Magazine Media: Knockdown or Fixer Upper?
To keep the print house standing, publishers need to emphasize consumer trust, accountability, and a willingness to experiment.
Anyone who has ever purchased an historic or older home understands that repairs are part of the bargain. The question, of course, is at what point does that investment turn from something valuable to a money pit where the best course is to start from scratch?
When I returned to my current role, it was a question that a lot of people were asking. Fortunately, I wasn’t alone, since most of my peers in the magazine-media industry have been asking the same question for the past decade or even longer.
Of course, nothing fuels this debate more than the incessant noise (like a toilet that seems to keep running), that “print is dead.”
In my situation, I looked around our “house” and realized that certain rooms needed some work and others a lot of work, but at our core we had a strong foundation. In our case it was our trusted brands, content, and loyal consumer audiences. I also found out very quickly that print isn’t dead, and, in fact, is still a vital part of the industry.
So exactly how did the industry get to the point where we were viewed as ready for the wrecking ball?
Certainly, the era when we were creating magazines that put consumer audiences last in the business plan didn’t help us. It wasn’t that long ago that magazines were being launched to address the new market craze of the day. I’ve lost count of how many “tech” or “finance” or “fashion” magazines were being launched or considered solely to serve marketers. Unfortunately, we put marketers ahead of consumers, which ultimately doesn’t serve either audience.
Combine this short-term thinking with a massive consolidation in magazine distribution channels and retail outlets, along with publishers who seemed willing to give away their subscriptions simply to maintain an overinflated rate base, and it was recipe for disaster.
Throw in a fear of fully embracing the emergence of digital-first media, and it’s a miracle that the magazine-media house is still standing.
So exactly how did we survive, and what do we need to do to ensure that our house is still around in the next century?
First, we can’t go back to the days of putting “markets” over content. We need to live in a content, consumer-first world, and we need to invest in new technologies that get that content to our brand-loyal audiences. It also means that the people creating this content have to be able to embrace new technologies as an opportunity to further deepen their brand’s relationship and conversation with their audiences, and not view it as a threat.
Second, we must value great, trusted content and be willing to test new products, including print products, experiential events, and digital-only media that serve our brand audiences. We are living in the experience economy, and consumers — especially millennials — are willing to pay for products or experiences that have value.
Netflix and Amazon discovered that adding original programming to their lineups not only enhanced the consumer experience, but has actually driven customer usage and adoption. We need to learn from them and adapt their approach to our industry.
Interestingly, many magazine-media companies are seeing the same response with what used to be called “special interest” media publications sold on the newsstand. These titles are driven by consumers who are passionate about everything from slow cooker recipes to DIY “hacks” for the new renter or homeowner. These customers are willing to pay premium prices for content that enhances their life experience.
Third, we must focus on accountability. Whether it’s making our employees accountable for their brand’s performance across media channels or proving the value to marketers of engaging with our consumers, measuring what matters has never been more important.
Marketers are pushing publishers to demonstrate consumer engagement metrics, and the most agile publishers are responding by maximizing the consumer engagement with their brands on all platforms, not with tricks or “fake news,” but with best-in-class content. Ironically, the old rule that consumers captivated by well-produced content will also find value in the marketing messages that go along with that content is once again driving revenue for the industry.
Finally, we have to empower our content creators by encouraging them to try new ideas for their consumers across platforms. The best ideas will emerge when they come from across the enterprise and not simply from the top on down.
I was incredibly energized recently when a group of our millennial employees from various parts of the company formed their own working group with the desire to help our business grow with new and existing audiences. Nobody told them to form that group, and the energy and ideas they are bringing to our organization is exciting.
If our industry is going to survive and thrive, we can’t be afraid of what we might find by trying new ideas and ways of doing things. It’s a bit like pulling up an old carpet and discovering a beautiful hardwood floor that just needs a bit of polishing and staining.