Publishers are back to exploring new areas for growth as they face non-stop challenges emerging from a pressured print market and increasingly inventive digital competitors.
The new initiatives don't always materialize as new launches or products, however. They can be major enhancements to existing brands. Here, we profile new strategic directions from nine publishers.
Remedy Health Media Gets Emotional
In the world of consumer health publishing, content often takes a clinical approach to readers. Remedy Health Media specializes in this kind of content-particularly where it's able to better connect doctors with their patients.
But the company recently expanded its content into what it's calling "emotional storytelling." Remedy still has its print publications and point-of-care content products, but it's betting that by creating a connection with readers through its content, Remedy will help drive more consumers to doctors.
"The research shows that the patient is more apt to take a desired action," says Jim Curtis, CRO of Remedy Health Media. "We're skewing our content to be from real patients and real doctors."
Curtis explains that this content approach is not being used by Remedy's competitive set, which includes the likes of WebMD. The story-telling approach differentiates Remedy's product.
The company is also taking a multimedia approach to these stories, which tend to be longer form and incorporate interactive features. Lastly, data plays a key role as well.
Remedy has produced six of these kinds of features and, based on advertiser feedback, plans to double that next year. Each story is sold exclusively to an advertiser—the content targets a specific health condition and is only marketed to that reader segment. Curtis says revenue attached to these products has increased 300 percent year-over-year, and expects it to do the same in 2015. "The most amazing part is when a drug manufacturer advertises a specific drug in it, the readers are three times more likely to go to a doctor and request it," says Curtis.
Bisnow Puts a B2B Spin on Consumer-Based New Media
B2B media companies sometimes look to their consumer cousins for strategic inspiration. And on the digital-only side, there are plenty of consumer and business-leaning publishers advancing content and advertising models. Bisnow, a media company targeting commercial real estate executives, has relaunched its site with functionality like, well, all of them.
But this isn't just shiny object chasing by an over-reaching trade publisher. The new, responsive, Bisnow.com has explanatory news as done by the likes of Vox, listicles like Buzzfeed's, navigational simplicity like Business Insider and, soon to emerge from beta, contextual commerce as pioneered by Thrillist.
"We wanted to build a site for the B2B world that's as easy to use as consumer sites like SB Nation or The Verge," says Bisnow CEO Ryan Begelman. "We not only reinvented our technology, but the UI and the way we do journalism and handle content."
Bisnow's roots are in email newsletters and events, two platforms the company is still very much involved in, but Begelman wanted a more robust destination on the Web that inspired content sharing and engagement and offered new sponsorship opportunities for advertisers.
"The new site creates a platform for ideas that we couldn't have executed before," he says. "We'll keep doing events, but we'll get into online education, for example."
All the new features converge on one goal—easy, but in-depth. Just as Bisnow has historically used irreverence to punch up its B2B content, the site now offers bite-sized content that still tries to inform.
And since Bisnow produces about 250 events per year in niche real estate markets, serving upwards of 60,000 attendees, building an easier ticket-buying experience was a big priority.
I-5 Takes the Web-to-Print Path
Special interest publisher I-5 Publishing is launching print versions of its Catster and Dogster digital properties. The two sites were acquired from Say Media in July in a deal that foreshadowed Say Media's planned exit from the content business.
Dogster and Catster magazines will launch as bimonthlies in February and March 2015, respectively. Both started out as websites 10 years ago.
The publisher is betting big that the digital and social roots that Dogster and Catster have put down over the last 10 years out-weigh the brand equity of the much older print brands Cat Fancy and Dog Fancy.
Concurrently, Cat Fancy and Dog Fancy—monthlies on the eve of their 50th and 45th anniversaries—will be shuttered and existing subscribers will be transitioned to the new titles. The Fancy titles were acquired by I-5 in early 2013.
According to I-5, the launch-year circulation goal for Dogster and Catster is 200,000. Annual subscriptions are $19.95.
The company is projecting 58 ad pages in Catster and 77 in Dogster. Both will be perfect bound and on heavier stock.
I-5's shift in focus to the newer brands takes advantage of their digital legacy and a younger audience-you'd have to be living under a rock not to notice the proliferation of dog and cat-related animated gifs, Instagram selfies and YouTube videos.
"The [Fancy titles] were created before any of that," says Kim Huey-Steiner, I-5 Publishing's chief sales officer. "That audience is more interested in longer-form content. Those magazines didn't have sources of information on the web in the same way and were not designed to meet the content need of pet enthusiast now. We feel that the tone, content and frequency of the new titles are a better fit for the contemporary pet owner and how they consume their pet-related information."
Hearst Business Media Makes Innovation a Part of Its DNA
The Hearst conglomerate's glossy magazines, historic newspapers and flashy TV projects get most of the attention, but its B2B media division has stood out where it matters most: the bottom line.
Hearst Business Media is one of only a few legacy publishers that's been able to thrive despite the industry's advertising malaise. The company has posted a 27.5 percent compound annual growth rate over the last decade, pivoting away from ad-based products and toward subscription-driven revenue, under CEO Richard Malloch.
"That comes with hurdles though," he says. "As you get bigger and bigger, the question becomes how to continue to grow this business. How do you get yourself into a position where year after year you're generating $75 to $100 million in new profits?"
Admittedly, it's a nice problem to have. A high-bar is a still challenge though, and at that type of scale one magic bullet won't make the type of impact they're looking for, so Malloch has approached the need to innovate in a few ways.
Borrowing product development strategies from some of the leading consumer tech companies, he's challenging his managers to generate 30 percent year-over-year growth from new revenue streams. Externally, the group hasn't shied away from acquisition opportunities—two recent purchases in its healthcare division, MCG and Homecare Homebase, have outperformed expectations. An existing customer base with renewal rates reaching 95 percent give the company a solid foundation to build on.
In a media environment that's steadily moving away from advertising and toward diversification, especially through reader revenue, Hearst Business Media finds itself a step ahead.
New York Doubles Down On Its Niches
A big bet doesn't have to be something radical. It doesn't have to be out of the box. It doesn't even have to be new.
In New York's case, it just means doubling down on the stuff that's already working.
The brand has launched a series of niche verticals over the last four years—Vulture, The Cut, Daily Intelligencer, Grub Street and Science of Us—aimed at building out dedicated operations for a few of its most resonant categories.
Now, it's about building on those established bases, says Larry Burstein, New York's publisher.
"We're going to expand them out further by building the audience and introducing new ad units and experiences," he says.
The audiences are growing at a rapid clip already for Vulture and The Cut—unique visitors to those sites are up 53 and 38 percent year-over-year, respectively, according to Burstein—while new ad offerings like pop-up blogs—custom editorial projects underwritten by a single sponsor—and ad units that'll be unveiled early next year are seeing buy-in already.
Similarly, New York is looking to maximize revenue potential from its four annual events. The Vulture Festival, which launched this spring, drew more than 35,000 spectators to New York's Milk Studios.
"Every day someone around here comes up with an idea for a new vertical, and we sit and talk about them all the time," Burstein says, "but our feeling right now is that we're just going to consolidate our strength in these areas that are doing so well."
Texas Monthly Balances Its Present and Future
Texas Monthly is one of a growing group of city and regional magazines that occupy a unique space between their community and a much larger stage. Local staples like best restaurant and favorite places issues are interspersed with heady features on politics and culture that become part of the national conversation.
They've ultimately been bound by geography and demography though. Monetizing that broadening reach has proven difficult.
"Through print, we've always had this fabulous position where we've owned the wealthy Texan," says Amy Updergrove, publisher of Texas Monthly. "But it's also served as a restraint."
Print has been stable—Updergrove says readership and ad revenue have stayed consistent in recent years-so they've turned to digital growth. Revenues from an expanding set of digital products is climbing 20 percent year-over- year as a result.
Notably, it's been able to go deeper into specific verticals, while breaking out from the "golden handcuffs" of the traditional Texas Monthly audience. Updergrove points to the group's new BBQ brand. It's a collection of barbeque content from the magazine and site, including their annual Top 50 best barbeque restaurant list, coupled with a "Joint Finder" app that complies reviews, social media and other info on barbeque restaurants around the country.
"We're not just going down to a food level, but we're going all the way down to barbeque," she says. "It's not just a Texas product, so you can access it when you're in Kentucky, for example, and find info on barbeque there. That's allowed us to go after a whole new slot of revenue in a new way that we were never able to. That's grown really rapidly for us and we're betting it's going to continue in the upcoming year."
Coupled with experiential components—the annual TMBBQ Fest, now in its fifth year, sells more than 4,000 tickets at premium pricing levels—Texas Monthly is striking a balance between its community and its future.
High Times: Riding a Wave of Reformation
When High Times launched in 1974 its content and advocacy mission wasn't all that different from today. Of course, today, marijuana legislation has repositioned the brand as an established and legitimate voice of the reform movement.
In the wake of all the rapid changes circling around marijuana reform—discourse, policy, economics and perceptions—High Times has had to play a little bit of catch up. In this case that isn't a bad thing. More advertisers are looking to align themselves with the brand. So much so, that a typical issue runs 60-70 ad pages.
"We increased our book size when everyone else is decreasing," publisher Mary McEvoy says. "We are referring to ourselves as a 40-year-old startup, and have been asking how we capitalize on all this because we could explode in the next few years and may not even be able to recognize ourselves. That's kind of scary, but we have to stay true to ourselves and not try to be everything to everybody."
As more states continue to change or soften their laws—in some cases totally legalizing what is federally considered a Schedule 1 Narcotic—High Times stands to benefit. Which is why leveraging its community is its big bet for 2015.
McEvoy admits that she and her team are looking into a lot of different opportunities—films, books better digital products—but live events will be a no brainer as the brand looks to grow.
"We started an events division and each year has gotten bigger." McEvoy says. "This year we did six and next year it will be eight. We want to expand the experience of the brand."
Howler to Make a Play Towards Digital
Two years ago, Howler closed its Kickstarter campaign after raising $69,001 and today it's still making good on its promise to its 1,441 investors.
The print-quarterly about soccer has built its brand from the bottom up, and is now starting to hit its stride—without a marketing budget and with a muted digital strategy. It has capitalized on the loyalty of the soccer fans it serves, which is a culture renowned for its allegiance.
Still, Howler is a for-profit business and its founder George Quraishi admits the brand has a lot of work to do. "It almost feels like we lucked into the fact that we're a solvent business and have been able to stay in the black without any additional investments," he says. "Next year we will have to shift our strategy a little bit when it comes to digital, because right now about 95 percent of our revenue is coming in through the magazine."
Nevertheless, Quraishi isn't concerned about the brand's glaring weakness because of the strength of its audience. "We have built an audience that likes what we do and we are on our way to building a big enough presence online to make the jump," he says. "If they like what we do in the magazine they will like what we do online."
While soccer maybe a small sliver of the professional sports world in the U.S., it's still big business. But Quraishi doesn't believe he needs to get every fan's attention. "For arguments' sake, say 10 percent of soccer fans would be interested in Howler; that's great," he says. "We are a niche product and aren't dependent on millions of people buying our product."
A SFW Playboy
Playboy celebrated its 60th anniversary at the beginning of 2014, but rather than patting itself on the back for a good run, instead it strategized how to reimagine the brand for the next 60 years.
Few can argue that Playboy isn't an iconic brand. But Playboy faces a di- lemma not uncommon to other legacy magazine brands. That is, a perception that those rooted in print may not be hitting the right notes for today's always-on, always-connected consumer. Chief revenue officer Matt Mastrangelo rejects that notion and implies that Playboy can still compete. "Over the past year we have focused on turning what has been a perceived weakness into a real positive," he says. "We understand that what we do in print does not necessarily translate to what we do in digital media. That being said, we have invested in the magazine significantly to ensure that we deliver the best editorial product and an immersive experience."
The numbers back up Mastrangelo's ambition. Playboy's social following is one of the biggest of any magazine publisher, with more than 16 million followers on Facebook alone. What's more, its recently launched website has grown traffic by 60 percent and is attracting more than 3 million unique visitors a month (desktop and mobile combined), according to Magazine Media 360.
The relaunched site is what Mastrangelo points to as its biggest bet for next year. The new Playboy.com is safe for work, so safe that Robin Zucker, senior vice president of digital media says her grade-school age kids can visit. Mastrangelo calls it a springboard into new endeavors and new revenue streams like licensing and e-commerce.