FEATURE 

Circle of Trust

Publishers are closing down or selling off marginal magazines as part of the continuing cost cutting drive. Are we risking throwing the baby out with the bathwater? Ross Sturley thinks we might be.

By Ross Sturley

I may be wrong, but there seems to be a bit of a trend away from the “platform agnostic” days of the end of the last century, where we built events, conferences, and more around a strong magazine brand.

We reasoned that we could leverage the relationship our readers had with the magazine to produce profitable brand extensions that would enhance that relationship, and strengthen our hold on the market.

Right now, it seems that magazines are rather undesirable, and while larger companies like the profit and cash flow benefits of exhibitions, conferences and awards, the risk of committing to producing an interesting issue every week / month is just a bit too, well, risky to be contemplated.

You can buy magazines at the moment. Brands which at one time bestrode their markets like Delphic Oracles, with editors feted by the industry as gurus, and growing circulations, are now being cast aside like an old toy, and sold or closed.

My former employer, Emap, is not alone in seeming to look at its former prize assets as burdensome, ex-growth, marginal-profit lumps which need to be cut off. They have hived the magazines off into a division of their own, away from the sexier events and information products, and effectively hung a ‘for sale’ board above them.

The argument is simple – and financially it makes sense. They make the group less profitable, so why have them hanging around like the drunk smelly uncle who just won’t go home after the party?

The thing is, I can’t help thinking they contribute still to the relationship between the publisher and the customer. In fact, I think they more than contribute, in many cases, they define.

Trust me, I’m a publisher

That relationship, like just about any other sustainable positive relationship, has been based on trust. The customer trusts the brands to give them good information, to present a useful exhibition, or to organise a set of awards with integrity and value.

Do they trust the exhibition? Do they trust the team that delivers it? Well, the platform for this trust has typically been a customer’s historic relationship with a magazine. It stands to reason that the brand which a customer trusts to bring them truth and insight on a regular basis is the one they will trust to help them in other ways. So when the trusted brand is sold, does the relationship between brand and extensions break down? Would the trust with which the customer imbues the magazine continue to be associated with the exhibitions?

At a focus group of senior publishing, information and event execs I convened to discuss this topic (in a pub, obviously) there was general chuntering in favour of the central premise – that breaking the bonds would not favour the long term sustainability of the events and digital information products. However, there were some interesting wrinkles.

Cutting the ties could be good

First, the divorce could give more flexibility to the non-magazine products to link with other trusted brands which might have previously been precluded on the grounds of competition with the core. Exhibitions could work with all the magazines in the market, not just one, expanding their footprint, and growing visitors and exhibitors.

Second, the idea surfaced that events and information products, when freed of the old ties, would be able to innovate more freely, and produce much more rapid growth on their own, without the old ways of the magazine dragging them back. Products could be created without regard to what they might mean for the magazine brand – ultimately, why would such products not be trusted to deliver news and analysis in competition with magazines?

Third, the digital and events side of the equation argued that their customers placed trust in them first, and the magazine was the beneficiary. Once taken away from the nurturing relationship with exhibitions and online services, the magazines would wither away and die as customers’ trust declined.

All these would provide new opportunity, and could result in a more rapid growth for the products concerned than if they remained coupled to the magazine brand.

Perhaps what was most depressing about this was the sense that the magazine was old hat. Pretty much the entire focus group agreed that magazines have failed to innovate their way out of the decline initiated by the internet, and steepened by the economic crisis of recent years, and were, as a consequence, destined for demise.

The value of the ‘channel to market’ originally provided by the magazine has clearly fallen to zero. With the growth in email, and expertise in SEO, ads on magazine pages no longer produce value for events and information products that would compensate for the restrictions that come with them.

This shouldn’t actually be happening. In a recent article in the Economist, the author argued that the only technologies that would die would be those that were just variants of the same basic tool – fax has been killed by email, for example. One digital technology replaces another by being better.

Paper should persist, as it offers a set of unique and desirable attributes – permanence, lack of dependence on batteries, and a mild resistance to water among many others – which are not duplicated by any digital technology, or by a face to face meeting.

Indeed a face to face meeting often results in the transfer of printed matter from one participant to the other. People often print out stuff they extract from databases, or find on the internet.

Why then is the magazine so threatened?

The answer may well lie in the strategies employed by publishers in reaction to the advent of the internet, and the tightening of the economy. Did we invest? Did we seek to maintain revenues through innovation? What did we do? We cut costs. We managed out costs. We looked to strengthen margins by taking out time and money.

Cuts can kill

This attitude to dead-treeware has killed creativity and possibly predestined magazines to the dustbin. A grand tradition born in the tea shops of olde London may die because its late 20th century stewards lacked the imagination and the bravery to invest in ideas.

Will it? Well, perhaps it’s not too late. Magazines can survive. The transfer of historic B2B brands from large publishers where the overheads make them loss making to smaller ones where the hobbyist commitment of senior execs provides a platform for profit has begun. It could complete, leaving the trusted brands in the hands of a whole new set of stewards. They will doubtless innovate, and probably launch brand extensions, perhaps competing with the events and digital information products their brands helped create in earlier decades.

Quite probably the central prediction of the article I wrote for this very magazine in 2006 – that the top ten publishers in ten years will be entirely different to those on the list now – will come true as a result.

And what can the top ten do to stay involved? The answer is simple, invest in trust.

A return to subscriptions

The heart of the relationship of trust is the connection between individual reader and editor, a connection that needs to be so strong that the reader requires it at every opportunity. The natural embodiment of this is a subscription. Can we invest in these? Of course, and it’s heartening for an old subs lag to hear that at least one major publisher is reacting to the decline in advertising and the pressure on profits by adding expertise and resource to its subscriptions promotion activity.

Not only do they appreciate the cash flow benefits of upfront payment for a service that takes a year to deliver, and the unstoppable momentum that subscription growth gives an information brand, they also understand that there can be no stronger indication of trust than a willingness to book a service to take place regularly over an extended period.

It’s just a shame we didn’t spot that in the nineties.

References:

Only Digital Dies – Economist

I’ve seen the future, and it hurts – InPublishing