MPA President: 2017 Will Be the Year of Magazine Media
Media pundits love to make predictions, and they especially enjoy boiling down the upcoming year into a single mega-trend. “I think it’s been ‘the year of mobile’ for the past dozen years,” jokes Association of Magazine Publishing (MPA) president and CEO Linda Thomas Brooks. Brooks spoke with Publishing Executive to share her outlook on the future of publishing, what media companies have going for them, and where they can invest in new opportunities. Her prediction for 2017: “I think this could be the year of magazine media.”
The reason, explains Brooks, is that the industry is experiencing a unique moment where both consumers and marketers are rediscovering the value of credible media brands. For consumers who were pummeled with fake news throughout the election cycle, finding a brand that will provide reliable information is of increasing importance, and many are willing to pay for content that they can trust.
Marketers can also benefit from magazine publisher’s credibility, says Brooks. Since becoming MPA president last January, Brooks has worked to prove the value of magazine media, partnering with independent researchers to disseminate studies that show magazines have impressive influence over consumer behavior and offer the best return on spend for advertisers. Powering this influence is publishers’ ability to tell stories that resonate with their audiences, explains Brooks.
“If there was ever a moment when all indicators in both the marketing world and in the consumer world pointed to us, I think this is it,” says Brooks.
In the following interview, Brooks explains how publishers are translating this alignment into growth. She also previews sessions from the upcoming American Magazine Media Conference (AMMC), which the MPA is hosting on February 8th in New York City. Those sessions will explore the process behind exceptional storytelling and how publishers can use their content to build powerful relationships with readers.
What big opportunities do you see for publishers in the year ahead?
Bob Cohn from The Atlantic had a great line. He said, “Scarcity drives creativity.” Everybody got really excited when we figured out in digital media that you can just keep publishing forever and ever. There are no bandwidth issues; there are no production issues. But suddenly everybody seems to have figured out, “Oh, maybe that’s not so great.” I think the opportunity is for magazines to start talking again about their limited and curated editorial, and why editorial that’s pre-packaged for you is a great thing. I think we’re going to see them talking about what goes into that editorial and how the process of curation and editing turns into a consumer benefit.
So are magazine sales up for MPA members?
There has been a ton of traction in magazine subscriptions since November. People figured out [after the election] that when it comes to quality content, you get what you pay for. We’ve heard great stories of subscription popping up post-November.
Newsstand sales have also been strong for certain magazines. Meredith launched Magnolia, and they did a great job of jumping on very timely personalities in Chip and Joanna Gaines and the audience that they had amassed on television. They turned that interest into a beautiful magazine that sold out on newsstands, and they had to go back on press. I think we see a lot of our publishers trying to figure out how to get into that more timely and of-the-moment interest that consumers have.
The Atlantic is another example. The issue with the cover story by Ta-Nehisi Coates, “My President Was Black,” is really popular. It’s still on sale, so we don’t have final numbers, but Bob [Cohn] told me that it’s looking to be one of their top-selling issues in probably the last 10 years. People are really responding to this amazing content that is out there right now.
How are MPA members using data to guide their strategy in editorial and advertising?
Magazines are different from other forms of media because they by and large have first-party data, and they have first-party data because you, as a consumer, gave it to them. You reached out to the magazine brand and said, “Here’s my name, here’s my home address, here’s my credit card number. I want what you have.” They not only have the first-party data, they have it because you opened the relationship with them. That’s totally different than just doing data appends and trying to figure out that you’re walking by a Starbucks at a certain point in the day. That data is really a relationship that the consumer opened and invited the magazine into his or her home. That has real value for the marketer who wants to advertise in a magazine.
The other thing that magazines have more so than any other format is really experienced, smart editors. Data will only get you so you so far. It doesn’t really see ahead. I spent a long time in the automotive business and we talked to focus groups. We were always trying to tailor our product to what consumers wanted. Before the first cup holder was put in the car, it was mentioned at a focus group and people thought it was ridiculous. They were like, “Why are you talking about a cup holder? I’m driving. Why do I need that?” They didn’t put a cup holder in a car because consumers knew they wanted it. They put a cup holder in a car because some designer thought it would be a good, functional item, and now you can’t imagine having a car that doesn’t have a cup holder.
What magazines have is this incredible body of experts who know their subject area, whatever it is, better than anybody and they can figure out what else is coming up that may not be apparent in the data stream yet.
How are MPA members making their content work for mobile devices?
People spend enormous amounts of time on mobile, but they don’t really spend high quality time on mobile. It tends to be much more task-driven. You read a fantastic article about some place that you want to go, or something you want to cook, or something you want buy in print. You aren’t in action mode when you read the article. You were being inspired, but you go to mobile to act on that inspiration.
As people’s behavior has gone more mobile, we’ve seen that mobile has become this relentless taskmaster. Your phone is always with you, and it’s always telling you that you need to be doing something. We talked to a publisher who is launching a new magazine in print aimed at a younger audience. And she said the reason that she’s launching in print for a millennial audience is that people are looking for reasons to put their phone down, which is actually a lovely phrase. I’m not a luddite. I’ve lived a long time wholly or partly in the digital landscape, but it belongs as part of a mix. And so that’s what publishers trying to figure out — what works and what doesn’t.work on mobile, and how to balance it with the rest of the content we’re creating.
You’ve talked a lot about how publishers are providing value to readers, what about to advertisers?
Every time I talk to marketers, I hear some version of, “What we’re doing right now isn’t working.” Essentially what marketers have done is they’ve spent way too much time and effort at the bottom of the consumer purchasing funnel, and then not putting any effort into the top. They’re figuring out that they need the media, these quality brands. They need brands that consumers have invited into their homes so that advertisers can basically ride along on that relationship.
What sessions are you most excited about for the AMMC?
In the morning we have Ron Howard the filmmaker being interviewed by David Remnick, talking about expert storytelling, and how does good quality content get made. We’re bookending that at the end of the day with editors from across the industry — Jess Cagle from People, Adam Moss from New York magazine, Cindi Leive, a few others, and they’re going to be interviewed by Gretchen Carlson. That panel is about credible journalism and what is happening from the edit side. The shorthand that we’ve been using when we talk about the panel is, “Why editors are better than algorithms.” What do they bring to the party, and why is what they do different? At the end of the day we’re a content industry and that is the value we’re bringing to our audience
What’s lessons do you hope AMMC attendees take from the event?
I hope the takeaway is that attendees know that the importance of magazine media isn’t diminishing by any stretch of the imagination. And we can’t be shy about talking about our core value, what our brands do. Hopefully people leave a little bit energized.