Pay Attention, Publishers: Outsiders Are Redefining What a Magazine Can Be
Software mogul, golf equipment manufacturer, movie-streaming service, mattress maker, actress, social media behemoth: It seems everyone wants to get into the magazine-publishing business these days. Everyone, that is, except for “real” magazine-media publishers.
Whenever a well-known digital-native brand comes out with a print magazine, you can count on a wave of rah-rah “print isn’t dead” articles. Netflix touched off the latest wave of breathless “magazine resurgence” coverage in April by revealing it will publish a magazine this month. (Never mind that the likes of Money, Glamour, ESPN, and Traditional Home recently joined the Digital-Only Club. Or that Entertainment Weekly is going monthly. Without changing its name.)
These outsiders to magazine publishing don’t represent a resurgence so much as a “rethinkance.” They have no interest in huge circulations, cut-rate subscriptions, traditional advertising deals, or other trappings of the “real” magazine business. Even their motives for publishing magazines are different.
Industries are usually revolutionized by the outsiders, not the entrenched. So let’s take a look at what these newcomers are up to.
By traditional publishing standards, the Netflix magazine will have an absurdly small footprint and is horribly inefficient. But its purpose is clear – to influence the people who vote on the Emmy awards.
That probably means no more than a few thousand copies will be printed. Breaking through to entertainment-industry influencers will require top-notch writing, stunning photography, and bold design. I’d be surprised if the costs come out to less than $20 per copy. And it will be worth every penny if the magazine helps even a single show win an award.
Other digital-native brands entering the publishing world have kept their ambitions similarly focused on valuable target audiences that justify print’s high costs and high engagement. Facebook, for example, is publishing a quarterly magazine specifically for business leaders in the UK and Northern Europe.
Airbnb Magazine is distributed free to the company’s hosts, in hopes that it will be seen by guests. It provides travel tips and profiles places to visit without pushing the Airbnb brand. It seems to be about giving both guests and hosts positive vibes about the Airbnb community – in a way that digital media can’t match.
Casper and Callaway Golf are among the other brands that have recently started publishing magazines to stay connected with their customers without beating them over the head with hard-sell marketing messages.
Publishing as an Ancillary Product
Authentic Brands Group’s purchase of Sports Illustrated from Meredith Corporation last month broke new ground in the publishing industry, though it’s a familiar tactic for ABG. When the company has taken over such well-known consumer brands as Nine West and Thomasville, it has contracted out the manufacturing to manufacturers and the retail operations to retail experts, while it focuses on expanding the brands’ footprints.
Likewise, ABG left Meredith in charge of all the publishing stuff – writing articles, selling ads and subscriptions, web development, and magazine production. As an ironic result, 15 months after Meredith bought SI it is finally combining the title’s operations with the rest of Meredith’s magazines.
ABG’s focus is on SI’s “intellectual property.” Its vision for the Sports Illustrated brand includes more television shows, live events, and videos, along with development of e-sports and sports-gambling operations. And there will be integration with other ABG brands: Imagine Aeropostale selling SI-brand athletic shorts or Frederick’s of Hollywood offering Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition swimwear.
We’ve seen magazine brand extensions before, most notably the Better Homes & Gardens real estate franchise and the once-(in)famous Playboy Clubs. But ABG’s approach goes further, making the brand the main attraction and turning the magazine and website into ancillary enterprises. The struggling magazine’s survival may depend more on how it bolsters the Sports Illustrated brand than on its profitability.
Changing the Rules
After 20 years as a web-only publisher covering the printing industry, WhatTheyThink is literally trying to change the rules for magazine publishing in the U.S.
A year ago, the venerable Printing News magazine joined the WhatTheyThink organization. Then two months ago, the 90-year-old title was rebranded as WhatTheyThink and given a complete rethinkance.
“We spend so much time in the industry covering digital printing techniques, new finishing opportunities and ways to make these products more valuable to the market that it only makes sense to apply these technologies to our own publications,” says a company press release.
There’s a different version of the cover for each segment of the printing industry, highlighting the articles most relevant to that segment. WhatTheyThink is customizing the inside pages as well “while still working within the confines of Postal Regulations that require magazines mailed with periodical rates to only version 20% of the magazine content.” But it’s not stopping at 20% customization.
“We will be working with regulators to attempt to drive regulatory change that will better reflect the current marketing opportunities magazine publishers could have if they were not restricted by outdated postal regulations,” the press release says.
Creating multiple versions and using digital printing are probably increasing the magazine’s production costs drastically.
But I’m sure that Canon, HP, Ricoh, and other manufacturers of digital presses are more than happy to foot the bill for turning WhatTheyThink into a showcase and pioneer. Their business is booming, but they see even more opportunities if printers, print customers, and – ahem – publishers could only grasp what can be achieved by personalizing every printed piece.