A New Conversation With Consumers: The Revamping Of Consumer Reports. The Mr. Magazine™ Interview With Editor, Ellen Kampinsky & VP General Manager, Brent Diamond.October 16, 2014
“A lot of the changes were designed to do two things: create a contemporary magazine, because readers are used to getting their information from a variety of media, particularly from contemporary, sophisticated magazines and we wanted to make our mission very obvious and clear.” Ellen Kampinsky
There is one rule of thumb for most any board game played; you have to roll the dice if you plan on moving around the board to win. Sometimes in the world of magazine media, the rules aren’t any different.
Since 1936 Consumer Reports magazine has been the most trusted source for reviews and comparisons of consumer products and reports from in-house laboratory testing in the world. But with the November 2014 issue, some things are changing, in fact a lot of things are changing, however the mission and focus of the magazine are not changing. Looking out for the consumer hasn’t changed nor will it change, according to Brent Diamond and Ellen Kampinsky, two of the driving forces behind the powerhouse magazine.
But is this the biggest gamble in the history of the magazine? Have they rolled the dice too hard with the revamp of a trusted brand with loyal and committed customers? And is having feature stories in a magazine that usually reports statistics, lists and reviews something the audience can relate to?
I went to Ellen Kampinsky, Editor, and Brent Diamond, VP General Manager, to find out the answer to those questions and many more about the “new & improved” Consumer Reports. I think you’ll find their answers very enlightening.
So sit back and enjoy the Mr. Magazine™ conversation with Ellen and Brent and learn how a 78-year-old brand can be reborn into the 21st century.
But first the sound-bites:
On the reasons for the change: Really the impetus for the revamp was to create a much more relevant and deeper engagement with our readers and secondly to highlight all the great things that we do on behalf of consumers.
On the reaction to the November issue (the first new edition released Sept. 30) from the magazine’s readers and others: Yes, we’ve gotten more feedback than we anticipated. Both positive, and there have been some detractors; change can be hard for people, these are very, very loyal, long-term subscribers. So, we’ve gotten a lot of both types of reactions.
On whether they went too far or this change was needed: A lot of the changes were designed to do two things: create a contemporary magazine, because readers are used to getting their information from a variety of media, particularly from contemporary, sophisticated magazines and we wanted to make our mission very obvious and clear.
On the magazine’s “Advocate” section: Part of the role of an advocate section is to be involved in a dialogue with the readers. It’s there for them and a lot of the information in that section is generated by them.
On whether they’re worried the revamp will shrink or obliterate the magazine’s original DNA: The part of our DNA that will likely never change is that what we really offer that other magazines don’t is tested, unbiased information for consumers.
On why their “no advertising accepted” business model works for them: There are people, as much today as ever before, who will pay for valuable information that helps them make smarter and better decisions.
On whether they ever envision a day when Consumer Reports will be digital-only with no print edition: I can foresee delivering the product in various and different ways, but I don’t think the mission and the core of what we do will ever change, whether there continues to be a magazine 20 years from now or not. I don’t know.
On whether more book-a-zine type products are on the horizon: Where we start from all the time is a need in the marketplace or a need that consumers have and if there’s a need there, we’ll try and find a way to fill it.
On what keeps them up at night: This is not a cliché, but what keeps me up at night is the thought of not evolving and not changing quick enough to match how consumers are consuming information today. (Brent Diamond)
And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Ellen Kampinsky, Editor, and Brent Diamond, VP General Manager, Consumer Reports…
Samir Husni: Congratulations on the revamping of the magazine. And I know that it’s much more than just a redesign. Can you tell me why you decided now was the time for this and the reasoning behind the change?
So what we have done is a fairly in depth analyses of our business and in the end a couple of things were highlighted: our subscriber base was pretty flat for the past six years. For every new subscriber that we brought in, we were losing a subscriber, so we were just maintaining and going along status quo.
Really the impetus for the revamp was to create a much more relevant and deeper engagement with our readers and secondly to highlight all the great things that we do on behalf of consumers. And we felt that if we combined those two things we could have a much more meaningful relationship with our customers and therefore we could find more customers and keep them. In a nutshell, that’s what we’re trying to do.
Samir Husni: I know the new issue has only been on the newsstand for a few days; what has been the reaction? Have you been bombarded with people sending you emails crying, “What have you done?” or have you been hearing the opposite, “Wow! We love it?”
Brent Diamond: One thing you should know is that newsstand is only about 7 % of our base of customers. And while that’s an important piece of our business, we’re more worried about the subscriber base. And yes, we’ve gotten more feedback than we anticipated. Both positive, and there have been some detractors; change can be hard for people, these are very, very loyal, long-term subscribers. So, we’ve gotten a lot of both types of reactions.
What we’ve done is invited the people who have expressed both the positive and the negative comments to join our advisory panel to help us to continue to shape and evolve the magazine.
Samir Husni: Ellen, as the editor it’s as though you’re taking this enormous cruise ship and trying to make a turn on a dime; do you think you’ve gone too far with the first issue or do you think you needed to make this drastic change?
Ellen Kampinsky: I think the magazine needed a couple of things to make it a successful, contemporary magazine. It needed some reorganization of the sections so that it was clear what the readers were seeing. We needed to highlight our mission; we added features that tell readers that we are working for them and tells them how they can get involved and be empowered. Some of these things are absolutely necessary I think, because we do something that no one else does; we’re there for the reader, not for advertisers, and I think it was really important to make that manifest. A lot of the changes were designed to do two things: create a contemporary magazine, because readers are used to getting their information from a variety of media, particularly from contemporary, sophisticated magazines and we wanted to make our mission very obvious and clear.
Samir Husni: And I noticed you’ve added an “Advocate” section to the magazine. So, are you going to be more involved than ever? The magazine has always had an advocacy role and a very consumer centric approach; how do you envision this new section adding to that existing role? Specifically because you’ve never had advertising and I doubt that you ever will and yet, you are one of the largest magazines in the industry.
Ellen Kampinsky: Part of the role of an advocate section is to be involved in a dialogue with the readers. It’s there for them and a lot of the information in that section is generated by them. And we get the intake on that, not just from the magazine, but also online and we recognize the reader is part of the media spectrum, so we ask them descending questions for the “Problem Solver” or “Ask Our Expert” and we ask them to get involved by signing a petition or by writing their congressperson or going online. We ask them to send in reader tips, either by mail or online and for the best reader tip we’ll pay them $100.
We just want this constant dialogue going on, this constant two-way street with the reader and that’s what the “Advocate” section is all about.
Samir Husni: Do you think that there’s a danger that you may have went too far and Consumer Reports is now competing with other magazines that focus on a single-topic cover story? I mean, do you feel that now the magazine is more in sync with the rest of the magazines that are available to the consumer? And how are you going to protect your DNA, which are the tests and the rankings that you offer your readers?
Brent Diamond: I think that particular issue (the first new issue) had fewer products in it than we normally have, that happened to be a fairly issue-oriented month for us and so while it might appear that we went a little too far, it was just the editorial make-up of that given month. I think you’ll see in the next issue that it’s much more heavily product-focused.
But the part of our DNA that will likely never change is that what we really offer that other magazines don’t is tested, unbiased information for consumers. So we have no problem telling you that this is a great product and you should buy it. On the other hand, we don’t have an issue with saying this really isn’t a great product and you should avoid it. And that will remain a very key component in what we do. And there is nobody else that does that.
Ellen Kampinsky: And the ratings will always be a part of our core product, the ratings and the listings. I mean, it’s a combination of product and services. And you’ll see a lot of that in the December issue.
Samir Husni: You are one of the few magazines left in the country that doesn’t accept advertising, not that you couldn’t get it, but you don’t take the advertising. Do you think this is a sustainable business model for 2014 and the future? And if so, why do you think other publishing houses aren’t going in your direction; you charge a hefty subscription price and you charge for your digital; why do you think it’s working for you and you’re unique?
Brent Diamond: There are people, as much today as ever before, who will pay for valuable information that helps them make smarter and better decisions. I can’t speak for why other publishers don’t do it, but for us it’s always going to be a value proposition for the reader, which really goes back to why we did all of this. We have to remain invaluable to all of these readers because that is our business and our revenue model. So the deeper we’re engaged with them, the more meaningful discussions we have with them, the more we’ve become a critical part of their lives, to the point where they don’t make big decisions without working with us.
And that’s what makes us different. I don’t know of another magazine or media company that really does that.
Samir Husni: Ellen, as an editor of a magazine that has no advertising; do you feel like you’re on cloud nine? Do you feel your responsibility is more or less?
Ellen Kampinsky: (Laughs) I absolutely do feel like I’m on cloud nine. It’s so terrific to be able to call a spade a spade, this works, this doesn’t work. It’s freeing and it makes you appreciate what journalism can do at its best.
Samir Husni: If the November issue is an indication of the future; where do you think the point of differentiation will be between Consumer Reports in 2015 and Consumer Reports before then?
Ellen Kampinsky: I think taking into account the people who consume their information in various ways, that the visuals are as much a part of the information as the text, they work hand-in-hand, recognizing how smart our readers are, how varied their lives are, and then I think it’s just cranking it up another notch to create the ultimate, ultimate service magazine; we’re already in first place there anyway, but then taking it up to the next level of service.
Samir Husni: You are doing all of these changes, but I read one of your comments where you said that you would never put one of the Kardashians on the cover. (Laughs)
Ellen Kampinsky: (Also laughs) Are you asking am I planning to change that? Maybe Justin Bieber? No, I don’t think so.
Samir Husni: You’re investing a lot of money in the revamp of the print edition, but do you ever envision a day when Consumer Reports will be only online or digital?
Brent Diamond: I don’t know. I think the way we all consume media is continually changing, but will there be a day when you don’t get a print edition of Consumer Reports? I can foresee delivering the product in various and different ways, but I don’t think the mission and the core of what we do will ever change, whether there continues to be a magazine 20 years from now or not. I don’t know. As long as people continue to want to consume media that way, we’ll continue doing it. But I believe the point is, we’ll evolve with our readers and the way they consume information.
Samir Husni: Ellen, do you think it would be different editing a magazine that does not have a print edition from an editorial point of view, one that is digital-only?
Ellen Kampinsky: Yes, it would. I think there is always going to be a role for print and that’s what we’re trying to do, evolve our print edition in concert with all our other products online and offline, into the highest form possible. I mean, we look at the graphics as one of our multiple entry points, we look at different ways to engage the reader and I think that’s our job right now, finding all those entry points and all those engagement points for them, that makes the print magazine being in concert with everything else we’re doing absolutely essential.
Samir Husni: Brent, I noticed you’re adding to the roster of special editions and SIP’s, having just launched the Reliability Guide; are we going to see more spinoffs along the lines of book-a-zines and the SIPs on the newsstands, from Consumer Reports?
Brent Diamond: What we always look for are our needs for information, so an SIP and a magazine is only one way of distributing that kind of information. But I think what we’re trying to do is give consumers information in the way that they want to consume it. Rather than us make the judgment as to how people should consume it, we’re kind of letting them decide.
Where we start from all the time is a need in the marketplace or a need that consumers have and if there’s a need there, we’ll try and find a way to fill it.
Samir Husni: Is there anything else you’d like to add or focus on that we haven’t discussed yet?
Brent Diamond: Well, I believe what is really key here is that by involving the consumer so heavily, we, in theory, should never have to go through a major revamp again, because if we do this right and we are having an ongoing dialogue with our customers, we should be able to evolve and change based on their input and their usage of what we’re doing. I think that’s a key component of what we’re trying to do, involve them in the process and not just be the spreader-of-all-wisdom; we’re trying to involve them in this process.
Ellen Kampinsky: I think a key point that Brent made is, OK – we’ve revamped the magazine, let’s sit back, we’re done now. No. This will continue to evolve as the readers respond, as we seek new ways to make it better and better. And that’s almost as exciting as not having any advertising. (Laughs) Almost, but not quite. (Laughs again)
Samir Husni: My typical last question; what keeps you both up at night?
Ellen Kampinsky: What keeps me up at night? Well, there’s always another issue to put out. I think any editor would say the next issue always keeps you up at night. Is it going to be the best, are we going to make the deadlines and is it being done to the very highest degree that we can.
Brent Diamond: This is not a cliché, but what keeps me up at night is the thought of not evolving and not changing quick enough to match how consumers are consuming information today. I worry about that all of the time. We have to continually evolve and change to help them make better decisions. That’s key.
Samir Husni: Thank you.