Earlier this month, I represented my company at the annual American Magazine Media Conference. Some of you may know me as a blogger, M.O.M (“mean old mom”), or recipe writer, but I’m also the CEO of Rodale Inc., the publisher of magazines like Prevention, Men’s Health, Women’s Health, Runner’s World, Running Times, Bicycling, and Organic Gardening (which will relaunch as Rodale’s Organic Life in Spring 2015).
The Association of Magazine Media, which hosts the conference, always wants to know what’s ahead. Magazines have gone through a rough patch these past few years, with ratebases (the technical term for guaranteed delivery of an audience), advertising budgets and consumer attention all taking major hits. Think about it for a minute. You’ve probably been guilty of it. Why buy a magazine when you can look up exactly what you want on your phone right away? Or, in old-fashioned terms, why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?
So the main theme of the conference was “What’s Next?” What’s next for magazines? What’s next with technology and creativity in publishing? How will things change? What do we need?
Well, what the magazine industry really needs is fresh ideas on how to increase readership and revenue — for free! And here are mine (but next time, I’m charging for them):
1. People love personalization. Personalization in the magazine industry is not a new idea. I remember someone coming up with it at an offsite meeting in the early 1990s. Why has it taken us all so long? For example, as a travel lover, I would pay extra for newsletters (digital or print) or special editions that focus specifically on the areas of my interest. And if you ask me what they are, I will tell you, and then you can sell that information to advertisers. This is not rocket science…
2. Magazines should learn to apply frictionless customer service for print products. Why does my 8-year-old STILL have to wait six to eight weeks for the first issue of her magazine to arrive? Seriously? Where’s the immediate gratification of a welcome packet with a thank you and some stickers? Where’s the excitement of an introduction to the love of a lifetime? Can’t afford to give it to her? Raise the price. This works for grown-ups, too.
3. People want high-quality products and great service. And they will most likely pay for it. This is why people go to nice hotels and great restaurants and return again and again to their favorite stores. It’s the little things. The personal touches. The fact that a product or a place or a person helps to makes their lives easier and better.
4. People want experiences. I still find it amusing that people will pay a lot more money to run a race and get really tired and sore and sweaty than they will to get a yearlong subscription to a magazine that they can enjoy from the comfort of their couch. There’s a lesson here for us: People want to feel connected, inspired and challenged. A print product is just one tool in the toolbox to help make that happen.
5. People want to learn. Yes, education is the next big thing in digital … but for a reason. There is a lot of very superficial and not-that-easy-to-navigate stuff out there online. But if someone really wants to learn something and learn it well, there’s no substitute for a real class — whether online or in person, via a video or one-on-one. If we take a minute to rethink about what business we’re really in, we can have heaps of opportunities to help people learn!
6. It’s not the love of print that’s gone — it’s the business model that’s broken. Plenty of people still love print. Take books, for example: E-books have leveled off at about 30 percent of all sales. After the initial thrill, people remember what they love about the real thing — everything from the feel and smell of real pages to the fact that batteries never run out and that hard copies look good on their shelves. (And, by the way, independent bookstores have had three great years in a row)! Same with magazines. You should see my 8-year-old with her baby animal posters from the National Geographic Kids. There’s a party in the house! We as an industry have undervalued our products and overvalued ourselves. We’ve allowed our margins to be eaten away by everything from the post office to huge overheads and high expenses while giving away our best content for free. Somebody, somewhere (and soon) is going to figure this out and create a new business model.
7. Real people will rule the road … and that’s a good thing (#nofilter). For decades, readers have been asking to see real people in our magazines. But we still insist on creating overly airbrushed images that just make our customers feel poorly about themselves — well, many of them, anyway. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that one of the best-selling Men’s Health covers of the past year was the one with a real reader on the cover. Social media have given real people a platform and leveled the playing field. We will never go back to the “good old days” of editor-as-king — real people will rule now. Anyway, I remember those days, and I don’t want to go back either.
8. Trust is priceless — and easily lost. It’s not just “native advertising” — it’s about the whole relationship with the readers and what we are pushing toward them. If they detect that the soul of an editor is for sale, they can smell it a mile away. For example, I’ve personally seen people on Facebook angry that some publishers have accepted money from a certain chemical company for ad pages. Could I use some extra money? Sure. But you won’t find us accepting that money because it goes against the trust Rodale has built over 70 years. Trust … it’s hard to keep and easy to lose.
9. Publishers need to believe in themselves again. The role that an independent and honest media play in society — especially a democratic society — is essential and precious. Freedom of speech is not about the freedom to insult and be hurtful; it’s not about unleashing an army of trolls under the digital bridge (although, that’s covered under the First Amendment, I’m sure). It’s about informing people about the things we all need to know to be good citizens of the world. All sides, all stories, without judgment or disdain for our readers. This is serious! Having said that…
10. We also need to start having fun! I have a theory that the reason people love animal videos online is that they’re just plain happy — genuinely loving and positive. (And if you are uncomfortable with that, may I politely suggest therapy.) At a recent social media meeting at Rodale, we went around the room and asked attendees what their favorite social media platform was. Almost everyone said Instagram. Why? Because it’s fun, positive, significantly absent of horrible angry debates that can never be won, and just lovely to look at. Maybe if we all start having fun, people will want to join us in that fun. Real people. And real advertisers. I’m ready for this future. Are you?
Maria Rodale is the CEO and Chairman of Rodale Inc. She is an activist and a businesswoman who has made promoting the benefits of an organic lifestyle both her personal mission and her business.