City and regional magazine publishers continue to be nimble and optimistic in an atmosphere that remains anxious about the future of print advertising.
A survey conducted by Folio: last year illustrated these publishers’ skillful approach to revenue diversification: nearly two-thirds of respondents expressed concern over vulnerability to declining print advertising, yet 92 percent were confident about business growth.
Why? Business growth among city and regional publishers has evolved in many ways, encompassing digital and social marketing (for those with the requisite online traffic), events, and even retail. Possibly most significant, however, is growth in the form of ancillary print publications or custom publishing for clients.
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When opportunity knocks…
When SagaCity Media Inc., based in Portland, Oregon, began publishing Portland Monthly 13 years ago, it set off a domino effect of sorts.
“We discovered that there were a lot of people in Seattle that loved what we were doing in Portland and wanted us to bring the same type of city magazine to the Seattle market. So, in quick order—about a year and a half later—we started Seattle Met,” says Jeff Adams, vice president of custom media at SagaCity. “We started pretty soon after that with our first customer, which was Travel Portland.”
SagaCity continues to service Travel Portland, a private non-profit destination marketing organization, highlighting the company’s vested interest in tourism publishing. Additional custom work includes the Asheville, North Carolina visitor guide, a program for the Houston Ballet, a Houston visitor guide, and smaller consumer magazines, such as Jewish in Seattle.
“It originally started with the entree of the city magazines that we do, they really resonate, have smart content, great design, and people are attracted to the magazine,” says Adams, who has overseen the company;s custom media division since 2009. “That was really our opening salvo in going after custom clients. You could almost see the light bulb go off with people when they realized, ‘Oh, I can have my own version of Seattle Met for my destination or my industry,’ and with the same smart content just focused on their destination.”
SagaCity saw the opportunity and seized it. The reputation and authority that city and regional publications still command among readers elevates publishers to capitalize on custom products outside of the magazine. While SagaCity publishes four city titles (totaling a readership of more than 1.3 million), four regional mountain titles and five wedding magazines, custom publishing accounts for roughly 25 to 30 percent of the company’s business, according to Adams.
Based on a publisher’s size and existing output, custom publishing may be absorbed into existing staff or managed by a separate team. Adams suggests that part of their success comes from having a dedicated team of 18 staffers across all four markets.
“Visit Seattle is one of our long-term clients; we produce about seven different pieces of a print for them as well as digital content. There’s just no way that someone could understand the needs of the client and be able to execute on [those needs] while they’re also doing 12 monthly magazines,” says Adams.
Unlike SagaCity, Missouri Life is a statewide, award-winning magazine that publishes eight issues annually and is owned by a small, independent Midwest magazine publisher. But custom publishing has become a profitable endeavor for this company, as well.
Danita Allen Wood and her husband Greg have published the magazine since it launched in 1999, and today it boasts an average readership of 130,000 per issue.
“Clients started coming to us initially looking for different things that maybe they might see us do in the magazine and said, ‘Hey, we’d like a little brochure or something,’” says Allen Wood. Different towns approached the publisher to create promotional pieces on community tourism or economic development in a storytelling format.
“The more we can build our relationships with our clients by serving their needs, it makes us a better partner to work with,” she says. “And we are happy to oblige.”
Initially custom publishing evolved because clients came knocking and there was excess staff capacity at the magazine, adding to the potential revenue gained from custom work. Allen Wood notes that on occasion, however, they will outsource to a network of freelance writers, photographers, and editors, but the oversight remains with the full-time staff.
Missouri Life works with the state government on tourism projects, created a 416-page book for the Missouri Parks Association, and produced a special annual publication for the Missouri State Guard. On average, they produce two to three projects each quarter.
“In every case, the revenue helps us. While we have been uneven with custom revenue over the years, it always helps,” says Allen Wood. She estimates that custom publishing revenue accounts for about 8.5 percent of the company’s overall revenue.
Like all publishers seeing the benefits of custom publishing, Allen Wood is marking up services. This, however, is still a value to a client who cannot produce their own content as well as a publisher can—that comes at a premium.
“Our customers know we do good storytelling on the page, and we have a good reputation in the print world, and they know that we know how to best combine words and pictures to tell stories,” she says.
Your value proposition is you.
Much like Missouri Life and SagaCity, Los Angeles magazine, a subsidiary of Detroit-based Hour Media, grew a custom publishing business out of the magazine’s existing reputation.
“While Los Angeles Magazine has been in business for nearly 60 years, the custom publishing division has seen its biggest growth the past five years,” says Mitch Getz, content solutions director at Los Angeles. “I see brands and businesses really value authentic content and with our publishing experience. We can help them tell their story in a meaningful and impactful way.”
According to Getz, they are creating content for a variety of industries: destination marketing organizations, cultural venues, universities, and luxury retailers.
“Clients have requested our services based on reputation, but I also aim to showcase our custom publishing capabilities with every marketer I meet,” says Getz. “Maybe they don’t have enough internal resources to create a publication by themselves or maybe they value collaborating with our content experts.”
Los Angeles, with an average circulation of 120,000, will also leverage its existing title to partner with clients in custom publishing, print and digital advertising, as well as experiential opportunities such as events. That means finding the right partners, which Getz places importance on.
“One challenge is to focus on the right clients that align with our brand and that are financially sustainable,” he says. “My goal is to build long-term partnerships within the region by delivering the very best in custom content.”
Adams and Allen Wood would agree, while clients may flock to the magazine brand for assistance, the work must make sense from a profitability standpoint.
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Establish critical partners.
Managing the profit margin of a custom publishing project often includes evaluating a client’s print needs, but now your printing partners can offer more services than you might expect.
Take, for example, Publication Printers Corp., in Denver, which prides itself on working with publishers on ancillary and custom work.
“A printer can’t just be a printer anymore,” says Kerri Ann Rosenberg-Hallet, director of marketing. “We are now a true partner with our publishers—helping them in areas far beyond printing, such as growing their readership, improving the digital side of their business and helping them discover new sources of revenue.”
Those resources come in the form of printing, distribution, and even social media services. Of course, they are mindful to leave the publishing work to the experts, therefore Rosenberg-Hallet promotes Publication Printer’s strengths in the manufacturing of the product and facilitating its delivery.
“Design is a critical part of a magazine’s brand and needs to match the personality of the publisher as much as the publication. For that reason. we don’t offer design services and focus on the printing and distribution of the publication.”
An unintended outcome of working with a printer who understands a publisher’s needs is that they can often be the conduit between a publisher and a client.
“We like to take the opportunity to partner with publishers who are doing their own thing well and can offer their services and strategies to other publishers,” says Rosenberg-Hallet. “In an effort to keep print strong and relevant, publishers are more willing to share information to help one another.”
Regardless of whether publishers are seeking the business or it’s falling in their laps, opportunities will continue to grow as city and regional magazines continue to produce their own quality products and showcase them as calling cards.
“In a time when some are wondering about the value of print and maybe having some struggles with print publications, we have not seen that at all, especially with our visitor guides. Really, across the board, we’ve been fortunate,” says Adams. “I think the future is very positive. I think there’s a lot of opportunity out there. The buzzword, of course, is ‘custom content’ and that can take many different forms, whether it be print piece or digital, or who knows what else it could be, but I think it’s very positive.”