Five key themes from the American Magazine Media Conference

I have attended MPA’s annual American Magazine Media Conference (AMMC) for more years than I care to remember and feel qualified enough to be able to judge the mood of the industry from these get-togethers. I am pleased to report that the mood this year was very optimistic, certainly the most positive since the dark depths of 2009. There were several factors at play which gave me this feeling but undoubtedly the most powerful was seeing the industry’s big elephants, Hearst, Meredith, Condé Nast, et al launching magazines, developing with confidence their digital activity and in seeing a newly independent Time Inc. acting as a market leader should, embracing a new entrepreneurial spirit not seen for some time. 

So what else did I learn from my two days in New York? I can sum it up in five key take-outs:

1. Content matters

Content ()

This is not a surprise or particularly insightful, but delivering content that resonates with an audience now has become more complex than in the past. Alexis Ohanian, one of the founders of Reddit, talked about the Grumpy Cat phenomenon – a picture originally posted on Reddit that spurred four million Facebook likes, became Buzzfeed’s meme of the year, and has garnered some £64m in endorsements and licensing activity. As Ohanian said, “You really need to understand that we are all competing with Grumpy Cat for attention. It doesn’t matter how esteemed your magazine…the bar is set at adorable cat photos.” So of course content matters, and of course we believe the content created by magazine media companies is high quality, well researched, and trusted, but even these attributes may not be good enough to compete for attention, and that’s the real challenge. 

2. Brands matter

Teenagers on phones ()

Virtually every session at the AMMC mentioned Millennials – that audience of 18-34 year olds who now dominate the thinking of marketers – who are very different from previous generations by dint of being the first truly ‘always connected’ generation. They are becoming the economic decision makers, and, frankly, our future, so what they think is really, really, important. One common theme was the importance of brands to Millennials. Paul Rossi, president of the Economist Group stressed that with so much information noise in the online space, Millennials value bands that have credibility and consistency of voice and that a brand needs to think about the values it wants to portray. Ohanian, again, echoed this with his comment that “people who do best online are authentic” and consumers are “savvy at sussing it out”. Lindsey Pollak, an expert on Millennial behaviour also stressed that “they expect specifics from a brand, and if the brand is misused, they will punish you”. Which means we really can’t spend enough time in defining and understanding a magazine brand’s DNA.

3. Video matters

Video play button ()

Mary Berner (president and CEO of MPA), talked us through the new Magazine 360° brand audience report. It really is a positive initiative and one that is likely to be followed elsewhere in the world. The top line take-out is that magazine brand audiences are growing at about 10 per cent per annum. But when you dig down into the detail, what is seen is that audiences for a magazine brand video channels are growing at 77 per cent. As Rossi remarked “the world is moving from text to visual….they watch first, read second”. Oh, and it almost goes without saying that Millennials consume double the amount of video content than do the ‘Boomers’. 

4. Social media matters

Social media noticeboards ()

David Carey, president of Hearst Magazines, divulged that “social media makes up to 30-35 per cent of traffic to Cosmopolitan’s site. In the old days it was SEO, now it’s social. It works.” And this backs up what’s happening industry-wide as recent data from Shareaholic shows that collectively the top eight social networks drove 31 per cent of overall traffic to sites in December 2014 compared to 23 per cent a year earlier. However, what also became clear during the conference was how social media itself is fragmenting with the newer messaging apps such as Snapchat, taking users away from traditional social media channels. It was a shock to the system that companies like Facebook and Twitter should now be referred to by that slightly pejorative term ‘traditional’. 

5. Why print matters

Porter magazine ()

The final session at the AMMC was a panel of CEOs who were put through their paces by media columnist Michael Wolff (who posed questions that were just the right side of provocative). What struck me was that whilst no-one could deny the overall decline in sales of print magazines, there was a very robust defence of their merits and importance. Carey said that “print is still at the core” of Hearst, who are still committed to launching print magazines. Steve Lacy, chairman and CEO of Meredith similarly pointed out that “people keep telling us they want the physical product,” which is why Meredith launched All Recipes, which has been extremely successful. Other sessions also pointed to digital-to-print moves by the likes of Net-a-Porter, Airbnb and Politico. The aim of building an omni-media brand is clearly the strategic target of all brands now, and it seems that having as the starting point a magazine brand may prove to be of real competitive advantage. As Joe Ripp, chairman and CEO of Time Inc. said: “The reality is that the magazine media business right now is exciting – at a point of change with incredible brands, access to advertisers and content and strong cash flows. The challenge for all of us is, are we going to invest in the right things for future?”

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