27 June 2009

Digital Magazines Are Taking Overr

No more crankyboots

I haven’t posted here for awhile. I was tired of being cranky.
All that “When oh when will publishers see the light?” stuff. And “When oh when will they prepare themselves, their staffs, their partners and their readers for the obvious crossover to digital?” Let’s not forget ”When oh when will they realize that the magazine format doesn’t require paper clothing?” Blah. Blah. Blah.
I know it’s tiresome to read futurist blather about how the magazine industry ought to settle in and really eat its spinach. It’s more tiresome to write that crap.
Then I realized the obvious. It’s not futurist blather. It (and by “it” I mean the arrival of publications as digital media and the vanishing of print) is very here-and-now blather.
As it turns out, loads of trees fell in the forest, and there were plenty of people to hear it. Sadly, most of those people are still in denial about hearing the sound.
I’m glad that’s settled.
So where we go from here?
I don’t know about you; but I’m now going to treat publications as digital, portable media. I know this stance invites an air of “as if” about it all; but I can live with that.
So let me ease in with a blast from the past that has some resonance now. It was written for the Periodical & Book Association of America’s (PBAA)2000 convention program when I was editor of Magazine Retailer. It deals with the mood that enveloped the retail sector when events caused the wholesale distribution system to hit the fan.

“How do you see yourself in five years?”

The Magazine nervously entered the VP’S office for a review of its performance. Droplets of ink dotted The Magazine’s forehead.
The VP asked, “How do you see yourself in five years?”
“I enjoy working with the public,” said The Magazine ‘and I guess I’ll he doing that. Also, I’ve been getting into computers lately. That’s pretty challenging.”
The Magazine gave a halfhearted smile. This felt easy He had been around for a few hundred years and always was able to adapt to social, cultural and technological changes.
The VP smiled, but then started saying things like “unacceptable efficiencies” and “under 40% sales”, and the Magazine wondered how long this examination would take.
“I’m not like any other category,” said The Magazine. “Each issue is a new product. If you cut the draw, you cut the sales. I’m an impulse item. I’m really one of the more profitable categories you’ll ever have the good fortune to know. Good fences make good neighbors. And did I mention that if you cut the draw, you cut the sales?”
“I’m looking for answers, pal” said the VP, “and not conventional wisdom.”
The Magazine sighed. This was one more VP he’d have to train in the art off How Things Really Are.
“These are the eternal truths that everybody must learn,” The Magazine said.
“I’m on your side,” said the VP. “Really I am. But if you’re going to shuffle around, hoping the old days will somehow come hack, we won’t get anywhere.”
The Magazine’s pages rustled. If only it could control that tic.
“I know what they’re saying about you” the VP continued. “You’ve lost a step and yon can’t cope with change. I don’t think that’s true. You’re the product that knows all about change; that flourishes ‘with change; that is an agent of change.”
The Magazine straightened its spine.
The VP added that conventional wisdom is not necessarily wrong. But it must he tested constantly. When the shoreline changes, navigators should get the hint.
Some retailers have learned that when you cut the draw, you don’t significantly cut the sales — but you can increase the sellthrough. And that makes sense. Customers don’t know what the draw is. They only know what they see. Perhaps it’s the display that shouldn’t be cut.
The developing scan-based technology, plus the increasingly shorter reporting cycles is giving all of us a new opportunity. Now we can more deftly pinpoint how many copies of a given magazine should be displayed in a given store — as well as which store should never he entrusted with particular titles.
“I love your impulse thing,” said the VP
“People see me,” The Magazine said, “arid they have to have me and take me home.”
“Except,” the VP, “you’ve got to do more with it.
Yes there’s attention-getting packaging — covers with alluring pictures and enticing words that trigger that nerve ~which connects the eye to the wallet. Find out how to jumpstart that impulse before the customer enters the store and you’ll see greater action.
The Magazine acts as if the job is done once you’re in the store. Other products market directly to the consumers of their products.
“I’m a unique product,” said The Magazine.
“Hey” said the VP, “don’t publishers routine1y market subscriptions directly to consumers? Single copy’ consumer marketing probably will cost less with better results.”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” said ‘The Magazine.
Other products market directly to the public with publicity, contests, events, special offers and premiums. Publicity does wonders, sometimes: Esqnire’s Bill Clinton issue had a 60% selltlthrough, thanks to all the news coverage it got. A well-coordinated special marketing event can work, too. A bunch of travel magazines got together to promote the category in a New York State supermarket chain. Signage and promotion in circulars and prizes (including a trip to Italy) aroused consumers: sales of those travel hooks increased dramatically’.
‘I read about that travel thing in Magazine Retailer” ‘the Magazine said. “I didn’t know it was true.
What’s wrong with letting the public know what date the next issue of their favorite magazine goes on sale? ‘What’s wrong with running a really good ongoing public relations campaign that raises your profile? What’s wrong with looking at your subscription marketing activities and figuring out a way to piggy-hack single copy awareness onto the efforts? And then the VP mentioned the notion of branding to Yhe Magazine.
“Oh yeah,” The Magazine replied, “I have been experimenting with that. And you’re right! Displaying magazines with recognizable names that consumers respect certainly triggers the impulse buy. Names like Martha Stewart, Oprah, Mary Engelbreit. ESPN, Arthur Frommer, certainly do pump up the public’s interest.”
Yes, but more can be done. A speaker telling writers how to market themselves in the 21st Century advised, “If you don’t have a personality; get one.”
Magazines already have personalities. They just have to let the public know it. Making that happen is what branding is all about. Make yourself, the voice, soul and ubiquitous keeper of your niche’s flame. Your market — that pool of prospective readers —may stay constant but your audience will grow.
And speaking of a growing audience, another dirty little matter needs a mention. Allow yourself to stay constantly rabid about one more vital detail — editorial excellence. A title’s brilliance may not always he found in the delivery of fine words and memorable pictures — although they can’t hurt. The key is sharp editorial focus where everybody on staff understands, supports and contributes to the magazines mission. There’s something about a magazine edited really for its readers.
“I have one more thing I want to say about your performance,” said the VP “Yes, those impertinent graph lines generally are staying flat or dipping downward. But a closer examination shows many titles achieving healthy and improved sales. Too many titles showing too much strength to justify the playing of taps for the categorv~ Americans trust you. They turn to you for information, inspiration, ideas and affirmation. Opportunities abound as long as the public knows what promise you hold for them.”
“Okay,” said The Magazine, “Let’s get to work."

29 June ADDENDUM: When posting the above, I should have followed publishing tradition and stated the obvious. While the proposed remedies now feel a bit quaint, the main source of the problem remains constant. Yjr magazine publishng industry, as a whole is a bit averse to inevitable change.

16 January 2009

Route Cause

Knowledge@Wharton has delivered just what we need—one more wakeup call for the publishing industry: And no, don’t reach for the snooze button.

The report, “Urgent Deadline for Publishers: Find a New Business Plan before You Vanish,” quotes a number of Whartonians from various disciplines. It was published: January 07, 2009. We thank Bob Sacks for distributing it.

The lead paragraph sets a tone:

If 2008 were an ordinary year -- one during which iconic American firms like General Motors didn't teeter on the verge of bankruptcy, the stock market didn't lose a third of its value, and foreclosures, hemorrhaging 401(k)s and holiday retail blight weren't in every headline -- the precipitous decline of the nation's newspaper business might have been the biggest financial story.

After some No-the-sky-really-is-falling statistics, the piece offers a bouquet of alternate business routes. They include philanthropic, niche, pay, participation, commercial.

The pay route, suggested by  marketing professor Eric Bradlow, co-director of the Wharton Interactive Media Initiative, is particularly interesting. The report summarizes his view this way:

subscriber strategies aren't always doomed. Companies from Dow Jones, which publishes the Wall Street Journal, to any number of small trade magazines that offer highly specialized information to affluent subscribers manage to keep content behind a for-pay firewall, defying the conventional wisdom about an Internet audience that demands freebies. The key is a degree of specialization, whether by locality or by subject matter, that the traditional general-interest paper didn't deliver.

It’s more correct to term this approach the “proprietary route.” It’s not that the publication’s information and/or unique expression are for sale (which they are). It’s that the consumer can only get this material in one place. If content is king, exclusivity of content is emperor.

Not included in the pay or proprietary route was the notion of delivering the publication directly to a consumer's portable reader and bypassing the web entirely.

The report focuses on newspapers but it doesn’t take a great stretch to apply it to magazines. More than anything else, this Wharton report is a great shot of caffeine. Now is not the time to slow your roll.

05 January 2009

The Earview Mirror

Which would you prefer?  The  ear half empty or the ear half full?

 Digital Media Wire Daily reports that 2008 music sales  reached 1.5 billion units, beating the 2007 total by 10.5%. This data, which encompasses the sales of songs, albums, vinyl, music videos and ringtones comes from Nielsen SoundScan. According to the article, “Sales of physical albums like CDs fell 20%, to 362.6 million, and are off by 45% since 2000. Meanwhile, digital album sales were up 32% in 2008, to 65.8 million units, and digital track sales grew 27% to reach a record 1.07 billion.”

To be fair, in 2008 vinyl gave its best showing  since 1991, the year SoundScan started tracking these numbers. Consumers purchased 1.88 million vinyl albums.

Is all of this good or bad news for magazines? It depends on whether you’re looking through the windshield or the rearview mirror.

03 January 2009

Of Buggywhips and Manifestos

Two recent posts in Samir Husni’s Mr. Magazine blog are informative, fascinating and unintentionally poignant.

The earlier (18 December, 2008) is an interview with Time magazine  Managing Editor Richard Stengel. It mostly discusses Time' s 2008 "Person of the Year" selection and issue. Near the conclusion, Stengel points out that this issue did very well on the newsstand and uses this as a metaphor for the viability of print. He states:

Our election commemorative issue was the largest newsstand seller since 9/11 and, you know, people want some historical object. I think that is one of the signs of health for print because people like things. And that will never go away. Our election commemorative issue was the largest newsstand seller since 9/11 and, you know, people want some historical object. I think that is one of the signs of health for print because people like things. And that will never go away.


This might be considered a case of not seeing the forest because of all the dead trees. But the magazine's power comes from its format of being a storehouse of information and ideas — and not its future status on "Antiques Roadshow." If the common garden-variety, or should we say house and garden variety, magazine survives because of its physical properties, rather than its emotional and intellectual properties, I'd suspect that all was not well.

The second and more recent Husni posting (1 January, 2009) is a deeply felt manifesto. He takes a number of conventional wisdom statements about the current climate for magazines and offers his own, cheerier responses. For example:

You continue to predict the death of print; I will continue to promote the endless innovations possible in print.

Warm, fuzzy and upbeat as his affirmations are, they hardly can be considered the basis for a business model.

After years of refining its approach to marketing, the magazine industry emerged in recent years with a glossy, stylish straitjacket. When the business environment changed, the industry couldn't or wouldn't alter its practices. New cataclysmic forces overran the magazine industry and did not spring from one source. The list is brief: wholesaler consolidation, the collapse of stamp and sweepstakes subscription programs such as Publishers Clearing House, and the World Wide Web’s accelerating growth. In other words, magazine industry saw an erosion of retail sales and distribution patterns, a body blow to subscriptions sales and a two-front (readership and advertising dollars) challenge from a ubiquitous new medium offering information and opinions for free.

And now the great recession. Any of the first three hits was a signal to rethink and change directions.

The recession? it deprives publishers of resources needed if, by some chance, they actually figured out a way to bring their enterprises into the 21st century. Which brings us to why samir Husni’s prescriptions are quaint.

 We are seeing a societal trend toward digital media. This trend is confused with the prevalence of the World Wide Web but actually is discrete. The Web role here is not so much as a way to experience content, but as a vehicle for distribution of content.

 The developing marketplace wants its media digital and mobile.. In music, this is seen in the move from CD-ROMs to MP3 players. In books it is seen in the move from paper to kindle and Ii-phone. In films the move is from DVDs to set top boxes. In magazines it is seen in the move from print to . . . well . . .nothing yet.

If we understand that the magazine does not have to exist in the form of print to be a magazine, the magazine industry will survive. Otherwise a warm place will be reserved for magazines right next to buggy whips on the “Antiques Roadshow”