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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.

Get Ready for a Comeback!

Posted on Wednesday, February 10, 2010 at 3:41 PM

Priorities are now shifting from how to cope with the economic crisis to how to make a comeback.

Most of you out there are probably in one of two categories: The first includes those publications that held their own -- or even did better -- during the recession. Yes, there really are publications that actually improved their revenues during the tough times! The other category consists of those of you whose fortunes faded as the economy fell deeper into recession. Some of you had to reduce staff, reduce pages, and reduce expectations. You've had to deal with a lot of painful choices.

Regardless of which category you're in, and regardless of whether this recession looks to you like it's ending or not, you need to start focusing on making a comeback. Those who experienced little or no hardship may be thinking, "There's no need for a comeback, we're still good." But your competitors may be preparing for a comeback. Competition is bound to be getting stiffer, and you've got to prepare for that.

On the other hand, if you're in a place from which you need to make a real comeback yourself, now is the time to start planning your return.

A New Landscape

It's important to realize that things aren't simply going back to how they were pre-recession. I don't mean just for you, but for the whole field or community that your publication serves. The recession has been an event that has made its mark. There will be a different post-recession landscape.

For one thing, reading habits of many have changed. With favorite publications folding or dropping in page count, many consumers have had to rely more upon online alternatives. Some may welcome a return of more print content. Others won't. Many will have developed a preference for online content consumption. There's a general trend in that direction, anyway. You'll need to find out what's been going on with your readers and prospective readers. That will give you a clue as to how best to serve them with an appropriate mix of print and online content.

Not only have a lot of readers developed a taste for online content, many advertisers have also acquired new respect for online advertising. Some may want to resume a heavier print schedule. Others will be looking to expand online. Start looking at the directions in which your advertisers are going. There are likely many ways you can provide a real service to advertisers by offering added online opportunities.

While this all may require adapting to new circumstances, a sometimes uncomfortable process, it is nonetheless good news. The new landscape portends an increased demand for content on the part of readers, and an upswing in spending by the advertisers.

Focus on Efficacy

Despite whatever the reader and advertiser predilections may be for print vs. online, don't regard what they're thinking and saying as the whole picture. It's still your responsibility as publisher to evaluate how you can provide the greatest value to them.

Here's an example of what I mean. If an advertiser wants to move a lot of advertising from print to online, help him to define his sales or marketing objectives, and to analyze what mix of channels will be the biggest help in achieving the goals. Some advertisers may be focusing on online just because it's trendy. The concrete result of counted clicks also leads many to a greater sense of getting something for their advertising dollars. If image and brand promotion is an important objective, however, you might recommend that they keep print as a key element of their program. Conversely, some advertisers just like print. They're reluctant to use online. But if they are looking for a direct response from their advertising, it would behoove you to get them to try online advertising.

Time of Opportunity

After facing a perhaps bleak existence for some time, it's all too easy to fail to recognize the opportunities ahead. Indeed, this is a time of opportunity. It is an opportunity for you to correct flaws in your business model that may have limited your success of late. It is an opportunity to retool for the new media landscape that has been developing and will continue to develop. And it is an opportunity for you to make strategic plans for riding the wave of economic recovery.

Most importantly, it is time for you to make a comeback. Get ready now. Don't miss that opportunity!

Distressed Print Publications Making Mistakes

Posted on Thursday, July 09, 2009 at 1:49 PM

It's no secret that a lot of print publications are suffering. Advertising is down. Subscriptions are down. The only thing that's up is the number of casualties. Some major publications have already shut down, along with a host of smaller ones.

Many publications, however, are transitioning from print to online as a means of cutting costs. After all, with revenues down, it would seem to make good sense to reduce costs wherever possible. Switching to an online presentation can almost instantly cut out a big chunk of expense: paper, printing, distribution.

For most publications that have been print-only, developing an effective online strategy is long overdue. Today's readers have different expectations for how news and information should be provided to them. The print-only model for many is a relic of yesteryear.

That doesn't mean that there's no role for print in the mix. There are still a lot of things that can be provided with greater utility in print than online. But the idea of all print all the time has little relevance today.

That said, many distressed print publications are making transitions to online that are ill advised.

Coping with a recessionary period has always put a strain on publishers. Usually, when companies that use media advertising start feeling the pinch, advertising budgets are among the first to be cut. As a result, publishers are among the first to feel the pains of recession.

My consulting firm has worked with publishers through quite a number of recessionary periods. As a result, we've been able to observe some general patterns that seem to repeat themselves each time. We've seen publishers that are able to withstand tough economic times with only a minimal amount of sacrifice. For some, business even improves. Others, however, have their very existence threatened.

What's the difference? Why do some thrive, while others fail? My own observation is that the publishing companies that ran into the most trouble were operating with troubled business strategies in the first place. When times were good, they were able to coast along and even turn a profit. But when the going got tough, they didn't have the inherent strength to keep going.

That process reminds me of awhile back when my car was overdue for a tune-up. When I cruised along on a flat stretch of road, it ran with no apparent problems. But, if I drove up a steep hill, the engine would start to sputter and cough, and the car had trouble making it up the hill.

In past recessions, when publishing companies in need of a strategic tune-up began having trouble making ends meet, many realized something was amiss. That led them to address the primary dysfunction that existed in their business plans and strategies. As a result, many were able to pull through the recession and emerge even stronger.

The problem today is that instead of having that epiphany and subsequent adoption of new business strategies, the publishers are merely opting to cut out the major print-related expenses and go online. That's a mistake.

It's true that they begin saving money. But in the end they're not saving their publications. That's because they haven't routed out and changed the old dysfunctional business concepts that led them to the trouble they're in. What many publishers are doing is simply taking their print-style content, along with their old business models, and moving them online.

They're buying some time with this move. But they haven't fixed the underlying problems. In effect, they're masking the symptoms rather than addressing the cause.

Solid, sustainable results from publishing operations are best achieved by using a sound, synergistic business model. An economic downturn is a wonderful time to fix longstanding flaws in your business model. Doing so will help you survive the tough period. And it will also put you in a much stronger position for attaining even greater levels of success when economic conditions rebound.

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