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Publication Dysfunction

Posted on Thursday, February 11, 2010 at 4:58 PM

So this guy asks me what can he do to improve the fortunes of the local magazine he acquired. He bought it nearly a year ago when it was sold off by a downsizing chain. The publication had been a nonperforming asset for the chain. In this economy, it was a high-risk acquisition for the new owner. But given the McPublication approach many chains have used to operate their properties, it was reasonable to assume there is much that can be done with this publication to change its fortunes for the better.

I conducted an analysis of what the new owner had been doing. What I found offers some lessons for the operator of any publication -- ranging from a local magazine or newspaper, to one on a national or international scale.

Here is what I found:

1. The owner recognized there was not enough advertising potential in the limited geographical area the publication had served. The publication's name was tied to that location. To pave the way for expanding the territory, the owner changed the name. That was a good move. But he blew it. The new name was so generic-sounding (I won't mention it here) that the publication might as well've been called "A Magazine." Surely, it would have been better to have chosen a new name with some affinity to the larger territory that he wanted to serve, or to have at least focus-group tested his choice against alternatives.

2. This is a print publication, with no discernable Web presence. Circulation is free, with bulk distribution being made to local retailers and other public locations. There's no hard and fast data on how many copies actually are read. There is no means for producing a demographic and psychographic profile of readers. There is no data on the spending propensities and proclivities of the readers, whoever they are.

3. While content is being produced by experienced, professional journalists, there is no mechanism for finding out what readers are actually interested in and which stories resonate with them.

4. No methodical assessment has been made of the advertising market. As a result there is no intelligent basis for targeting market segments or for aggregating an audience that would be a good match for as-yet-unidentified hot segments of the ad market.

The bottom-line of my analysis of this publication is that it is dysfunctional. That means that the reason the publication is not achieving greater success is because of the way in which the publication itself operates.

This publication needs to make its money by selling advertising space. Yet it has only a superficial understanding of the ad market. That in turn makes it impossible to make intelligent decisions about how to aggregate an audience that would be productive for the advertisers. In turn that makes it impossible to know what kind of content will be successful in attracting and sustaining the interest of the desired readers. And of course that leaves completely undefined the matter of how best to circulate the publication, including the question of what should be in print and what online.

When confronted with this analysis, what did the owner have to say? He replied that he had read about all this "theoretical kind of stuff" years ago. But right now what he needs is someone who knows how to sell advertising.

What's wrong with his response?

First of all, he does not seem to realize that advertising space in a publication has no intrinsic value. The space itself is virtually worthless. It only acquires value when it performs a real service for the advertiser. And usually, that means connecting the advertiser's message with a consumer base that is inclined to buy.

And second, even if the owner did find "someone who knows how to sell advertising," it would be only a matter of time before advertisers would discover that the money they were putting into advertising in this publication is not bearing fruit.

The business approach being used by this owner is one that I call "blundering through." Instead of taking the kind of strategic approach described above, i.e., starting with a methodical analysis of the ad market, and finishing with the design of a circulation plan, this guy has started with the last step. He's picked a method of circulation. His choice was simply one of convenience and cost containment. The result is that readers are picked somewhat randomly and without knowledge of their interests. That leaves editorial functioning in a vacuum. And advertisers, well, they're left with a veritable boondoggle opportunity for spending their ad money with this publication.

The "blundering through" method of publication management can sometimes actually be successful. At times when the economy is supercharged, publications that are so managed can be seen succeeding. But when the going gets tough, those publications are usually the first to fall.

Now that the worst of the recession seems to be behind us, it is time to look seriously at where you will go from here. Having survived the crisis, what can you now do to regain strength?

My recommendation is that you make a frank assessment of your business plans and strategies. Are there any elements of the "blundering through" method present? If so, now is the time to rethink them. Take a more analytic look at the external opportunities that are before you, and follow a strategy-based path in devising new approaches. Rid your publication of dysfunction, and you'll have a surer chance of achieving new success.

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