compiling information and pushing it out, it’s now a dialogue between our editors and users," says Tonner.
IDG’s GamePro.com has set up a feature called "Ask the Pros" that offers direct dialogue between selected experts (Sony, Microsoft and other vendors) and the audience. In April 2006, GamePro.com averaged 155 user submissions per day. Today, the site averages 2,650 user submissions per day, according to Tonner. "It’s the type of activity that fuels itself in a lot of ways," he says.
The staff has had to adapt to a more entrepreneurial role. "You have to be in touch with these users all the time," says Tonner. "You may come in the morning and think you have four stories to write but you might open up the forums and see if there’s a topic being discussed that completely changes your focus. You have to have that flexibility, and that might be a completely different work environment than what you’re used to."
Narrowing the Focus
While World Publications has grown primarily through acquisition, Florida Travel & Life was a rare launch for the company, debuting in March 2006. The 100,000-circ. magazine initially did well with advertisers and on the newsstand, then flattened out. For editor Ana Connery, a veteran of Time Inc.’s Cooking Light, repositioning Florida Travel & Life was an entrepreneurial effort. "Cooking Light is a wonderful publication but the magazine is put out by 55 people;it can practically run itself," Connery says. "Coming to World, we don’t have a bevy of standardized research at our finger tips. It’s too expensive to do readership studies and focus groups. We looked at what other regionals in our category were doing."
The problem was the focus in a Florida market filled with local magazines. "The content was a mishmash;what you’d consider old Florida mixed in with nature vacations, mixed in with this bevy of luxury development sweeping across the state," she adds. "We needed to come up with one unified vision of what this product was and who the audience is." The magazine also needed a dedicated staff;as with many launches, it was handled by staffers of other established magazines.
World decided to focus on the exploding baby boomer market in Florida. The magazine has published three issues since the repositioning and the January/February 2007 issue sold twice as many copies on the newsstand after two weeks as each of its past issues, according to Connery.