Publishers Have a Problem: Their Outdated Approach to Magazine Ads
“My name is Eadward, and I work in magazine publishing.”
Welcome to Magazine Publishers Anonymous, a new 12-step program for people trying to overcome their addiction to the same old way of publishing magazines.
I thought we’d get an influx of members a couple of weeks ago when The New York Times published “The Not-So-Glossy Future of Magazines,” with this assessment of the “bleak” future: “Increasingly, the longtime core of the business -- the print product -- is an afterthought.” (You know your business is lying in a low gutter when even a newspaper lifts its leg to give you a spray.)
“Interventions” came from other quarters, including “the consumer magazine market is reaching an existential threshold” and “end of an era” commentary.
But instead of joining Magazine Publishers Anonymous, our industry responded with full-on, print’s-not-dead, I-can-quit-any-time-I-want denial. Don’t fret about projected 13% declines in magazine advertising for both this year and next, magazines’ defenders told us. Some titles are doing much better than that.
OK, Einstein, that means other titles are dropping more than 13% annually.
At the Magazine Publishers Anonymous, we like to point out that you can’t solve a problem until you admit you have a problem. And, friends, we have a problem: In the course of two years during a healthy economy and ad market, we’re projected to lose about one-fourth of our ad revenue. And this is happening while magazines’ usual nemesis, digital advertising, is being rocked by scandal, fraud, low click rates, bogus metrics, bots, hackers, and advertiser mistrust.
So whom do we have to blame? Ourselves.
Our failure to innovate has made magazine advertising increasingly unpalatable for advertisers – despite the digital world’s failure to develop an ad format that rivals the full-page ad for ROI and consumer impact.
Let’s take an honest look at how we still try to sell magazine advertising:
Buying Magazine Ads Is Painfully Slow & Labor Intensive
With a few clicks of a button, an advertiser or agency can place ads on hundreds of web sites. Even TV ads can be bought programmatically. But God help you if you want to place a magazine ad with multiple publishers. (Exceptions: The Dutch and Austrian markets, where Adoptiq has created an ad-buying marketplace with more than 300 newspapers and magazines.)
Our Media Kits Look As If They Were Flash-Frozen in the 1990s
If you’re interested in a $15 book on Amazon, you’re likely to see a sample that includes up to 20% of the book’s content. But if it’s a $150,000 magazine ad campaign you’re considering, good luck getting anything more than flowery language about “engaging content” and “eye-catching design.” How hard would it be to include a digital sample issue, or at least a couple of downloadable excerpts?
What, you think every 23-year-old media buyer is intimately familiar with your title? Posting PDFs of our media kits online was a huge technological advancement – a generation ago. In 2017, not giving advertisers immediate access to our actual magazines is criminally negligent.
We’re Wedded to Traditional Audiences of Subscribers & Newsstand Buyers
Magazines used to be an effective means of reaching a target audience – back when “business executives” and “affluent working-age women” were considered target audiences. But for today’s advertisers who have a database full of prospects or only want to reach people who are “in market” for their product, magazine advertising is a solution looking for a problem. (Niche magazines are an exception, which is why they are generally faring better than the big consumer titles.)
We need to find better ways to help advertisers reach their target audiences rather than asking them to reach our traditional audiences. Like mailing copies to our advertisers’ key prospects. Or, on our web sites, offering free downloads of our best articles on a particular topic, sponsored by advertisers targeting people interested in that topic.
Programmatic Direct Mail Is Booming, But Magazines Are a No-Show
The ability to send someone snail mail based on their web browsing has helped direct mail hold its own while other print advertising media falter. Within days of visiting a car company’s web site and researching a particular model, a consumer may get a customized postcard picturing that model, with a coupon and directions to the nearest dealer.
But wouldn’t it be even more effective if instead of a postcard she got, for example, Car and Driver’s review of the car? Come on, folks, we have the high-quality content, we have the trusted brands, we even have plenty of “in market” web visitors. We ought to own this space!
There is one hurdle: To be done right, the tactic relies on digital printing (AKA data-driven printing) that enables each mail piece to be customized for the recipient. That’s a radical departure from the way magazines are produced.
(I should note that Publishing Executive’s parent company is offering its free DigiPub Conference next month that will explore the use of digital printing in publishing. For magazine people, I suspect the value will come not from learning what other magazines are doing (Hint: not much), but rather from seeing what’s happening with books, catalogs, and direct mail and then realizing, “Hey, we could be using some of that!”)