Marketing General Interest Magazines
Some old notes of mine on marketing general interest magazines:
The foundation of marketing is the target market. Marketing 101: rigorously define exactly to whom it is that you’re selling your product or service. Fail to do this and you end up wasting valuable time and money trying to reach people who are unlikely to buy from you. Focus, focus, focus.
The same principle also goes for good management. Focus on what it is that you do best. Don’t stretch yourself too thin by over-diversifying your product line or by pursuing markets that you do not fully understand. Fail to do this and you end up wasting valuable time and money. Specialize, specialize, specialize.
So right off the bat, by chasing after everybody with everything, the very idea of a general interest magazine violates two of the most fundamental axioms of business – focus and specialize.
That may go a long way to explaining the everlasting turmoil and long string of corpses in this ageless category, and it may partly explain why advertisers sometimes struggle to comprehend its utility, but it has very little relevance actually when looking at how solidly performing the general interest category really is. Some of the most enduring and popular brands in publishing history are general interest titles: The New Yorker, Harper’s, Vanity Fair, Saturday Night. Some of the most successful titles of all-time have been nothing more than themed general interest: Maxim, Reader’s Digest, National Geographic, Fast Company. In Canada, general interest was one of the few categories to see modest growth in an otherwise dismal last few years for the magazine industry. We’ve also had a veritable explosion of new high quality titles – such as Toro, The Walrus and Maisonneuve – enter the field. The fact is that while targeting particular readers and concentrating on your strengths is as important in magazine publishing as in any other business, the notions of focus and specialization don’t necessarily apply in quite the same way.
General is indeed a niche of its own. There are groups out there that are not interested in only one thing or that have just one hobby or interest. The overspecialization of everything – from TV channels to jobs to the shelf categories at your neighbourhood video store – has restored general interest as a legitimate counterbalancing niche category. Furthermore, the movement towards a knowledge-based economy, the access to new information on the internet, and the rise of uncertainty in foreign places has only increased the thirst for learning and entertainment – regardless of genre, discipline or nationality.
General interest really dismantles demographics as the primary base on which to fully make a media buying decision. Not so much because we’re now operating in a marketplace of individuals and mass customization. Not so much because age cohorts, for example, are becoming more and more fragmented and increasingly less uniform in attitudes and interests. And not so much because demographics aren’t still useful in helping to segment and pinpoint a target market. Rather, it is because general interest is a niche that appeals inherently to a broad and typically nebulous (but nevertheless definable) audience. At its core general interest appeals to a mindset, not to an age group or income level.
The underlying mindset of a buyer of a general interest product like a magazine is one of eclectic curiosity. There is a joy to learning across areas of knowledge and there is a pleasure that comes from discovering things that you didn’t previously know. In fact, thinkers – they’re not extinct, you know – love to do this. The trendsetters and leaders of tomorrow – “Inspirationals and Connectors” (Arnold Mood & Mindset Study), “Connectors and Mavens” (The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell), “The Influentials” (John Berry and Ed Keller), “First Users and ‘Bigmouth’ Movers and Shakers” (The Anatomy of Buzz, Emanuel Rosen) – thrive on it. It’s their currency. They understand the secret to new ideas is that they are born at the intersection of diverse thoughts. A collaborative mix of different perspectives helps to cast a wider net and opens receptive minds up to the possibility of discovering those special and lucrative ideas that transform mere blocks of space into architecture, that evolve advertising beyond annoyance and that transcend film or music from lost time to time well spent.
However, simply serving up a cross-section of subjects is not enough. Curious, intelligent and sophisticated people seek out products and media sources of substance. This may seem at first to go against the stereotype of the generalist as mere dabbler or of young adults as MTV generation airheads with impossibly short attention spans, but it makes a lot of sense. In fact, the latter is exactly why good general interest magazines (ironically) are needed and it is something a good editorial team always keeps front-of-mind when creating an issue. It doesn’t matter if it’s life drawing or zoning out listening to your favourite tune or reading a 7000 word article about the latest dance craze, when you go into that zone and you’re really engaged by something it’s actually a relief for your mind. Focusing and concentrating on something is very, very good. When you finish it you actually feel refreshed. And you feel better about yourself because you’ve learned something new. You’ve focused on something instead of having that sort of ADD quality that we do today by flipping around the TV or doing ten things at once.
Ultimately, that’s the tricky balance to creating and marketing general interest. It has nothing to do with lacking focus or spreading oneself too thin, but rather is to be both wide ranging enough to capture the beauty of diversity and yet still be satisfyingly substantial.