In September 1996, nearly 21 years ago, Folio: published a cover story on the state of custom publishing. The article was organized as a quasi-Q&A, posing 10 questions custom publishers were asking themselves at the dawn of the digital age as their businesses were fracturing. Suddenly alien ideas like HTML — and alien platforms like Compuserve and America Online — were emerging, and print-based media-services firms were worried about the impact on their business.
The article asked several custom-publishing sources to provide answers for each question. The most prominent of those sources was Rex Hammock, owner of an eponymous custom-content agency, and one of the pioneers in a nascent market — using high-quality content in a magazine format as a communications vehicle for marketers. Hammock is also the founder of Rexblog.com, which goes back to the year 2000, and has been consistently and faithfully maintained in all those years — a rare accomplishment by itself, without even considering that it's also been a media-business thought leader all that time.
Recently, Rex suggested to me that we revisit that Q&A, and try to make sense of the questions and answers from the nineties and seek their corrolaries for 2017. The frequently fascinating results follow.
1996: Should custom publishers consider adjusting their media mix?
2017: In 1996, the story focused on website development, not on using the web as just another communications channel. Was that an erroneous framing of the situation?
Rex Hammock: For the context in which the article appeared in 1996, custom publishers had more of a gut-instinct of their opportunities, even though most didn't realize it for many years. Just think, Amazon launched in 1996 and it would be three years until they made their first acquisition, which, by the way, was not a retailer, but a pure-play media platform, IMDB.com. (Shouldn't Billboard have purchased it?)
I felt then (and still do) that marketers and those who serve them should be "agnostic" about custom publishing (or content marketing). By 1996, we had already produced some CD-ROM products and were managing a couple of Compuserve forums for clients. These days, I have to explain that Compuserve was a dial-up online service before the internet had a browser.
So, in 1996, we were already trying to think of other ways to use the internet. We view ourselves as a media business and a creative agency. But we're also a company that must stay abreast of new opportunities and trends; new technologies and usages of data. At the end of the day, technology is a tool; helping support our clients’ efforts to build long-lasting, mutually beneficial relationships with their customers is what we do.
1996: But won’t offering online services fragment your business?
2017: In retrospect, bad question?
Hammock: History's definitely on the side of those who say this was a bad question. But I think I answered it in 1996 the way I would today. The medium must match the role it plays in the life of the reader, listener, viewer, engager. There are no pat answers or solutions. Those who didn't embrace fragmenting their business in 1996 are no longer around.
1996: Can I expect my print clients to look to me for online services?
2017: What does the typical mix of channels and projects look like for your company? Is there still a residual reliance on print? On the client side, are print and digital communications segregated?
Hammock: We have several major digital clients. And we have several print magazines and 70-plus print monthly newsletters. However, at this time we don't have a media brand that is both print and digital. I wish we did, but the reasons are each unique to the client and make sense.
Companies like Hammock Inc. have always been focused on the strategy of using media to develop long and loyal relationships with association members or customers, both B2B and consumer. While I love magazines and feel privileged to have spent most of my life publishing them, my obsession is about the role of media in relationships, not the business model of magazines.
In 1996, I thought marketers would see that IT people could be great engineers, but they aren't marketers who understand the role of content in building long relationships. I made the mistake of thinking it would not take long for marketers to figure out that technology and content were not the goal, but tools. Over the past two decades I have seen people spend massive amounts of money on software and technology that they thought would solve their digital marketing challenge. After all of that investment, they still don't grasp what goes into creating recurring media or how people develop relationships with products.
1996: Will online offerings pull in more print business?
2017: Do agencies like yours even look at things in that way anymore? What channels and methods drive the most revenue in 2017?
Hammock: We describe ourselves as a customer media and marketing content agency. The media and marketing services a company like Hammock provides dwarfs companies that limit themselves to being defined as a content-marketing company. We help clients create branded media that adds value to their products and relationships. We manage several million dollars in ad sales each year. We publish ebook series and event guides that are hundreds of pages long. We sell event space and sponsorships. We oversee the creation of how-to videos for customers or employees. Yes, they are all content. But some of this content is more about operations than marketing. And the business model can be quite a bit different.
Another thing: A short time after that 1996 Folio: cover story, I decided that we would work with clients on a fee basis for the content services we provide, not by marking up printing and paper and other pass-through costs. That was a pretty radical thing to do since we had a client with a magazine that had a circulation of 500,000 and marking up the print and paper was a good deal. But in hindsight, it was a good thing for us to decide to charge a fee for where we brought direct value and not to charge for marking up hard costs. Today, that 500,000-circulation magazine doesn't exist.
1996: What is the initial investment required?
2017: What’s the baseline tech capability needed for a company like yours?
Hammock: Every client we have has in-house capabilities. Most have ad agencies and web development teams and resources for just about everything. The first thing we do with any new or potential client is to explore the capabilities, strengths and needs of their team. We know what our most valuable contributions will be and may have opinions we want to share. But the first thing we want to do is stress collaboration and flexibility.
1996: What kind of technical know-how does my staff need?
2017: Same question. How has it changed from 1996? Also, is comparing the emergence of the internet really analogous to the desktop publishing revolution?
Hammock: We still use the desktop publishing analogy because it's the same evolution we are passing through again. Desktop publishing gave marketers the false impression that using a fill-in-the-blank template can transform an administrative assistant into a graphic designer. It's a bit like thinking if you have cheap table saw, you can make a Windsor chair. Without talent and experience, even great tools can easily cut off a finger. Looking at the questions (and my 1996 answer), there is the recognition that as digital media evolved, the tools used would also evolve. However, the incredible evolution of the web and other internet channels have created the need for dozens of new types of skills, on the business side, and the editorial and creative sides as well.
1996: What steps can I take to prepare for online publishing?
2017: What’s the 2017 version of this question — and how would you answer it?
Hammock: The 2017 version is the same, and here is my answer. In 1996, "custom publishing" was the Rodney Dangerfield of the media landscape in the eyes of the media companies that dominated both the consumer and business-to-business world. I was one of the founders of the Custom Publishing Council of the Magazine Publishers Association (it has a different name today) and we were politely encouraged to spin-off into something. Despite the decade or longer I spent on the board of what became the American Business Media, my first attempt at joining was turned down because Hammock was a custom-publishing company. We were let in the following quarter when I sent them a list of all the members who were engaged in custom publishing. My answer is to focus on the goals of the services you provide and stop trying to define what your company is by its business model.
Today, we are an agency. More specifically, we are a customer media and marketing content agency. Unlike many in the "content marketing" field, we are a full-service agency. We provide everything from video to print magazines. We manage content-rich websites that are updated daily, and ebook series that are distributed monthly. We also help manage social media.
1996: What percent of my business should come from online ventures?
2017: What’s the revenue mix for your company today, or a typical company in your peer set?
Hammock: First, I wish I knew who our peer set is. There are thousands of "content marketing" companies that sound like they do what we do. But if you asked them what their revenue mix is, most would say 100 percent is online services. And more than 50 percent of that group would likely be focused on content that is focused on SEO or lead generation, both of which are fine and necessary and things we do. However, we are still focused on working with clients for the long haul. We're finding it hard to get much above 60 percent in our non-print revenues. However, that's a good thing. It just means there are still a lot of marketers who understand the value of print and the role it plays in the relationship with their customers or members.
1996: How much do I charge to create a website?
2017: How would you answer that same question today?
Hammock: The question is as hard as it ever was to answer. Today, there's little chance for a purely content company to create a corporate website. We focus on developing and supporting an array of content that helps companies teach customers how to use their products. If you want to use analogies to the past, we focus on branded media of all types that add value to the products or services our client provide their customers.
1996: Can custom publishers hope to lure clients away from web developers?
2017: Do you have a web-development business separate and distinct from content creation?
Hammock: We are organized in a team approach that is based on our client's needs rather that our corporate structure. We still use the title "publisher" to designate what others might call "account service." And having 25 years experience in publishing magazines has provided us a comfort level in working with talented creators and developers both in-house and freelance. We've worked with more than 500 such independent partners in the past five years.