My Magazine Alphabet Starts and Ends with a C: The ABCs of PublishingJune 18, 2012
In the big debate over digital first and print second, digital first and content second, one major voice has been ignored: the customer’s. Before I am ready to declare a winner in these heated discussions, I urge you to remember that as journalism changes with the times, so does our audience. I have always believed, and will continue to do so, that the customer comes before anything else, and here is why.
Hank Price is the president and general manager of WXII-TV, the Hearst-Argyle owned NBC affiliate in Winston-Salem, N.C. He is also a senior fellow in broadcast news strategy at Northwestern University’s Media Management Center, where he teaches in both the domestic and international executive training programs.
Recently, I spoke with Price about “customers first.” He identified two important changes influencing consumers today:
1. Choice and 2. Control.
“The consumer wants to achieve choice, on their own time, and at their own pace,” Price told me. “And they want to control the content on their timetable, not ours. That’s why less than 60 percent watch TV programs at their originally aired times.”
He also added the four criteria that consumers are looking for:
1. Trusted sources. His take: “Content for our customers still trumps everything else. It doesn’t matter whether you have an iPad, an iPhone or a PC with the most brilliant screen resolutions available, if you don’t have what your customers are looking for in content, you might as well have a stone tablet with markings on it. They’re not buying it.” My take: It’s not about the platform, but rather the folks behind, and in charge of, the platform.
2. Immediacy. His take: “The public today not only expects immediacy in their content, they demand it.” My take: To borrow a line from Fleetwood Mac: “Yesterday’s gone.”
3. Screen size. His take: “Screen size is growing in the workplace, and getting smaller at home. More people are buying and enjoying apps than ever before. Once you create that magnificent content, you have to give it to them the way they want it. Above all, it’s their choice.” My take: It is a crazy place out there. After years of buying bigger and bigger TVs for our homes, now we are watching TV on our iPhones.
4. Quality. His take: “This means detailed quality in whatever platform you’re using. Whether your priority is pixels, screen resolution, or the paper you’re printing on, quality is mandatory.” My take: The days of poor quality pictures, paper, etc. are in the past.
I always add a fifth criterion that is absolutely proven in our current market. Customers today are looking for an experience. Good content is no longer enough by itself; we have to become experience-makers.
Going back in history, our forebears in this industry knew who their product was for: not themselves, but their customers. It didn’t matter what they liked; it was what their audience wanted that was uppermost in their minds.
Mother Jones magazine was founded on the principle that working men and women come first. It has always championed the underdog, been David to the corporate Goliaths and is still operating under the same mission statement the 17 members of its staff voiced some 36 years ago. Mother Jones’ founders envisioned a magazine devoted to a new brand of socially conscious journalism—one that took on corporate as well as political power. Today, that mission remains as timely as ever.
“Customers first” would have to be the prime mission of this magazine. After all, the Irish-American trade union activist, Mary Harris Jones, inspired this truth-seeking publication. Its history and present-day success validates its mission statement wholeheartedly.
The legacy of “customers first” is a rich and distinguished one. Time magazine’s commitment to its readers was prevalent from the beginning. The goal of Henry R. Luce and Briton Hadden was to deliver a magazine intended to
bring news to the mass public in a better way than the competitors of its day, such as The Literary Digest, which they considered their only real rival. Luce and Hadden wanted to break the news down into categories with each category delivering short punchy news pieces that the busy consumer could quickly understand and absorb.
The success of their innovations and mission statement to make news more than just bland facts, written down in black and white, validated their belief in caring about how their customers read and reacted to the news of that era. The philosophy carries over to the readers of Time today; the magazine’s longevity is a statement of that validation.
You can’t think “customers first” without mentioning Reader’s Digest. It was, and is, just what its title implies: A digest for its readers. Reader’s Digest was launched from the springboard idea that the founders (DeWitt Wallace and his wife, Lila Acheson) could provide their readers with the best value for their money by combining a “digest” of information: magazine, newspaper and periodical, all in the pages of one publication. However, after being unable to get any publisher interested in what seemed to be an impossible task, the couple decided to take on the mission themselves. They used direct mail as their marketing strategy and charged $3 for a year’s subscription, with a money-back guarantee. The magazine was launched in 1922 and was an instant success.
Wallace and his wife sought to save their readers money by giving them more varied content between their pages than the average magazine. For that reason, they more than validate their mission statement, and prove that a business model aimed at giving your customer the ultimate experience can, and will, succeed, no matter the odds.
Which brings me back to the fifth point on our criteria list: creating that experience. All of the above-mentioned publications went beyond the norm for their era (even beyond their own means, in some cases), to bring their readers more than just words on a page. They used the power of content to fight for justice, and to help right wrongs they saw inflicted. They tried to entertain, as well as to inform, and they sought value for their readers, when they could have, instead, just put their product out there like everyone else was doing. But they knew who mattered.
Experiences and encounters will be remembered—that’s the key. And when you give your customers the right experience, the sort of real encounter that effects all the senses, you are moving toward the stratosphere of real success.
Also, if you can realize that customers today want to have choice and control in their hands, not those of the publications that seek to maneuver them this way and that, the debate over which should come first, digital or print, will cease to be everyone’s main focus.
The main focus should always be our customers. No matter the format. End of story.
This column appeared in the May/June issue of Publishing Executive magazine.