Digital Innovation Digital Publishing
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Publishing trends and successes worth thinking about: Bo Sacks

“We learned that readers are willing to pay for quality journalism.”

Friedrich Nietzsche once said, “You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist.” I did not know old Fredrich was a prognosticator for the publishing industry, but he was correct. We have reached a stage in the magazine media business that there is no right way; there is only your way. Of course, I am referring to publishing business models of which there are no two alike.

As a publishing community, we basically do two things. We gather disparate niches or groups of the public and make containers of thought for them. We make and sell boxes of content that are constructed with either material atoms or digital ether. We do this for a profit. 

I want to try to examine where we are and where we are going as an industry. I’ll throw in some specifics, but it is actually the general trends and new business models I am more interested in for todays’ exercise.

The top obvious move here in the redeployment of our industry is the shift towards revenue diversification, moving on and away from a traditional advertising-heavy funding model.

Alfred Heintze, COO, Burda International said this spring, “We must make ourselves independent from advertising revenues. That’s the lesson we’ve been learning since the 80s and 90s. All of our business models should be based on consumer happiness.”

I like that sentiment, business models based on consumer happiness. If nothing else, it is a noble idea. Profit from happiness.

Magazines now have in no particular order e-commerce, paid and free podcasts, paid and free newsletters, events, wine clubs, and travel clubs in addition to ink-on-paper publications. Also, special Interest publications and an emphasis on paid subscriptions, sometimes now called memberships by many titles. The New York Times, which believes it has a potential addressable market of at least 100 million people willing to pay for English-language journalism, and The Wall Street Journal come to mind, but there are many others as well.

Speaking of the New York Times, did you know that they have about 50 newsletters which are read by 15 million people weekly?

Vogue is changing its revenue model too. Vogue has a global collective reach of 270 million people. Historically mainly funded by advertising, Vogue is now in the midst of a global transformation, propelled by its parent company Condé Nast, which includes membership tiers and a range of highly successful e-commerce offerings.

On top of revenue changes, we are also developing new skillsets with data literacy and useful real-time metrics for our editorial teams. We now have ways of gathering information about our audiences, whether it’s clicks and opens, time spent, or where people came from and how they got here. And also how loyal they are. We’ve arguably never had more ways to measure things.

I think it is fair to say we have been in a burn-the-ships moment for a decade or more. This is, of course, a reference to Cortez. When he reached the shores of the Yucatan, Cortez turned to his men and said, “Burn the boats.” Cortez refused to let turning back be an option. For the sake of his mission, it would be all or nothing. Those of us who are still here successfully have burned the boats and adapted new world strategies.

I guess it is fair to say that effective transformation requires a change of mindset. To adopt a modern mindset, a publisher needs people who understand the need for constant never-ending innovation.

Bauer is a good example of innovation and making a bet on making print a major part of the e-commerce funnel. Bauer is betting on the advancement of image recognition technology to close that gap between print and digital. They are set to incorporate new scannable images – without the need for QR codes or watermarks. These images, once scanned, will then take readers directly to a storefront for more information and purchase options.

And speaking of the innovation and data literacy mentioned above, Meredith Corporation has a new slate of premium video and podcasting programming driven by real-time insights and predictive intelligence capabilities.

Meredith’s Digital Chief Content Officer Amanda Dameron said, “Podcasting is immediate and intimate. It creates a unique space for an authentic, unguarded exchange of ideas and is perfectly suited for our brands.” Again a traditional publisher leaning into redeployment and shifting towards revenue diversification.

In the past 18 months, we have reinvented everything that could be analyzed and made more efficient.

We learned that readers are willing to pay for quality journalism.

We learned that the traditional methodologies and business plans that were in place in January 2020 were mostly a dream based on a previous unsustainable reality.

Perhaps the toughest thing we learned was pulling the plug on the existing advertising model. In a further review that plug was removed for us.

I think we can conclude that with a strong brand a magazine can be anything, transforming from a print-focused concept to a broader, more media-diverse, “branded” approach to content distribution. In the new approach there are many extensions of the branded experience that lead to revenue success, and in many cases better, broader, and more stable empires than in the past. 

Now the world has moved on and our industry with it. We are doing exciting things with our properties.

We have reengineered the event business and have started to make virtual conferences work and be profitable.

We have learned that there are various new methods to drive subscriptions such as podcasts, texting and, of course, beloved newsletters, not to mention – and most importantly – damned good content worth paying for.

We have created new opportunities for consumers to form new habits, enabling publishers to establish more direct consumer relationships.

I expect that what we have learned, the new revenue pathways and the new processes will profit us in the near and the long term.

Looking back, we have done an excellent job adapting to the conditions presented to us. I’m most proud to belong to such a fascinating and industrious publishing community.

Bo Sacks
President, Precision Media Group

This commentary originally appeared on Bo Sacks daily newsletter and is re-published with kind permission. You can subscribe to Bo’s e-newsletter here.