Those concerns are wishful thinking these days, problems any publisher would take in a heartbeat over today’s challenges. Now the questions are: How bad is this going to get? And how do I survive?
Survival is indeed at stake for many consumer magazines these days. Some niches are doing well. Sports titles are flourishing. So is the top tier of new books aimed at young men and their insatiable appetite for seeing girls scantily clad and seeing their own stomachs impossibly flat. Newer women’s titles are growing as well. But for the most part magazines are dealing with a downturn unseen in recent times. According to CMR, 2001 revenues were down 8 percent over 2000. So far this year, things have deteriorated further. According to the Publishers Information Bureau, revenue in the print consumer business in April 2002 was better than in March 2002. But the good news stops there. Year-to-date, every ad category outside of pharmaceuticals is down. Some of them, such as tech and apparel, are down considerably. Advertisers: the Main Squeeze The key to surviving this downturn, according to many magazine publishers, is to deepen relationships with advertisers. For bigger media companies, that means grabbing as much money as possible from big brands, convincing them to spend money across print, TV, and the Internet. For midsize companies, it means connecting advertisers more closely to the magazine’s audience. For many smaller companies, it means finding a safe haven to weather the storm and stay alive to see what the climate looks like later.
Here’s what some leading magazines are doing to maximize their relationships with advertisers. Many are creating events that advertisers can help fund and promote through magazine pages. Last year, Ford challenged agencies and print magazines to develop innovative plans to reach the 25-and-under demographic for the launch of the Ford Focus. Hachette Filipacchi responded with a plan that would tie the brand in to New York’s Fashion Week, and included its Elle and Premiere magazines as the primary brands to promote it. The concept was called Fashion in Focus It put fashion and automobiles on the same runway by hiring 10 "edgy" designers to create more than 40 clothing designs and accessories using Ford Focus materials. For example, designer Alexandra Lind, who usually designs dresses for celebrities, tailored airbags into a wedding dress. An advertorial that introduced the designers and the concept appeared in ads in Elle and Premiere. A 12-page Fashion in Focus spread in March issues of Elle and Premiere showcases the fashions and accessories created by Ford Focus automobile parts and materials. Spreads for the car’s launch also appeared in both magazines.
Last fall, JCPenney wanted to drive teen traffic to its stores. Primedia’s Seventeen magazine employed custom-designed in-book sections, interactive portals on seventeen.com, in-store fashion show events, and sweepstakes promotions with celebrity appeal. The program aligned JCP and Seventeen for all of 2001. Hundreds of thousands of sweepstakes entries were received online and in-store, coupled with thousands of teens who attended the model search and fashion show events.
Creating new magazine content and using a magazine’s circulation lists are also working well for publishers. Earlier this year, Bristol-Myers Squibb wanted to accelerate its trial of Excedrin Migraine Analgesic by targeting migraine sufferers within Reader’s Digest ’s 12 million-household subscriber base. Reader’s Digest used in-magazine and online "opt-in" questionnaires; a customized, 16-page Excedrin Migraine Booklet in the magazine to 500,000 migraine households; and a sample of Excedrin Migraine to an additional 200,000. An Internet overlay via the magazine and Excedrin.com, along with ongoing ad pages in the magazine, was also used. As a result, BMS is using the program as a showpiece for other brands, which has helped to increase Reader’s Digest’s business with BMS 352% since 1999.
"We have an extremely loyal customer base," says Dom Rossi, Reader’s Digest VP and executive publisher. "If you want to acquire new customers or increase loyalty among current customers, we provide a lot of different directions. It’s what I call quality media. It’s all about marketing relationships. I told our national sales meeting the other day that if we think we only sell ad pages, we’re a commodity. What we sell are relationships."
License to Squeeze Aside from being relationship builders, content extensions can be more self-serving revenue generators. Meredith Media has brand extensions and licensing built right into its mission statement. In March it expanded its licensing program for Better Homes & Gardens by entering into a new deal with Moda International Marketing. Better Homes & Gardens currently has a significant licensing relationship with Wal-Mart for a line of branded gardening and outdoor living products. The new strategy will look to expand into more areas by launching new products in categories such as building and remodeling; decorating and décor; kitchen and food; parenting and children; seasonal and special occasion entertaining; and family travel.
"Our advertisers are interested in reaching the consumer at as many touchpoints as possible. And so are we," says Jerry Kaplan, president of Meredith’s magazine group. "If you just had a print publication in today’s economy you’d still have to find enough strategic alliances to make your business expand. We do very well with our advertisers, and we’ve developed excellent programs for them to reach our audience. But there’s a story behind that as well. We’re also interested in developing properties that are not ad-driven. With Meredith’s TV stations behind him, Kaplan has forged alliances with power retailers such as Wegman’s and Wal-Mart. But even launching magazines has become a multimedia affair. Former Frommer’s Travel executive Donald Walsh recently received funding for a company called Budget Living Llc, which will have a bimonthly print glossy at its core. Welsh told TheDeal.com that the company plans to become a multimedia platform with books, television, radio, and Internet properties under its wings.
Many recent attempts at starting new print publications have sputtered as print-only ventures and have settled for alternatives forms of life. Many have found a home on the Internet as e-zines. For some properties this has proven to be an effective temporary strategy. Gail Harlow, publisher of Making Bread magazine, started this year with ambitious plans to launch a print magazine aimed at women who work from their homes or who supplement the household income. The ad market would not support the postage, printing, and paper costs she originally envisioned. But the website used to promote the launch proved to be successful. Now Harlow has evolved MakingBread.com into a content site that is growing by the month. It will serve as a placeholder until the market becomes more favorable for a print launch.
Making Bread is a small, independent publisher. But even big companies are having trouble getting print properties off the ground. Fine Living is a Scripps-Howard property that is indicative of the current climate and the strategies used to cope with it. It is an upscale lifestyle-and-decorating property that Scripps wanted to start across cable TV, Internet, radio, and print. It launched the Fine Living print magazine in March with a business model that was set to deal with the tough economic climate head-on.
"We believe that a multi-platform strategy is essential," says Fine Living senior vice president of business opportunities and acquisitions John MacDonald. "For the audience we wanted to reach we wanted to do a lot of different things and convey lots of different information. In order to get people where they are, you need to have several platforms. And sometimes the best platform is in print."
So MacDonald approached his March 1 print launch by selling Fine Living as a multi-platform buy. He insulated the magazine from the tremendous costs involved with paper, printing, postage, and circulation promotion through a unique distribution strategy. He selected key zip codes that would deliver the high-end demographics in income and education he was looking for. The he contracted with local newspapers to deliver the magazine to those zip codes. He sent 1.3 million magazines in March with a "healthy" complement of ad pages. But Fine Living hasn’t published again.
"Advertisers had questions about the controlled circulation," MacDonald says. "We also need to get more feedback from our cable operators as to how the channel and the magazine can work together. I don’t know exactly when we’ll publish the print version again. Hopefully it will be sometime this year."
The Final Squeeze? If print advertising does come back sometime later this year, you can bet that brands and agencies will have a more aggressive attitude about creativity. New ways to present sponsored content have become common. New ways to present ads are the next wave. The launch of the ultra-small Mini Cooper automobile may prove to be a renaissance in print creative or the final squeeze that frustrates both client and publisher alike. What did Mini do to the market? It pushed publishers into whole new creative executions. It booked corner ads in buff magazines that occupied a one-inch strip in the upper right corner of editorial pages. It convinced Rolling Stone to use orange staples so a graphic of the car could treat them like slalom cones in a center spread. Find those two ad sizes on a rate card. Don’t bother. They don’t exist — yet.
"We are looking at creative innovations to the degree that we can," says Rossi. "Our strength is in creating customized pieces and using our circulation to create a great delivery system for advertisers."