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A Princely Magazine Proposition

Posted on Thursday, February 28, 2013 at 1:02 PM

Are deep pockets enough to propel a new publication to widespread readership?

By William Dunkerley

A publisher called offering to make me a partner in his young magazine business. He said he needed someone to better organize his advertising sales effort. The magazine, he explained, had launched with generous support of a Middle Eastern prince. He sounded like he thought he was offering me a free ticket to a great opportunity.

The conversation that ensued was enlightening. It shed light on some critical topics that are relevant to any publisher these days, especially to anyone struggling with issues of profitability and digital presence.

So I'd like to relate this conversation to you. I'll call the publisher Dan (not his real name) to protect his identity.

An Audience of Anyone

I first asked Dan about his financing. A lot of relatively new magazines end up boxed into a corner because they are cash-strapped. But Dan said that pump-priming funds were not a problem, thanks to the prince. But he was under the gun to make his venture into a profitable business at some point. It sounded like the prince was urging him to acquire a partner with a business background. Dan's expertise is in the editorial focus of the magazine: worldwide art and culture.

I asked him who his target readers are. He replied, "Anyone." That is quite a diffuse target, I remarked. However, Dan insisted that his content was of sufficiently high quality and interest level that anyone could be interested.

Dan invited me to look at his website, which I did as we spoke. It is extremely well done aesthetically. It looks great.

A magazine targeted at "anyone" is one that would be marketing to "everyone." That makes it a mass market publication. I explained to Dan the economic parameters of growing a mass market periodical. It was at that point that he realized that even with a princely backer, he wasn't in the league of trying to sell to everyone.

Now, Dan was saying, his magazine really appeals to women ages 18 to 24. If he had to settle for less than everyone, that was his audience of choice.

Advertising to a Young Demographic

Our conversation drifted to the topic of advertising. Dan believed that profitability would come from advertising, and he was convinced that those young women are spending a lot of money. Surely his audience would be of interest to many advertisers, he asserted.

Naturally, I raised the matter of competition. He said there really is none. His would be the only high-quality magazine dealing with worldwide art and culture that is targeted to 18- to 24-year-old women.

But there are well-established magazines that are already serving up that demographic for advertisers. I said, "Dan, you will be competing with them for advertising dollars."

"Oh," he said, with an air of disappointment.

Probing the Audience Question Further

It turns out that Dan started his magazine as a print publication. He put out 7 issues and then decided to switch over to a digital page-flip format. He contended the change was intended to get into sync with modern magazine reading trends associated with his target demographic.

Keep in mind that he really didn't have a target demographic at the beginning of our conversation. He originally wanted "anyone" as readers. So his rationale for going digital seems to have been concocted on the fly. I'd bet the prince simply had grown tired of paying all the printer's bills.

Then I delivered my acid-test question: "How do you know there is a perceived need for your publication on the part of your target audience?" There was a long pause. I asked if he had done any objective research or convened any focus groups. He hadn't.

My advice to Dan was that instead of seeking an ad-sales-savvy partner, he really should be trying to find out if there is a need for his product at all. I told him I could help him with that task but declined his invitation to hop on board with him and his prince.

Take-away Points

There are some take-away points in this for all of us:

--Have a clear idea of who your target readers are. It is easy to become enamored of your own editorial concept and think it should be of interest to everyone. But that's usually an unrealistic notion -- and an unattainable goal.

--Keep in mind that the road to advertising riches must be paved with readers that the advertisers want to reach. And your magazine must look like an effective vehicle for them to reach those readers.

--Don't forget that your content, in a business sense, is your principal means of attracting the readers that the advertisers want to reach.

--Switching to digital to save printing costs may just be postponing an inevitable collapse. More often than not, a publisher has trouble paying the printing bills because there's a rather fundamental flaw in the business model and strategies.

--Do research to be sure there is a need on the part of the readers that advertisers want to reach for the content that you want to offer.

--Latching onto a wealthy prince can be helpful, but it may not be the ultimate answer to your success.

William Dunkerley is principal of William Dunkerley Publishing Consultants, www.publishinghelp.com.

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