About 22 years ago, I sat in front of a computer terminal in the library at Inc magazine's Boston offices and typed in a request to buy the domain “Inc.com” on the World Wide Web. A few months later, I oversaw the launch of “Inc Online,” a fun experiment that captured the imagination of our then-publisher and owner, Bernie Goldhirsh.
It’s not surprising that a business magazine owned by a geeky MIT graduate would have the vision to see the future of publishing. What’s shocking is that, in the 20 years since, most magazines haven’t done much else in the digital world. And it’s leaving them behind.
The sale to Meredith of Time, Inc (where I worked for several years as a contributing editor at now-defunct Fortune Small Business) is proof that the high-roller days of ad sales are over for today’s lifestyle magazines. Time for journalists to look elsewhere for work.
This is the part where I talk fanatically about “brand publishing,” and my editor and publisher friends roll their eyes. They’re still hiding behind the Chinese Wall – that unassailable separation between commerce and editorial. Here is the classic argument:
- Never the two shall mix! Advertisers never influence any editorial content, and publishers never walk over to editorial to request any editorial changes.
- There is safety in numbers! A broad assortment of advertisers keeps us from having to bend our content to suit any single advertiser.
I understand these concerns, and I share my colleagues’ devotion to untouched, pure editorial that serves readers. Readers should always come first. But brand publishing, when done well, actually supports that vision.
What I saw in my time with magazines at Time, Inc, Conde Nast and other publishing behemoths, is that classically trained journalists can’t usually conceive of the idea of a publishing “sponsor.” But listen – Beethoven, Bach and Mozart all had financial sponsors. So did Shakespeare and Michelangelo. Did that compromise the beauty and integrity of their work?
I jumped over to brand publishing several years ago, and I admit that often, it is terrible. If the brand thinks their publishing arm is simply an advertising extension, and the suits are getting all up in your business, it will never work. But there are visionary brands that recognize the value of excellent content. They know that attracting readers who trust them is far more valuable than trying to push a sales agenda in every story, video or podcast.
Do brands have an agenda? Of course. But so do magazines. I’ve run publications, and editors make choices every day about what fits our publication’s “brand” and voice. We choose to cover some topics and not others because that’s what we know our readers want. And, if we’re honest, sometimes we do make choices because of advertisers. Remember the story about Vogue editor Diana Vreeland wanting to feature pockets, and being shut down over the value of handbag advertising?
Brands that do publishing well make the same choices – we create content to attract, inform and entertain the type of reader we are looking for. Then we hand those readers over to Sales, in exactly the same way magazines have always sold their subscriber lists.
Looking ahead, lifestyle magazines can either embrace brand publishing, or wait for brands to put them out of business. I see these three models as the future:
- Brand sponsor – a single brand (like Red Bull or King Arthur Flour) publishes terrific content that readers love and trust.
- Coalition sponsors – a small group of non-competing but affinity brands come together and sponsor a publication or web channel that speaks to their target customer. I haven’t seen this one in publishing yet, but loyalty marketers have it all figured out.
- Native advertising – a news publication (like WYDaily) publishes a profitable blend of reported editorial and clearly marked, but readable, sponsored content.
Behind these models lies a treasure trove of customer data about demographics, habits, preferences and purchasing behavior, and that’s what brands want. Find a way to capture the data and package it for a brand, and you’ll stay in business.
Fellow editors and journalists, we need you in brand publishing. The work will feel familiar: Attract readers and viewers. Convince the suits to keep their hands off the content. Create compelling material that has depth – not the kind of superficial fluff that many copywriters produce. You know how to do it.
All that and the pay isn't bad either.