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.

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