CHICAGO-Association magazines should move "far away from the box" and go beyond "new and improved" to create something never done before, said journalist and bestselling author John Littman during a keynote speech today at the Society of National Association Publishers conference in Chicago. To accomplish this, Littman says, magazines need to tell their "devil’s advocate" to take a nap and start taking more risks.
But for many of today’s attendees, the devil’s advocates in their organizations are the people who hold final decision-making power. "We have the ideas," said one audience member, "but upper management won’t put the money behind it."
"It’s fear of change," said another attendee. "Fear of upsetting existing revenue streams." Others cited lack of staff and resources, as well as impatience-publishers aren’t willing to wait to see if a new concept will pan out.
Littman offered a few suggestions for getting a green light from this "ferocious devil’s advocate": First, create a lower-risk prototype. For example, instead of taking a chance on changing the entire magazine start by pitching a new one-page section or a quarterly insert. Second, make brainstorming a regular, ongoing process. Have several informal sessions a week, both individually and in small groups, to come up with ideas. Monthly meetings are not enough, he says. True innovation takes cross-training and practice.
Littman suggested also that team members-from executives to managers and staff-need to take on various roles. What he calls the "anthropologist" is a staffer who needs to get out of the office to study human behavior from a coffee shop or some other public space. The "cross-pollinator" needs to explore other industries and cultures. Cover ideas can come from movie posters, for example, he said.
Another key persona, according to this theory developed and outlined with Tom Kelley in their book The Ten Faces of Innovation, is "the collaborator," who works with various people and groups. Littman suggests taking a lesson from the book industry, where ghost writers work for experts or high-profile figures in a particular field of interest. Writers for an association magazine can be people with various interests, experiences and professions, as long as talented editors are on-hand to work with the written prose.
Magazines need to have attitude and personality, he says. Association publishers should keep all kinds of magazines and books around the office, particularly ones that take risks and push boundaries. He held up as examples Vanity Fair‘s Green Issue and, from a smaller publisher, Ode magazine.