Monday, May 6, 2013

The lost of art of the magazine launch: too many publishers treat digital product launches like brand extensions rather than true magazine launches

There is nothing quite like launching a new title. The adrenaline rush is amazing... as can be the sleepless nights. Depending on the publishing company involved, a new title launch is like trying to get a new regulation through the U.S. government bureaucracy (an endless, unsatisfying experience), or it is like having a child (sometimes a spur of the moment decision, but always a life changing one).

I've been particularly lucky to have been involved with new product launches at both newspaper and magazine companies – at large bureaucratic institutions such as McGraw-Hill, and at smaller publishing firms, and at start-ups.

Generally speaking, a launch is a big deal. Many big media companies require corporate approval far up the food chain, as well as budgeting and five-year forecasting reports, not to mention a market analysis and an evaluation of the risk factors.

Sometimes, though, the company is so large that the best way to launch a new title is simply to go for it and reap the consequences later. My magazine launch was like this at McGraw-Hill. Exhausted from constantly being lied to by my boss when it came to resources I went ahead and launched a new title pretty much without approval, but knowing that if the first issue didn't make at least one dollar in profit I'd be canned (it did make that dollar, but within a couple of years I'd had enough of the BS of the place).

Part of any launch, at least in "the old days," was promotion and marketing. It was de rigueur: any launch without a marketing plan was not going to happen. Marketing was as important a part of the launch as was research, budgeting, forecasting, and prototyping (which involved design concepts and editorial calendars).

One trend I have noticed in the 3+ years of publishing TNM is how varied launch strategies are in the world of digital publishing. The art of the launch seems to be in a dark ages period now, partially due, I am guessing, to the fact that so many publishers do not see their digital products as new launches at all, but merely brand extensions, or distribution extensions.

It is easy to see why so many publisher don't look at a new Newsstand app as a launch: a replica edition produced by a third party vendor seems like an exact copy of the print edition; involves little, if any cost; and is usually meant to add incremental dollars to the existing print budget.

The problem with this, though, is that poorly promoted apps generally product poor results, leading to the conclusion that the Newsstand (or Amazon, or Google Play) is a poor place to launch new products.

In conversations I have had this year with publishers who have launched new tablet magazine apps into the Apple Newsstand (or even as stand-alone apps) I have been able to do a little research myself about the approach many publishers are taking to new digital magazine launches.


It is extremely difficult to get good numbers about the market penetration of the iPad as Apple, while publicly announcing its iPad sales, does not break them out by market. Amazon gives out even less information useful to publishers. But I've found that many publishers are interested in knowing the size of the market what awaits their new launches and have been doing a decent job of producing some research.

For B2B publishers, in particular, email surveys of reader interest in a new tablet edition is becoming more common. While this is harder to do in the consumer field, B2B publishers, with their controlled circulations, often have good email lists of readers and are able to survey them for tablet ownership, reading habits, etc.

On the downside, though, I find that few publishers about to launch a new edition inside the Newsstand have any clue about existing publications inside the store. One of the reasons for this, of course, is that Apple has made a mess of the Newsstand – and iTunes, in general. The goose that laid the golden egg is treated by Apple as garbage dump: readers have to go in there and forage for themselves, Apple provides little guidance, and no effective tools for finding what you want.

A recent conversation with a publisher who had just launched a tablet edition into the Apple Newsstand ground to a halt when I asked them their opinions of a couple of the other magazine titles they would be competing with inside the store – what did they think of them, their designs, pricing, etc.? Most often the publisher was not aware of the other magazine, and never compared those titles already launched with what they planned to launch. It would as if a print publisher of one bridal magaZine had never looked at the other print magazines in the bridal category – something that would be unthinkable in print.

Budgeting & Forecasting

I know few publishers who enjoy budgeting and forecasting, though they realize that they are simply part of what makes them publishers. In the eighties and nineties, it was rare for an editor to get promoted to publisher as it was common to promote someone from the ad side. The reason for this was often said to be because the publisher was really a bureaucrat who could motivate sales and strategize with editorial. Most B2B publishers I've known did the budgets for their editors due to the lack of enthusiasm for budgeting showed by the head of editorial.

But in the past decade the power has shifted to editorial, and with it much of what used to pass for standard operating procedures has with it.

But today, tablet editions are most often launched by "the digital team" – that group (or individual) tasked with the job of finding a cheap and easy way to create a Newsstand app. I spoke recently to a DD (Digital Director) and asked them if they have created a budget for their new tablet edition? No, was the answer. That's for the publisher, I was told. Well, I asked, is the publisher involved with the decisions about the new tablet edition? No, that's my job, I was told. Catch 22.

By having someone not directly tied to the publication in charge of the new tablet edition launch, all my other questions could not be asked: what was the revenue model for the tablet edition? would the ad team be selling new ads? what was the goal for subscription sales? Those questions could not be asked because they hadn't even been asked internally, or if they had, they were not asked by the same people directly involved in the launch.

Marketing & Promotion

Many magazines have a regular promotion calendar where each issue gets promoted a certain way, somethings with actual ad dollars included. But for the most part issues are promoted in simple ways such as email blasts, a press release, a spot on the website.

A new print launch, however, is often promoted in a major way. A digital launch, though, is too often simply considered no launch at all. One can somewhat understand this when the attitude of the team behind the launch do not see their new digital edition as a new product.

While I think this is not a good way to think about the new digital product I at least understand it. But many new digital-only launches are treated the same way. Because they are digital-only for some reason they do not get the attention of the marketing team as a new print launch.

At the very least, a new digital-only magazine should have its own supporting website, Facebook page, Twitter account, etc.

One publisher I spoke to recently had a great attitude about their digital launches: every new launch deserves a launch party. It is a good way to look at it and is a reminder that if you aren't treating the launch of a new digital product as something special odds are that no one else will think it is special either.