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Keep an Eye on What You’re Marketing, Not What You’re Becoming

As magazine publishing models continue to fracture, focus on the platforms.


Patrick Hainault By Patrick Hainault
11/02/2010 -09:40 AM






This fall, the MPA, the trade organization that once was the Magazine Publishers of America, took an early jumpstart on the surefire newsstand trope by changing its focus and logo, dropping “magazine” from its name, pushing it to its tagline, and essentially stating that the M, the P and the A no longer mean anything.

Short of using a symbol akin to that of The Artist Formerly Known as Prince, I don’t think the MPA could have devised a better update. The insiders-only acronym, followed by the vaguely inclusive tagline, perfectly reflects the state of the industry the association represents.

Yes, it has gotten that head-spinning out there. While most magazine marketers are (hopefully) clear on what they are trying to do, an industry observer would have a tough time finding a common theme.

After a couple of lean years, business model variations are exploding.

Some are aggregating well-targeted audiences for advertisers to reach, while others are chasing the highest possible volume of eyeballs. Some are focused on selling content, while others devise advertising “solutions.” Some use their publications as lead generation for a pyramid of goods and services, while others create communities.  And some still simply sell magazines.

Without joining the tortured—and mostly pointless—musings of what a magazine is and is not, audience developers and consumer marketers really ought to stop and take stock of what it is that they are selling—and against what competition.

To be sure, we’ve always known that we’re competing against television, newspapers, Web sites and other mainstream content providers. But when the offerings and platforms start to multiply, the competitive set expands too.

Increasingly, our newsstand copies find themselves competing with gum packs and water bottles—for share of wallet and share of retail space. And the oft-reviled verified copies no longer only compete with each other; they are getting crushed by smart phones and text messaging.

Peter Drucker, the father of modern management, famously wrote: “Because the purpose of any business is to create a customer, the business has two—and only two—basic functions: innovation and marketing. Marketing and Innovation produce results, all the rest are costs.”

This provocative viewpoint ought to make marketers feel good about themselves, especially as direct-to-consumer marketing slowly continues to acquire luster. But it’s not the entire story. As the industry continues to fragment through various reinvention attempts, there’s a risk that customers too will be a touch disoriented about what to expect from magazine media.

Until recently, the transactions, and resulting relationships, were as clear as those of ordering a Happy Meal. A customer places an order, receives a magazine within a few weeks, and then decides about renewal a year later.

That straightforward relationship is no longer a given and customers can’t be quite sure of what it is that’s being offered to them. X issues of a pub? The joining of a community? Cash for convenience on something I could get for free?

Absent a uniform, predictable relationship, deciding to enter a “commercial relationship” with media providers takes a little more deliberation—and that definitely hurts demand.

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Patrick Hainault By Patrick Hainault -- Patrick Hainault is consumer marketing director at Mansueto Ventures, publisher of Inc. and Fast Company.

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