Guest Column: Refocus Your Business
"Don't keep reaching for the stars because you'll just look like an idiot stretching that way for no reason."
I don't know about you, but as a kid I was fascinated by the night sky—all those stars and distant galaxies. Peering through the lens of a telescope, one could imagine reaching out and touching those glittering lights. For decades, the magazine industry clung to a business model that took a telescopic view of the universe. Publishers sought to reach the stars and attract audiences by any means necessary: deeply discounted subscriptions, stamp sheets, sneaker phones, alarm clocks and all manner of schlock.
Never mind the cost of acquiring circulation this way; our advertisers were also looking through the same telescope and were willing to buy ads in our magazines to reach the plethora of stars. If it took us a year or two to monetize our circulation investment via ad revenue, that was perfectly OK with us. When that stretched to four or five and then eight or nine years, however, that investment became impractical and irrational.
Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, once famously said: "Information wants to be free. ..."—a statement that seemed to substantiate the idea that we didn't need our readers to pay for our product. When advertising revenues were plentiful, this made sense. However, Brand went on to say, "... Information also wants to be expensive." I think we all can understand the consequences of free information. "You get what you pay for" is a cliché, but so is: "Look before you leap."
At Scientific American (SA; which celebrated its 165th birthday in August and is the oldest continuously published magazine in America), we have always believed in our content's intrinsic value, and our readers have been happy to pay for that content, via subscriptions and newsstand sales, to a degree that is quite unique in the industry. This is a big part of why we are still going strong. Nevertheless, even we cannot allow ourselves to focus only on the stars.