You Survived 2009/2010. Now What?
A seven-step post-recession check-up for publishers.
Do you feel as though you have spent the last three years locked in hand-to-hand combat, fighting a never-ending war? Join the club. Since the Great Recession hit in 2008, magazine publishing has often seemed like a non-stop battle, with hard-won gains on some fronts and bitter defeats on others.
But now that the worst is over, publishers must shift out of survival mode and position their operations for growth. As in the aftermath of combat, it is time to bury the dead, patch up the wounded and rally your best troops to fight and win the next battle.
Follow the steps outlined here to give your publishing operation a check up and prepare to exploit a more favorable economy.
STEP 1: Understand Where Your Growth Potential Lies
Start by charting your revenue streams by product and type over the last three to five years. Amid the lines of business trending down, look for categories that are rising or at least stable. (As one publisher recently cracked, "Flat is the new up.")
But revenue is just one dimension of the picture. Another important metric to review is contribution to overhead (revenues minus direct costs). Review your revenue streams by contribution to see where rising costs are eroding (or erasing) gross profits. This will also pinpoint areas where you have been investing money to promote growth, but the payoff has yet to materialize.
These two charts will tell you where to focus your energy: properties that have stable or growing sales that are also generating cash to cover overhead. Lines of business with declining sales and declining contribution, despite your best cost-cutting efforts, sap energy and resources. Resolve to stop kicking these dead horses.
STEP 2: Refresh Your Competitive Set
If you haven't reviewed the lineup of competitors in your space lately, now is the time. In most markets, the cast of characters today is very different than it was two to three years ago. Thanks to the recession, print magazines that were already stressed by the dot-com crash and competition from the Internet have disappeared by the hundreds. Magazine database MediaFinder.com reported that 596 magazines closed in 2009, and another 176 folded in 2010. More than a few Internet start-ups have come and gone, too.
It's important to look beyond other print publications when you survey the competition. So continue your publishing check-up by creating two lists, one of your advertising competitors and another of competitive content providers. Limit your list to your most significant competitors as measured by ad dollars or circulation.
Don't rely on a strictly internal view of the competition; survey your customers. Ask a small group of advertisers, including prospects as well as current buyers, what they consider your publication's strengths and weaknesses versus the competition.
A shortcut to this analysis is to ask your sales reps what objections they hear most often. On the reader version of your competitive list, survey your audience and find out where they go for information besides your publication or Web site.
With a fresh view of your competitive landscape, you can update the steps you've been taking that may no longer be necessary. At Briefings Media Group, we woke up one day last fall to discover that PWC Magazine, the primary competitor of American Painting Contractor, our magazine for residential painters, had re-branded themselves and abandoned the market to focus on commercial coating specifiers. Suddenly we had to reevaluate all the strategies we developed to take market share from PWC.
STEP 3: Plot Competitive Moves
The next step in the check up is to plan your response to competitive threats. How are your content and advertising competitors stealing your readers and taking ad dollars out of your pocket? And what do you intend to do about it?
Has an upstart website become the go-to news source in your niche? Did your magazine's editor quit and start a popular blog? Take these competitors seriously, especially if your advertiser and reader surveys indicate that you are losing share to them.
But don't limit yourself to copycat moves. Analyze your advantages and plot a course that leverages those strengths. It's also better to focus on one strategy you can execute well rather than spreading yourself thin across multiple initiatives, none of which succeeds.
STEP 4: Evaluate Your Core Product
Now that you have drafted a competitive overview and strategy, it's time to focus on your core product. For most publishers, that means their print magazine. You have probably gone through several rounds of cost-cutting in the face of lower revenues, cutting page counts, changing paper stock and juggling the editorial lineup-all in order to survive. The question is: how does your editorial product measure up today in the eyes of readers and advertisers?
Paid circulation magazines can look to subscriber renewal rates to judge how readers feel about product changes. Newsstand sell-through data can also be helpful, although turmoil in that distribution channel in recent years also clouds the picture.
Whatever yardstick you use, reinvest in those features and departments that are (or were) popular with readers. This is also the time to freshen up your design, especially if you haven't updated the magazine's look in three years or more.
On the advertising front, how does your publication measure up against the competition as a marketing tool? Is your CPM competitive? Do you have a compelling positioning story, or are you losing pages to competitors because you have allowed the quality of your audit statement to slip? Focus on what matters most to your advertisers, especially the ones who have left for the competition, and lay out a plan to recapture what you've lost.
STEP 5: Evaluate Your Staff
When it comes to your people, the hard truth is this: The same team that got you through the recession may not have the skills or experience to navigate the new publishing landscape.
In editorial, a solid print editor who isn't adept at blogging may not be the person to lead your content team. More than ever, editors are the face of your publication online and in print. You need the most versatile and credible person you can find in that crucial role.
In advertising, no publisher can afford to rely on one-dimensional salespeople who sell print but don't (or won't) promote integrated media packages. Few advertisers settle for a print-only marketing solution, so make sure you have people on the front line who have the know-how to assemble a complete package.
Meanwhile, when it comes to circulation, most publishers have renamed the function entirely, rightly calling it audience development. The mandate is clear: These marketers need to know how to build audiences with traditional methods as well as with web sites, search engine marketing, social media and other non-traditional methods.
In short, you need talent in every department with 21st century skills and old-fashioned energy. Management has an obligation to train up staffers who have the ability and motivation to grow. Where either is lacking, you owe it to yourself and your organization to make a change.
STEP 6: Consider Surrounding Your Audience with Your Brand
The clearest path to success lies in becoming the "go-to" resource for your audience, also known as the "surround" strategy. Wherever they turn in search of information, your brand is there. And when your audience relies on you for information, advertisers will follow.
Does that mean you should develop a digital version of your magazine for the iPad? Only if you can justify the expense and the opportunity cost of chasing this latest publishing trend while forgoing other, more conventional brand extensions that have a clearer path to profitability. Launching an event or custom webinars may seem pedestrian compared to building an "app," but the risk is smaller and the odds of success much higher.
STEP 7: Consider Partnerships
Publishers seeking avenues for growth owe it to themselves to explore partnering with key players in their markets. Last year, the database publishing division of Briefings Media Group crafted a successful partnership with the Hospitality Sales & Marketing Association International (HSMAI). We had developed MeetingPlannerLists.com, a new website where hotel sales and marketing executives can build custom lists of meeting and event planners. HSMAI brought two attractive ingredients to the table: their list of attendees from their Affordable Meetings shows who could be added to the MeetingPlannerLists.com database, and their members-the target audience for the website. The co-branded version of the site launched in May and sales jumped, resulting in healthier revenues for Briefings and a significant new source of income for HSMAI.
So make this the final step in your publishing operation's check up: identify the organizations that operate in your markets and represent a significant number of your customers-either readers, advertisers or both. Open a dialogue with the group that is the least likely to view you as a competitive threat, and brainstorm ways to team up.
Conduct this seven-step check up and you will come away with a clear battle plan for growth. Success is far from assured, but your odds of winning the war will be much, much higher.
Frank Finn is Executive Vice President & COO of Briefings Media Group, LLC, a publishing and training business headquartered in Richmond, Va.