National Geo Goes Custom, Socially Responsible

  • by January 24, 2006
In a unique venture, a major consumer magazine house has joined forces with an independent custom publishing company in a new initiative dedicated to producing "socially responsible" communications vehicles for third-party clients.

The new entity, dubbed GeoGroup Media, was created by the National Geographic Society in conjunction with the Washington, D.C.-based Magazine Group. The two companies said they would blend their core assets in an alliance to produce communication vehicles that emphasize and promote corporate social responsibility. The new unit will target companies in categories such as automotive, energy, environment, pharmaceuticals, and packaged goods--all of which have multiple consumer targets.

The announcement was made by Stephen Giannetti, VP, group publisher, National Geographic Magazines and Jane Ottenberg, president, The Magazine Group. The alliance is unusual in the custom publishing industry. Traditionally, custom publishing companies are either divisions of major publishing concerns like Time Inc., or Meredith Corp.--each of which has thriving custom units--or they are private, independent boutiques, such as the Magazine Group. However, National Geographic decided to go a different route, and in so doing has created a new paradigm.



"We don't have a custom publishing unit, and we weren't we weren't ready to embark on creating one," said Giannetti. "I just didn't think it was the right thing to do--to hire a whole bunch of people to start something new. I thought it was best to find a partner where we could meld the assets of the National Geographic Society with the back end operations of an agile custom publishing company."

Under the agreement, day-to-day editorial and production operations will be handled by the Magazine Group from its current offices in Washington, D.C., said Ottenberg. She added that the company's current staff will work on projects, and that new staff would be hired as needed.

Ottenberg and Giannetti said that plans call for the Magazine Group to have access to National Geographic assets in the pursuit and implementation of new editorial projects. Assets include the Society's photo archives, photographers, writers, and overall editorial vision and standards. "We'll be calling on their editorial brain trust," Ottenberg said.

Giannetti said National Geographic Traveler Editor in Chief Keith Bellows would serve as the chief editorial liaison between his company and the Magazine Group on all projects. He added that the timing is right for this kind of initiative because focusing on social responsibility has become an increasing priority for corporations. "We're going into this with a very targeted view of what we want to do," he said. "Corporate and social responsibility is not merely a buzzword, but rather a way that companies have to distinguish themselves as organizations that care. Corporate responsibility is on the radar of many companies. It's an intersection between commerce and cause."

Giannetti also said that none of the projects taken on will be ad-supported vehicles. "These will be communications vehicles solely underwritten by the companies we are dealing with. This is our business model, and we feel that's the best way to go." He also pointed out that any publications that GeoGroup Media creates could be used for a client's external or internal communications needs, or both.

Giannetti declined to reveal details of the financial agreement between National Geographic and the Magazine Group, except to say that there would be "a revenue split," and that the financial model was similar to licensing agreements his company had for publishing different versions of various National Geographic titles outside the United States. The new alliance has yet to sign up a client, but Giannetti said he and other executives had already completed pitches to several potential clients.

Custom publishing is becoming more popular with corporations that want to connect not only with their specific constituencies, but also with the general public for a wide variety of reasons. Some use custom publishing as a public relations vehicle, while others use it as a means to communicate a tailored message in a controlled editorial environment to a specific audience of current or prospective customers.

Companies have found that traditional advertising is not as effective as it once was, due to media proliferation and a growing trend among consumers to block ads and hand-pick the media they use to receive information. Custom publishing delivers a specific audience of interested consumers.

Also, a Roper Public Affairs survey released this fall found that 75 percent of consumers feel better informed when reading custom publications because they contain articles and information targeted to their specific interests.

The custom publishing industry has shown steady growth over the past ten years and has become a $30 billion-plus business as of 2004, according to the Custom Publishing Council, an independent trade group that was spun off from the Magazine Publishers Association several years ago.

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