Sell me this pen – our industry’s future might depend on it

She dug deep, made random statements about NASA technology, innovation and original features and managed to make it through the required time to land her that first break in television.  

I shared that story with a friend recently who challenged me to do the same. Needless to say I took the same approach as my acquaintance did (with much less elegance and added dramatics only a few glasses of wine can inspire) thinking that if I could wear him down with the elaborate details of the pen’s superb characteristics and qualities I could win his custom. 

He remained resolutely uninterested so, slightly agitated, I threw the pen his way and challenged him to do the same. Holding the pen in his hand he nailed it in five words “Please write down your name”. Although I was under no obligation to comply, the genius of his pitch was of course that it by-passed the navel gazing and associated fluff and cut straight to the chase by identifying and creating a consumer need and having the means to fulfil it immediately.  

How does this apply to the magazine media industry you may ask? Doesn’t the latter approach remind you somewhat of what start-ups do in getting new products to market? And doesn’t the first approach remind you of how an industry facing disruption responds?

Start-ups (or a person and their mates) generally begin as an idea that they might find useful and tends to revolve around simplifying a process or delivery mechanism to achieve it. It may be a gross oversimplification of the process and the hard slog involved, but the point is that start-ups have a singular objective in mind: to identify a consumer need and simplify the process to fulfil it.

Lean startup model ()

It used to be something that magazine publishers were quite good at. If you look at the lean start-up model so popular today, and you are aware of how publishing companies used to approach the launch of a new magazine in the heady days of print peak you will find a striking similarity. The development cycle for a new magazine started with an idea that was heavily researched amongst consumers to assess need and desirability, followed by an initial development cycle which was then again taken back to consumers for market testing and refined before launch. Even the launch issue was largely seen as a beta test vehicle which would again be submitted for research and refinement before the publisher would throw its full marketing support behind the title to scale copy sales. Once you’ve reached scale, the advertising money would follow.  

So if our approach to product development is so similar to that of a start-up, why does it feel like we are forever trying to play catch-up with today’s leading media companies? 

Well start-ups may be following a similar development cycle, but they have turned the traditional media business model on its head by focussing on getting the product right and scaling consumer use long before they start thinking about what the revenue model will look like. 

Google started life as a search engine called Backrub in the halls of Stanford in 1996; by 1998 it had evolved into Google, a company dedicated to organising the world’s information. It was only in 2000 that the company first started focusing on selling advertising by hiring their first sales person and in the process created search, a new form of advertising that has sucked billions of advertising dollars from pretty much every single medium imaginable. 

Facebook started as a one man mission (The Winklevoss twins will disagree with that statement in the strongest of terms) to create an easy way for friends to stay connected and share photos in 2004. By the time it first accepted advertising in the form of sponsored content in January 2012 it already had 800 million users. Today it has evolved into one of the biggest non-search content aggregators and mobile based advertising sites around. 

The challenge for magazine media and any medium of traditional heritage is that we are often burdened with placing the revenue model ahead of fulfilling the consumer need. We don’t have the luxury of spending four to eight years scaling our products before we turn our focus to monetisation. It is a luxury we can ill afford as we consolidate and divert money to play catch-up on the digital front. We are required by circumstances to strike a precarious balance between keeping an eye on the bottom line and transposing our heritage product onto new platforms.

Such challenges not only limit our ability be truly consumer centric in our approach but inhibit our ability to scale. An even without it, scale these days is counted in billions of people, not millions anymore. 

Magazine media has, however, shown tremendous resilience, and the aggressive shift towards mobile in recent years has seen the industry not only bounce back, but we are seeing the green shoots of growth returning in our total audience reach numbers. We now need to firmly turn our attention to how we monetise this growth. 

If I had a venture some brave (if slightly ignorant) suggestions on how we return to being consumer centric organisations, drive forward revenues and achieve scale it would look something like this:

Accept that we are no longer media owners, but data-centric commerce businesses. 

Our mission is no longer to just create content that people will find desirable, it is about creating an eco-system that seamlessly blends content and commerce to suit the needs of the audiences we serve. Understanding those needs requires us to not only speak to them as we have always done but collecting as much data as we can on their behaviour, likes and dislikes and utilising it to deliver products, services and content that not only meets their needs, but has a level of stickiness that sees them coming back for more on a frequent basis. 

Realise the potential of strength in numbers.

If magazine media are to achieve the scale of reach and frequency that matches that of the new global players, we can no longer view fellow publishers as the competition. Instead we need to focus relentlessly on creating stronger networks to share knowledge on product development, consumer needs and create industry wide advertising networks that offers reach which far supersedes that of our individual titles or portfolios. 

Key to our success, of course, will be whether we can adopt a start-up mentally, and simplify and refine what seems like rather complex challenges. 

Anyone want to sell me this pen?

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