New York—The MPA held its annual flagship event this week, with a key difference. The former American Magazine Conference was rebranded as the American Magazine Media 360 Conference. The name change reflects the MPA's new mission to spotlight the evolution of magazine publishers to multiplatform media companies. But at the event itself, which acknowledged the boundary-pushing happening with content distribution, marketing and digital strategies, print's position in the mix was not as unified across publisher presenters.
Event organizers estimated attendance around 500, up from the 300 and change in 2014, with the venue back to the familiar Marriott Grand Marquis.
The theme this year was "What's Next," both an acknowledgement of the shifting market dynamics and a look at where executives from the big consumer publishers were placing their bets.
In her opening remarks Monday, MPA president and chief executive officer Mary Berner continued the drumbeat she began when she took the helm at the association two years ago—a drumbeat that, in hindsight, has gained traction.
"I was frustrated, I was pissed, I was angry, call it what you will—not simply because the doom and gloom narrative was wrong, but because we were feeding that narrative," she said. "Our inability to measure and communicate what I and my industry colleagues knew to be true about the accurate state of magazine media created a vacuum filled by partial facts which, in the absence of anything else, were used to define our industry."
Consumer demand for content, Berner added, is "the critical indicator of vitality for any media brand."
That consumer demand has since been collected into MPA's Magazine Media 360 measurement report, launched in September 2014. The report, said Berner, tames the once "mish-mash of disparate measurements" and shows an industry on the rise.
Next for Berner and the MPA, however, is an evolution of the term "magazine."
"Magazines are magazine media," said Berner, adding "the operative word here is 'media,' reflecting the shift from magazines, which historically almost always refers to the print format of what we do, to magazine media."
At the event itself, general sessions zeroed in on marketing to the younger generation ("What's Next from the Millennial Mind"), content distribution, video and advertising.
Tuesday's programming featured a session on viral marketing where Wharton School professor and author Jonah Berger equated social media to the original word of mouth marketing and espoused the value of "secrecy" in marketing to draw more interest.
Before lunch, breakout sessions went from macro to micro with closer looks at technology, native advertising and digital metrics, among others. GfK MRI and Comscore spoke about the future of digital metrics, a topic on the minds of many publishers. The companies are in the process of merging efforts to allow publishers to get a more comprehensive picture of their total audience, especially on mobile platforms.
Similarly, a presentation by Acxiom and Hearst Magazines VP of strategy and marketing operations Charles Swift looked at how publishers can marry offline demographics to online visitors.
"How do we begin to stitch together all this big data and information?" asked Swift. "Customers interestingly are becoming harder to find because they're on different devices and all the information is mixed up. We need to get it and put it all back together again."
To do that, Swift said Hearst is moving all of its data into the cloud, where a mass of messy, yet-to-be connected data is not necessarily a bad thing. The implication is the structure of a unified database can be limiting. "In a traditional database, you had to solve [the mixed up data],” he said. “Now, we can keep it messy [in the cloud] and continue to build those connections as we go."
In "What Are the Next Fashion Statements," a panel of fashion magazine editors highlighted their planned strategies for ecommerce extensions. InStyle's Ariel Foxman said they'll explore more retail partnerships to "move consumers to retail and services."
Meanwhile, Amy Astley, editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue, brought the conversation back to print: "All of our cache and the bulk of our revenue come from our print product. You cannot underestimate the vital importance of the print magazine. It's the heart and soul of the brand."
Her comments stuck out in an event that focused so intently on the multiplatform theme. And, perhaps for fashion magazines in particular, cache can be a powerful competitive distinction. "Models and celebrities are not clamoring for the homepage of the website," she said. "They want the cover."
That dynamic played out to an even greater degree in the event's closing panel, which featured Hearst Magazines president David Carey, Meredith chairman and CEO Stephen Lacy, Time Inc. CEO Joseph Ripp, Rodale CEO and chairman Maria Rodale and Robert Sauerberg, president of Condé Nast.
Media columnist and panel moderator Michael Wolff went right for the magazine and media distinction and the answers from the panelists revealed very different outlooks for print.
Carey noted that print is still core and pointed out that digital publishers have been launching print brands—a signal that a varied product mix is still important to marketers.
Sauerberg acknowledged that Condé Nast has work to do yet on the digital front. "We have to get better at digital," he said.
Lacy was more concise: "Magazine media is really a strategy—to understand your consumer well enough and the type of content that enables a consumer to be engaged and take action."
More than the rest perhaps, Ripp seemed ready to let print run its course. “You don’t define yourself by your distribution vehicle and the magazine industry did that for too long,” he said, later adding, “Print will decline, but we need to invest in new things that will offset that. We will plan for that and find new sources of revenue.”