Reader’s Digest: A Return to Yesterday, But in a Fresh New Way…The Mr. Magazine™ Interview with Liz Vaccariello, Editor-in-ChiefMarch 17, 2014
“We wanted to return Reader’s Digest to what it had always been for most of its 90 year history and that is a place for reading…” Liz Vaccariello
Reader’s Digest, the magazine, has underwent a major revamp last January and has brought back some old favorites, while reveling in a more compelling and modern presentation for its readers. So the audience can still enjoy “coming home” to the magazine they’ve always loved, but also appreciate a fresher design and concept.
The ever smiling, laughing, energetic Liz Vaccariello is Vice President, Editor-in-Chief and Chief Content Officer of Reader’s Digest and while she loves the fact that readers have identified with the magazine for decades, to say she is excited and thrilled by the changes that have taken place at the magazine would be an understatement. Liz feels the fresh look of the magazine will attract a whole new demographic without losing the old one.
From a new logo which puts emphasis on the word “Reader’s” to putting the table of contents back on the cover; the magazine is proving that yesterday can still be enjoyed in today’s contemporary world and in the most fascinating of ways.
I visited with Ms. Vaccariello in her office in New York City and engaged with her in a conversation about Reader’s Digest, magazines in general, and the future of mass general interest magazines in this digital age.
So before you sit back and enjoy our conversation, watch her answer about the need for a mass general interest magazine today and then read the Mr. Magazine’s™ conversation with Liz Vaccariello.
And now for the sound-bites:
On her manifesto for the new Reader’s Digest: We wanted to return Reader’s Digest to what it had always been for most of its 90 year history and that is a place for reading. We wanted to say to the reader that we’re curators of interesting stories that are of lasting interest.
On cutting advertising and how long that will be sustainable: Our owners have invested huge sums in 2014 in a consumer ad campaign. Our demographic has gotten older and it’s because we’ve been marketing to the same gene pool for the last 20 years.
On connecting with a new demographic and shedding the image of “our parents” magazine and is that important for the future: I am very glad you said that. If our biggest problem in a consumer’s mind or our biggest challenge is their mother loved it; I can overcome that problem, because they associate us with their family home.
On feedback from the redesign and what the magazine has done over the last three months: This is a three inch thick binder that we went to Kinko’s and had made, double-sided, sever-point type; these are the letters that I received personally from readers, from January 1st to March 1st, so 60 days’ worth of letters, hundreds of letters; I’d say 85 to 90 percent of them simply thanking me.
On where she feels the magazine will be a year from now: Already our renewals and our insert cards are wildly over-budget and up year over year. So hopefully, next year I will have a story about huge consumer marketing success and reader growth and attention and buzz.
On what keeps her up at night: So what keeps me up at night is that I haven’t done this reader, many of whom have been with us for decades, and I value every single one of them, that I haven’t done this reader justice
And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Liz Vaccariello, Vice President, Editor-in-Chief and Chief Content Officer of Reader’s Digest…
Samir Husni: Reader’s Digest is witnessing yet another revival. The magazine, since January, has seen an uplift in sales, circulation, design and overall looks. Some people feel there is a touch of the old with a new life, rather than a woman’s magazine. What’s your manifesto for the new Reader’s Digest?
Liz Vaccariello: We wanted to return Reader’s Digest to what it had always been for most of its 90 year history and that is a place for reading. So everything we did from the change in the logo, where we amplified the word “Reader’s” to the streamlined design that’s much simpler and just highlights the written word, bigger iconic photography as opposed to little bits and pieces, to the table of contents on the cover; we wanted to say to the reader that we’re curators of interesting stories that are of lasting interest. And we’re going to make you laugh, we’re going to teach you something you didn’t know and we’re going to inspire you.
And the reason for it was because the whole company is about attending to the customer first. And that’s why we went with the premium advertising model. Our readers had complained that there were too many advertisements in the magazine and too many of them in the front of the book. So we now have a premium ad model where we said, OK, we’re going to put fewer ads in, but we’re going to charge more.
So everything we did was through the lens of looking at the customer, but also asking what makes us different? What makes the consumer need Reader’s Digest today? And the reasons are the same as they were in 1938 or 1948; you want something in your home that is an oasis from the snark, the pessimism, the partisanship and the celebrity cacophony that is our media landscape today with the 24 hour news channels and entertainment news. Reader’s Digest is an oasis from all that and it’s a place to quietly read and feel good.
Samir Husni: Do you think you’re putting your money where your mouth is when you say you’re cutting on advertising and how long can you sustain that?
Liz Vaccariello: We’ve done a number of things that have, to use your words, put our money where our mouth is. First of all, a year ago we went from 10 times a year to 12 times a year because many of our customers still didn’t understand why a magazine was showing up 10 times a year, it needed to be monthly.
That’s number one; number two is many of our readers are older and they complained about the paper. The paper had not only a glare because it was glossy, but it was also hard, it had an awkward finger-feel, it was hard for many of them to turn the pages. So we invested over a million dollars in this new paper stock.
And number three is our owners have invested huge sums in 2014 in a consumer ad campaign. Our demographic has gotten older and it’s because we’ve been marketing to the same gene pool for the last 20 years. We haven’t told the next generation of homeowners or head of households who would want a Reader’s Digest that we’re still around.
The first question that I get asked often when I tell people that I’m the editor of Reader’s Digest; the first thing that they say is “Oh, my parents got it when I was growing up. I loved that magazine. It was a part of my home growing up.” Which is lovely, but then you hear, “But I didn’t know it was still around,” because they can’t find it at retail and because we haven’t marketed it to new consumers. So that’s the third leg of this; our board is investing in a consumer marketing campaign.
Samir Husni: On the editorial and design side; what’s your secret to connecting with a new demographic? How are you going to shed this image of: that was my parents’ magazine? And is there anything wrong with being my parents’ magazine?
Liz Vaccariello: I am very glad you said that. If our biggest problem in a consumer’s mind or our biggest challenge is their mother loved it; I can overcome that problem, because they associate us with their family home.
When I interviewed President Barack Obama in the Oval Office; the first thing he said to me was when he was growing up his grandfather used to rip out “Laughter is the Best Medicine,” rip out the jokes in Reader’s Digest and give them to the President when he was a child.
So we have this heritage of sharing among family members down through generations. I don’t care if our readers are 95, 65, 45 or 15 years old; I get letters from all of them. We’re not a demographic; we’re a psychographic. And for people who want stories that are inspiring and uplifting, a little bit of humor that’s family-friendly and service that’s surprising, that they’re not going to find anywhere else, really the best of service, delivered in a package, we find the best of the best, in an easy-to-read format and an easy-to-hold format; that’s ageless.
Samir Husni: Being the journalist who always scans the desks of people he interviews; I see a big binder here with feedback on the redesign and what you’ve done in the last three months…
Liz Vaccariello: This is a three inch thick binder that we went to Kinko’s and had made, double-sided, sever-point type; these are the letters that I received personally from readers, from January 1st to March 1st, so 60 days’ worth of letters, hundreds of letters; I’d say 85 to 90 percent of them simply thanking me. Thanking me for taking these steps, fewer ads, better paper, wider and thicker paper. And bringing back even more of their favorite columns: News from the World of Medicine, You Be the Judge, Points to Ponder; putting some of the more serious and thoughtful pieces in the front of the magazine as opposed to all the food for advertisers.
Just thanking us and saying my old Reader’s Digest is back in a fresh way. How many editors get thousands of letters? I feel so gratified and humbled, that I keep this next to me to remind myself.
Samir Husni: If I’m interviewing and asking you about the magazine, a year later; what will you tell me?
Liz Vaccariello: Hopefully, I’ll tell you that so far, knock on wood, the first three issues at newsstand are scanning an average of 30 percent higher than last year. So already we’re getting attention at the newsstand.
Already our renewals and our insert cards are wildly over-budget and up year over year. So hopefully, next year I will have a story about huge consumer marketing success and reader growth and attention and buzz.
Samir Husni: What keeps Liz up at night?
Liz Vaccariello: This may sound strange, but this is like a little miracle. Every 30 days I know the blood, sweat and tears that goes into every picture, every caption and story, the right mix of stories. And what keeps me up at night is; I’ll wake up at 4 a.m. and have doubts about a headline in an issue that’s about to go to press or the lead isn’t quite right.
So what keeps me up at night is that I haven’t done this reader, many of whom have been with us for decades, and I value every single one of them, that I haven’t done this reader justice. That I haven’t done a good enough job. That I haven’t delivered the joke that’s the funniest or that I’ve done something that could offend them.
If that’s striving for perfection, well…I’m a Type A person, but you can never make a perfect magazine; it’s why I don’t golf, you can never master golf, right? You can never master a magazine. So I live in a constant state of worry that it could be better.
Samir Husni: Thank you.
© Samir “Mr. Magazine™” Husni, 2004
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