In the TV series American Idol, thousands of young contestants audition to a tough panel of three judges. The winner is promised fame and a lucrative recording contract. But, asks Peter Hobday, although the show has a massive worldwide audience, do the producers have any real understanding of how to grow an audience? And for that matter, do publishers?
American Idol started life as the hugely successful Pop Idol show in the UK, but American TV executives initially turned down the proposal by the British show's founders:
"No. Because it’s a music show," answered one of the largest TV networks.
TV producers are the equivalent of publishers. They choose which shows to schedule and when they go out. But they would not consider American Idol, demonstrating without ambiguity that they had no understanding of what an audience wants to see.
"It never even occurred to me that the show wouldn’t sell in the USA. After the second meeting, I sat down on the steps of the huge office building and put my head in my hands." Says Simon Cowell, the show’s founder.
Eventually, Fox TV owner Rupert Murdoch, persuaded by his daughter who was a witness to the show’s success in the UK, ordered his executives to run the show – to overwhelming success. But before we all laugh at the ignorance of broadcast people, you should know the same puzzling situation applies to all media: you may be close to your audience, but that doesn’t mean you understand it.
Marketing American Idol
Building an audience takes an experienced marketer or salesperson. (For the purpose of this article, we will group those two functions together.) American Idol does it by holding regional auditions around the USA, thereby maximising the geographical scope of public interest. But although a proven formula, the success built by the show’s marketers can be – and has been - sabotaged in seconds by non-marketing-trained colleagues. The people involved in the show are:
Producers, judges and contestants all regard themselves as close to the audience – and so they are, to differing degrees. In the show’s current format, though, they all have involvement in choosing the songs that decide which of the contestants go forward to the next round. And yet it is only the judges who are the true marketers here, as will be shown.
Marketing in publishing
In publishing, the equivalent categories are:
Why have I included marketers in the publishing list? Do marketers really rank with American Idol’s judges? Most marketing people are junior, working across various titles. And they certainly don't have the power of the panel of judges, deciding what is most worthy of promotion. Surely the marketers in publishing have a more marginal role?
That may be so, but the marketers should be doing the same job. The problems arise when the publishers themselves decide to make the same sort of do-or-die decisions about their products as the American Idol judges. Unfortunately, these senior people are essentially unqualified to make them.
Who creates the promotions? Who chooses the songs?
You cannot grow an audience without promoting. Holding TV auditions for local talent is the equivalent of holding county competitions for a new cover personality for Cosmopolitan or Vogue: new readers will buy the magazine to follow the new kid on the block’s progress. The skill lies in persuading those new readers to become long-term subscribers and create year-on-year circulation growth.
In American Idol, if the song and singer appeal, new fans will vote and buy the album – and as the artistes are generally affiliated with the judges, everyone’s a winner. If the format of the show is successful, fans will spread the word and come back to the show the following season, bringing new viewers with them. So the choice of songs and format of the show are critical to achieve the growth in audience year after year.
It takes marketing experience to communicate that appeal and grow market share. In publishing and American Idol the only people qualified to do that are the marketers and the panel of judges. Only they fully understand what their prospective audience wants to hear and see.
How non-experts sabotage growth
Marketing by the non-expert doesn’t work. But we see non-expertise at work right in front of us towards the final of American Idol, when the three remaining contestants perform songs chosen by (1) the judges (2) themselves and (3) the producers.
Last season, the songs chosen by the three judges were performed first. The songs drew on the different contestants’ strengths and were moving, emotionally engaging show-stoppers. It was difficult to choose which was best.
At the next stage, the contestants sang their own choices. Their inexperience was suddenly revealed. Perhaps it is understandable how these youngsters misread what the audience wanted to hear from them. People of all ages watch the show, so it is important not to exclude any demographic - which each did in their own way.
Those three performances were a self-admission that these youngsters had very limited talent, with no idea how to appeal to a wide audience! Contrary to all the hype we had been receiving through the show's long passage from regional contests to the world stage, these people were just kids with no ideas of their own - hardly the material for stardom. Guidance was sorely needed, but from whom?
The three songs chosen by the TV producers came next. It was difficult to decide which performance was worse! The producers understood nothing about matching a song to a singer. Perhaps they simply chose their own favourite numbers? Ignorance is forgivable, but not in a responsible job willingly undertaken – and not when it threatens to sabotage the very formula it is striving to promote.
Expertise, experience and ignorance
Wisdom comes from brutal experience. A wise person knows his limitations.
From this debacle, we learned why the judges are the true marketers and why their skills are not transferable. Here are their qualifications:
1. Simon Cowell: A&R (artist and repertoire) executive; record producer; talent manager.
2. Paula Abdul: singer; dancer; choreographer.
3. Randy Jackson: A&R executive; musician; singer, music manager and director; record producer.
The judges know how to draw on an artist’s strengths, disguise weaknesses and inspire an audience. In publishing, the same skills are required to grow an audience. Simply ‘putting it out there’ is not enough.
If you want long term customers buying your reports, books, subscribing to websites, newsletters, ISP or other service, then simply explaining what information you provide is not enough to dominate your market. There are some exceptions to this rule in B2B markets but none in consumer publishing that I can think of.
Marketing and publishing
A marketer knows what people want to read. So do editors and publishers. A marketer knows how to condense a year’s editorial into a convincing reason for people to continually part with their money. Editors and publishers don’t.
If you can’t explain the importance of a USP or don’t know what the initials stand for, you are not a marketer; No matter what your title: publisher, producer, managing director or editor, you will be ignorant of why and how something is purchased.
Let’s talk about getting close to your readers: let’s talk about sex.
Relentless sex; emotional and physical turmoil
Editors, in fact, are often not very close to their readers. If close engagement with readers were a general requirement, the editor of Cosmopolitan would be engaged in relentlessly variable sexual activity. For example, "31 days of sex: whipped cream, cherries and a banana split for when he gets home each day" is a recent article.
Unfortunately, all that fruit comes with partner problems and endless emotional turmoil. It would take a team of psychiatrists and medics just to pull the editor out of whatever bed, get her into shape and into the office each day.
No - some markets do not require an editor to be a typical reader: her close engagement with her reader will be via other writers. But that’s cheating isn’t it? Surely not all editors are that uninvolved? Even if they are, does it really matter in marketing terms? As a comparison, let’s take a look at a scenario where editor / reader closeness is crucial.
Motherhood; urinary infections; heavy periods
After the heady Cosmo days, of course, often comes motherhood. The editor of Mother and Baby actually lives the life day to day as a:
* Parent of very young children
Few markets require such personal and painful commitment from the editor. The job description almost runs counter to employment law. But although the editor of Mother and Baby magazine is much closer to her readers, it doesn’t help much with marketing. She can carry reassuring articles on urine infections during pregnancy, 30 ways to make your unborn baby healthy and dealing with heavy periods after giving birth. But thousands of mothers won't buy subscriptions to the magazine simply on the strength of the editorial content. Many will be thinking:
"Yes I might need to know that. I'll raise the subject at my next visit to the clinic or National Childbirth Trust meeting. Or search the internet. That is what the writer has probably done!"
This marketing problem runs through most publishing companies. So I put the question to Hilary Pereira, a top freelance editor who works across many consumer and business publications:
"The problems come when editors fail to appreciate that words must give way in some part to marketing strategies," says Hilary Pereira. "As editors, it’s easy to feel that imparting as many wise words and life-enhancing facts as possible will broaden the target audience, but experience shows that without effective marketing, these precious words will fail to reach the very readers the magazine needs in order to survive and grow. It’s a tough gap to bridge between editorial and marketing departments, but nevertheless crucial to year-on-year publishing success."
How marketers manipulate bigger sales
These days, the internet is our main competitor. We even compete with our own websites! So if you don’t overcome the reader sentiments described above, you will achieve few sales. It’s the job of the marketer to ensure article descriptions and ‘trigger phrases’ pre-empt all objections:
"Contributed by leading experts, our articles keep you informed of ever-changing 'best practice’ procedures. Doctors, midwives and alternative practitioners read our articles to keep right up to date."
On reading this carefully crafted summary, the mother decides that perhaps sourcing material purely from the internet is not such a good idea and reads on:
"At just £3 a month, there is no better source of regular current information for the young mother. And there is a money-back guarantee and a special free gift if you order today!"
Now you’re talking.
Simple descriptions are usually boring
The marketing copywriter, like the American Idol judges, has chosen words he knows will build an audience far bigger than a simple description of articles. The singers in American Idol could sing a hundred songs to show how wide their repertoire is, but we would be sent to sleep. It’s the key, astutely-chosen numbers that keep us coming back for more.
Similarly, an editor may argue that a good strategy is to simply send a copy of the magazine out with a letter and order form. But that, in almost every market, is the most costly and disastrous approach to making a sale as could be taken, with the vast majority discarded without so much as a cursory glance. However close editors, publishers and producers are to their readers, they are usually ignorant of the rudiments of marketing.
Five vital publishing lessons from American Idol
1. The judges in American Idol are the marketers, not the producers or singers.
2. Don’t let the MD, publisher or editor do your marketing (unless fully qualified marketers).
3. Marketers alone know how to manipulate growth.
4. Without a senior marketer on your team, you won’t grow market share.
5. Without a marketing background, most of your efforts will be half-assed.