The BoSacks Interview: Bryan Welch, Publisher and Editorial Director at Ogden Publishing
BoSacks Speaks Out: Bryan Welch, a Harvard graduate has successfully held positions as a publisher, editor, and advertising director in cities across the country from Connecticut to Washington State. He has been running Ogden Publishing as the publisher and editorial director since its inception in 1996. Ogden is a multi-title publisher with such titles as Mother Earth News, Mother Earth Living, Utne Reader, Grit and more than a dozen other titles. Bryan takes special pride as a pioneer in developing profitable digital multi-media platforms from a base in special-interest magazine publishing. His flagship title, Mother Earth News, is perennially one of the nation's fastest-growing and best-read magazines with over 4 million readers.
I hold Bryan in great professional respect and have always enjoyed our friendship, which began when we first met at an IMAG meeting and we argued mightily about magazine sustainability. He is a passionate publisher worth listening to, and I think that a conversation with him can be helpful to the entire industry.
What is the biggest challenge facing your company right now? How are you planning to address it?
BW - As ever, branded media must surprise and delight their audiences. Simply delivering useful content is not - and never has been - sufficient. So that's the biggest challenge we face today, and was the biggest challenge we faced 15 years ago. It is more critical today because there are many new sources of simple information that's not surprising or delightful.
What do you see as the biggest opportunity for media brands/companies right now?
BW - The social media give us the opportunity to have compelling, real-time conversations with our audiences and we think that's the biggest new opportunity we've seen in some time - an opportunity to deepen the audience relationship in valuable ways.
How have you and your staff adjusted to the change in technologies and processes?
BW - We're in a constant state of adjustment. I would say the most important innovations, for us, have been our accelerating use of audience feedback and digital metrics to grow larger audiences and achieve higher levels of audience engagement.
We do dozens of surveys every week tracking audience reactions to our work and we try to conform to audience preferences rigorously. We survey topics, photos, headlines, cutlines, promotional language, cover lines and anything else the audience can help us refine.
Then we've become obsessive about our web metrics, as well, watching for patterns within our traffic patterns that draw associations between different types of content and promotion. We've learned that book excerpts can be particularly potent drivers of e-commerce transactions, for example, so we've trained our resources on cultivating more excerpts.
We've hired a new team of editors whose assignment is content proliferation (rather than content origination) - taking pieces of preexisting content, updating them and optimizing them for the web just as some of the new content-based web businesses do, but with a greater emphasis on engagement and less emphasis on total traffic. They also repurpose content for special print editions for the newsstand and periodic digital products like special e-editions. They have dramatically improved our efficiency in creating new products from repurposed content.
Needless to say, we've maintained our historic emphasis on a core mission: aggregating high-quality audiences. We have excellent new tools for that purpose. We are assuming that those audiences and the databases that represent them will be the foundation for evolving revenue sources.
Equally needless to say, our tools, our media and our audiences continue changing and we think the changes are accelerating. The social media have grown in their importance to us very rapidly over the past few months. Adoption of apps in various formats seems to be taking off. We're experimenting with various forms of sponsored content - apps, games and videos specifically.
Do you think it is possible to meet the increasingly higher expectations of your readers? How about your advertisers?
BW - The question we ask ourselves is how we can make sure our content brands remain relevant in a world where every question is answered by the unbranded media as mediated by Google or some other intermediary. We believe we have to strengthen the emotional bond between our media brands and their audiences in ways that create long-term value in those relationships. Our events have been valuable in this pursuit. And the real-time communication we can host on our social-media sites is very valuable also. We've begun partitioning some of our Facebook pages by geography so that we can provide a hosted community for our readers in particular regions. We don't know if we can retain the revenues we've historically associated with the audiences we aggregate, but we've bet all our marbles on branded media so we don't perceive any other choice but to focus our efforts on strengthening those relationships.
I hope and expect that our aspirations and the advertiser's expectations will intersect. We are in an era when audience engagement can be measured. Enthusiast media brands like ours specialize in audience engagement. If the advertising community perceives the value of engagement as we do, then we may be entering a phase when relationships between advertisers and the niche media are more lucrative than ever.
As a former editor do you think the relationship between the reader and the writer/editor is changing?
BW - It may not be changing enough. I notice a lot of editors still creating magazines that appeal more compellingly to their advertisers than to their audiences. Those editors should be gathering audience data, following the audience's instructions and helping their colleagues convince the advertisers that it's the quality of the audience, not the reach, that's most important to publishers and advertisers alike.
We also have new responsibilities to be present in the social media and available to our readers, on a personal level. That's a big opportunity too many publishers are missing.
Media buyers need to be taught not to judge the media brand based on their own prejudices, unless it's a magazine for media buyers.
How are you planning for continued technologic progress and the growth of an increasingly multi-platformed playing field? Or put more simply, do you plan to stay ahead of the techno curve?
BW - Well, if the techno curve is the state of the art, then we've never been ahead of it. We may have been ahead of some of our peers in the legacy media, but we've never tried to be early adopters of new technology. If you have a solid brand in a particular media vertical, it seems wisest usually to wait to see if some new techno option is going to prove itself as a business before you adopt it. Remember vertical search? Second Life? Syndicated content? We like it behind the curve.
What is something new and/or unique that your company is doing or exploring?
BW - We're building a video game about raising livestock for the County Fair.
If you could start your operation over again from the start, what would you change or what mistakes would you prefer to avoid?
BW - I think every independent, enthusiast publisher I know in the MPA's IMAG group would probably echo my wish that I'd spent more time and more money building direct relationships with advertising clients. In general, our agency relationships have been unfruitful until the client becomes our advocate.
What worries you the most about moving forward as an institution and a brand?
BW - I worry sometimes that audiences will stop identifying with media brands and come to see information as a commodity. In which case, we're cooked.
What do you think is the biggest problem facing our industry that is easily solvable?
BW - I must confess that I don't understand the difficulty we face in setting a meaningful standard for audience measurement. Our dithering as we try to set a standard undermines the credibility of that standard before it's even set.
What are some of the opportunities you hope to seize over the next several years?
BW - We think we see consumers making decisions more and more based on the conscientiousness of the company. We hope to be important arbiters of the discussion between marketers and consumers on the topics of conscientiousness and sustainability.
As part of your strategy for staying ahead, do you attend any trade shows or conventions? If so why? Would you recommend any of these to other publishers? If so Why?
BW - My own training in this business was gotten mainly through the MPA and its subset of independent, enthusiast publishers, which is now called IMAG. The camaraderie of that group and their openness gave me instant access to some of the best thinkers in my business and not once did any of my peers ever fail to return a phone call. Never once did anyone decline to give me a valuable piece of information, even from their own income statements. IMAG is the one event I still try never to miss. Beyond that, any of the MPA's events is important and valuable and we're paying special attention to digital opportunities and events that expand our knowledge of those opportunities. Then we try to go the places where our advertising clients go, for obvious reasons.
If you could give a young person entering our business one piece of advice, what would it be?
BW - Try to teach yourself to understand - and love - both business and storytelling. If you don't understand either of those disciplines, then you won't meet your potential and you probably won't enjoy the career nearly as much as I have.