When times are good, or so it seems, the magazine business model always seems to tilt back toward that “advertising centric” model and the business of counting and selling customers’ eyeballs to the advertisers. When times are not so good, you start hearing about publishers who want to be in the “consumer centric” model and who are looking for customers who count rather than just counting their “eyeballs.”
My friend Roy Reiman, founder of Reiman Publications, proved it once, twice and more than a dozen times that the “consumer centric” business model for your magazine can and will work if your magazine is necessary, sufficient and relevant. Roy did it the 80s, 90s and the early parts of the new century. However skeptics today say it can’t be done now. Times are different. Indeed they are, and indeed before Roy’s huge success with his titles which ranged from Country to Taste of Home (the largest selling cooking magazine in America), someone else have been publishing a “consumer centric” magazine in Yonkers, New York aptly named Consumer Reports.
For years Consumer Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports published the magazine without a single page of advertising and not only the magazine succeeded, it also thrived. Well, taking a page from Consumer Reports business model, the publisher decided to launch a new magazine five years ago in the midst of an “advertising centric” thriving magazine business model. Times were good, very good indeed when the first issue of a new shopping magazine called Shop Smart appeared for the first time on the nation’s newsstands in September of 2006. Shop Smart was born with one catch to its business model: NO Advertising. Another attempt to launch a “consumer centric” magazine, not out of necessity but rather out of a philosophy and firm belief that the model still works.
Shop Smart celebrates this month its fifth anniversary and on that occasion I had the opportunity to interview Lisa Lee Freeman, the magazine’s editor in chief. In typical Mr. Magazine™ Interview’s style, what follows are the sound bites followed by a very lightly edited full interview.
The Sound Bites:
The positives of a “consumer centric” business model: If you are always depending on your readers to pay for content and to value that content, then you have a much more solid long-term business model, in terms of stability from year to year.
The negatives of a “consumer centric” business model: I think a lot of companies don’t have the patience to wait for something to grow using this kind of model. It’s not for everyone, that’s for sure.
The link between print and digital: We had decided early on that Shop Smart was going to be very Internet friendly and have a digital focus in terms of shopping.
The young ones who don’t read magazines: For the ones that don’t, you’re never going to reach that audience with print, so you need to have some kind of digital product. You need to be able to reach them and get them in the habit of paying for your content in the digital space.
The role of an editor today: Being an editor right now is a really big challenge. It is a big challenging time right now. You can’t just be a print editor. You can’t just think that you’re just this magazine editor. You’re a dinosaur if you think that way.
Best advice for future journalists: If you can package content in a compelling way that is your most important skill. That’s going to help you on any platform. It’s all about knowing how to package content for different platforms.
The future of print: I think print is still very vital and I think it will be for the foreseeable future but I do think that print is going to be translated into the digital space.
The role of printed magazines: We are in the business of delighting people and surprising people. People go on the web for more social interaction and information gathering and it’s less of that escape than curling up with a magazine. It’s a very different experience.
The function of a printed magazine: Magazines really are about enjoyment, finding a few moments to steal for you. Magazines provide that little escape. It’s fun that people still want that experience. It’s not just about the information.
The most important role of editors: It’s all about creating an entertaining experience. You’re a curator, as an editor and doing a print magazine you’re working within a very strict set framework that is very fun. It’s like painting a picture every month and you’re giving it to people to enjoy.
The changing role of editors: I still have to be really hands on but that is probably unusual in the business. You have to let go, if you love writing and editing then you might not want to become an editor.
And now, for the lightly, very lightly edited transcript of the interview with Lisa Freeman, editor in chief of Shop Smart magazine:
Samir Husni: We have heard a lot lately in our business, every time the economy is down, that we need to return to that consumer centric model instead of the advertising centric model. Why do you think, even a shopping magazine succeeds in this consumer centric model, and why do you think other people are not imitating what you are doing?
Lisa Lee Freeman: The truth of it is that when you start a new magazine and you’re not allowed to take advertising, it almost feels like you’re tying your hands behind your back. It’s like eliminating revenue that most magazines have. It is kind-of a crazy business model in some ways, but in other ways it brings discipline to the process because it requires you to make money on your content and not rely on advertisers. We’re not growing quickly in terms of subscriptions. We have to make money on every single subscription we sell and that’s a very high bar. You do sacrifice growth for profitability. In these times, I think a lot of magazines have gotten too dependent on advertising and that ultimately hurts a lot of magazines. If you are always depending on your readers to pay for content and to value that content, then you have a much more solid long-term business model, in terms of stability from year to year. You’re not going to have as much fluctuation. Once you have a subscriber they tend to stick with you and they are the ones supplying the funds.
SH: We live in an age now where nobody is patient anymore. Everybody wants everything now. Everybody wants to break even within six months, make money within nine months, and yet you are telling me that the consumer centric business model is more of a model that is slowly building, step-by-step. Does that drive you crazy as an editor?
LF: YES. We could have gotten much bigger much faster, if we had a different model. With that said, I think that people really value our content and when you charge for what you provide people are paying a price for the value. It has taken awhile for us to make money. At the end of the day, it takes years to get up to a level of profitability. You just have to have patience. I think a lot of companies don’t have the patience to wait for something to grow using this kind of model. It’s not for everyone, that’s for sure.
SH: Do you think Shop Smart’s business model would have worked if Consumer Reports was not behind it?
LF: No, I don’t think it would have actually worked. I think the Consumer Reports brand has provided a lot of support for the product. I think it would be very difficult to launch a magazine into the market place right now, especially given our economy. That foundation and that brand recognition we had right out of the gate really helped us. With that said, a lot of our customers are new to the brand and have never purchased any Consumer Reports products. While CR has helped because it has given a certain amount of brand recognition that is not the only reason people are buying it. What Shop Smart has done is really broaden the audience for the content we produce at Consumer Reports, which has been very satisfying for me.
SH: Lets go back five years in history… Can you recreate that first time you were told that you were going to publish a shopping new magazine, with no hypes, no ads, just great buys? When you first knew that Consumer Reports was going to do this magazine?
LF: When I came here I saw the need for a women’s magazine. I proposed this magazine and it was originally turned down. This was six years ago and I had just come on board at Consumer Reports. A lot of my friends weren’t reading CR because they thought it really wasn’t for them. It was boring and it was all about charts and graphs. They bought it but only when they absolutely needed it, like if they were buying a refrigerator they would pick it up or they would subscribe to the website. I thought that with the kind of information we had here we could create something really compelling without the charts, without the graphs. It could really be focused on just the best. Women don’t have a lot of time. Just tell people what to buy, what not to buy, and give them some tips on how to find a good deal. That was the genesis of my idea. I wrote a long proposal. Elizabeth Crow, the editorial director, at the time was wowed and thought it was brilliant. I had proposed that we really needed to test more women’s products. The company said they didn’t have money to test for a new magazine. We had several meetings and it kind-of got kicked to the side.
The art director, Tim LaPalme, at Consumer Reports, had pitched a magazine for young men and it was very visual and very much what I had envisioned for Shop Smart. It had short, little charts, it was quick and fast moving and more visual. He actually did some mock-ups. When they saw them the marketing department said “Wow, you know what, maybe we should do some focus groups.” The marketing department here is really smart and they invited a few women. The men in the focus groups were asking about the charts and icons for ratings. The women in the groups felt that this was something they might be interested in. The head of newsstand at the time came running down the hallway after the focus group and said “Lisa, you’ve got a magazine!” She explained to me that she was in the meetings for the original concept that I had come up with and she said, Lisa you should work with Tim, who was the designer for this other magazine. We came up with some more mock-ups. In my vision it was the women’s magazine that I had envisioned. We took out all ratings, even mentions of ratings, made it visual, gave it a completely different voice, a different look and feel, and added a lot of the how-to and the service stuff that women’s magazines are known for. We then went back out and did some more focus groups. Women went berserk— they loved it. Online shopping was really coming into it’s own, it was still early on but people were still really eager to learn about the websites they should go to and that sort of thing. We had decided early on that Shop Smart was going to be very Internet friendly and have a digital focus in terms of shopping. For the focus groups I put together all these fake websites and descriptions of them. I also added some wacky cleaning tips that I made up, like use pencil shavings and alcohol to clean all your chandeliers. We knew we had a winner when women in the focus groups were literally taking this made up stuff jotting down. They wanted to take the materials with them. I had to run in there after the groups were done and let them know these are not real websites and don’t use pencil shavings on your chandeliers. We had more focus groups and shortly after we launched Shop Smart.
SH: The magazine was born and it was ink on paper in this digital age. You have a very successful marriage between print and digital and CR has the same thing. Do you really think any magazine today can exist for 5 years without a digital presence?
LF: You have to have the right digital presence. I think a lot of publications made the mistake of thinking, ‘well, we’re just going to throw up a website and put a bunch of free content up there, so that we’re there and our brand is out there in the digital space.’ In some ways that was a big mistake because a lot of people got used to not paying for stuff online because they have all this free information out there. What Shop Smart is focusing on and what I hope to accomplish over the next several years is digital model with applications that will play off our material, things that people are going to pay for. The reason we all have to do this is even though we’re not going to make money off of it right away and there are not a lot of big bucks even where people are paying, we have to be there because if you spend any time with people in their 20s, you’ll find out that print magazines are not one of their things. A lot of them do read print magazines but a lot of them don’t. For the ones that don’t, you’re never going to reach that audience with print, so you need to have some kind of digital product. You need to be able to reach them and get them in the habit of paying for your content in the digital space. You can’t do that just by throwing up a free website and thinking that they’re going to become familiar with your brand and then they are going to start buying your print magazine. I don’t think this generation is going to do that. I don’t think we can count on that kind of transition.
SH: So, how do you capture them? How do you reach them?
LF: I think you have to reimagine the content that you provide and figure out a way to provide it in new platforms that people are willing to pay for; mobile apps, iPad apps, tablet apps, and things of that nature. A lot of companies are now creating TV shows and they have products that they’re selling with their brand. You have to find new ways to reach those audiences and you have to think about your brand in a whole new way. Being an editor right now is a really big challenge. You can’t just be a print editor. You can’t just think that you’re just this magazine editor. You’re a dinosaur if you think that way. We all know this. The challenge is finding the time and the resources to figure out what to do with all these product extensions and figure out how we are eventually going to make money off of these things. No one’s really making big bucks off these product extensions yet.
SH: Did your education help you or prepare you for this new role as an editor? What should we be doing in terms of educating and preparing for the future editors? Should we add marketing, should we add digital skills? If someone graduates with the basics, writing, editing, reporting, design, critical thinking… are you telling me this is no longer enough?
LF: I think it is no longer enough. We can’t lose sight of it. If you can package content in a compelling way that is your most important skill. That’s going to help you on any platform. It’s all about knowing how to package content for different platforms. That’s how you’re going to succeed. It doesn’t hurt to have some knowledge of digital, social media; editors need to be in the social media space. Editors need to be familiar with how it works and how it gets done. If your not doing it in school, you need to keep up with it and figure it out. If you don’t have the business and marketing skills, then you need a strong team behind you and really you need a partner. I don’t work with an ad sale rep, a traditional publisher that’s selling advertising, but I do have to partner with the business side in order to make the products get off the ground. So far, we only have a digital version of Zinio and on the Nook but we’re planning other things. If you don’t have those business skills, you certainly have to partner with the people on the business side to figure out how to make this stuff work. Sorry I’m stating the obvious, but it’s something I wrestle with everyday.
SH: A lot of magazines are killing their print editions and opting to stay online only. I tell whoever is willing to listen that if your magazine is dying in print, online only is not your ticket to the life after. If you are failing in print, digital is not the salvation. What do you think?
LF: I think print is still very vital and I think it will be for the foreseeable future but I do think that print is going to be translated into the digital space. Already we are seeing some interesting stuff with the iPad apps. Those really are magazines, it doesn’t matter that they are not on paper, they are still more or less traditional magazines the way they are put together. Print or digital, the way that they are imagined and the way that they are packaged are very similar. Add video, add some pyrotechnics but at the end of the day it’s all about creating an entertaining experience. You’re a curator. An editor who is doing a print magazine you are working within a very strict set framework that is very fun. It’s like painting a picture every month and you’re giving it to people to enjoy. We just finished a bunch of focus groups and from some of the informal discussions the one thing that we are finding is what magazines were to them. The thing that came about over and over again is that magazines really are about enjoyment, finding a few moments to steal for you. Magazines provide that little escape. It’s fun that people still want that experience. It’s not just about the information, it’s about providing an experience and entertainment, a little relief and maybe you’ll come away with some ideas you didn’t have before. We heard a lot of people in the focus group saying “wow, I didn’t even know I didn’t know that” or “I didn’t even know that was something I might be interested in.” We are in the business of delighting people and surprising people. People go on the web for more social interaction and information gathering and it’s less of that escape than curling up with a magazine. It’s a very different experience.
SH: What’s your biggest challenge today, as someone who has a success story on his or her hands?
LF: Time. I have no time. I do a lot of media as part of my job. I have three television appearances this week. Over the weekend I was on the Early Show, yesterday I was doing the Nat Burke show and I was there all afternoon, tomorrow morning I have the Today Show. I have to be out there being the spokesperson. I have my people out there too but there is so much media. I feel that I have to be part of that media machine. I have to be a solider for the magazine and be a spokesperson and engage with other media outlets; newspapers, radios, TV stations. We need to be part of the conversation. I feel like I need to be twittering. I think as editors you can’t just sit in an air-conditioned building all day, at your desk, cooking up page layouts. You have to be out there engaging with your audience in new and different ways that includes not just being a spokesperson but also figuring out ways to extend your brand and to reach people in different ways. There are a lot of days that I don’t even know what to do first and I feel overwhelmed because I know that there is so much work to be done. I haven’t even launched any of these products yet. I am working on all of these different angles. You are pulled in a lot of different directions, the biggest challenge is figuring out what do I do first every day, how to prioritize. There are days that I can’t do any editing at all. So little of my time these days is devoted to sitting down and planning and editing. I have such a small staff that I still have to be really hands on but that is probably unusual in the business. You have to let go, if you love writing and editing then you might not want to become an editor.
SH: What makes Lisa get up in the morning? What’s the source of energy that gets you going everyday, even if your day is a 20-hour day instead of an 8-hour day?
LF: I am so excited everyday, in spite of the time and prioritizing, I am really excited about what we are doing here and being a part of this brand, of this place, of helping people make good choices in their life when it comes to being a consumer. I feel like we do a lot of really good work here on safety, on getting good deals, and in so many areas of people’s lives. People get so excited about shopping and they are interested in making good choices and getting good deals and keeping their family healthy and safe. I feel like we are doing really good work here. I talk to people and they really feel gratified by Shop Smart. We have this cult following, we don’t have huge subscribers but the people that we do have are engaged. I get letters everyday saying how wonderful this magazine is. I feel so gratified every day because of the impact that we are having. Even though the magazine is not as big as I would like it to be, I feel like the impact goes way beyond the magazine because of all the media that we do.
SH: In 2016 you’ll be 10 years old, where do you see Shop Smart? Five years from now, what can you tell me about Shop Smart?
LF: I would hope that we would be a lot bigger. I would like to see us at 1 million. Even though we are growing so painfully slow right now. We are going to be a lot bigger and a lot more than just a print magazine. We are going to have a lot of other properties and a lot of other ways that we are reaching out with our information. I am hoping we will have all the apps, a much more enhanced website, and outreach through social media. I am hoping that the fruits of all my efforts right now will be seen in the next five years. It will be seen, as it’s own brand and come out of the shadow of Consumer Reports. It’s poised for really good growth and to be a recognized brand in it’s own right.