For Magazines, It’s About the Brand

I spent a couple days this week locked in a room with a bunch of top magazine editors, and the rest of those days mingling with other leaders in the magazine industry. New York-centric, but also a fair representation from around the country, especially Washington, with a smattering of Texas, California, Colorado, the midwest, etc. I was a little bit of what someone once called a polar bear to penguins -- I sometimes felt like a different species. They asked what I did, I told them digital media, and we’d of course get into a discussion about how they could improve their magazine Web sites, what they could do to better the content from the magazine online, what offshoots there should be and so on.

“Stop right there!” was more or less what I said, in polite ways. The challenge for so many of these folks, I thought, was in defining their brand strategically and then devising digital media to fulfill the missions of those brands. Think of those brands and how they convey and atmosphere, a realm, an audience, a mission -- anything from Foreign Policy to Teen Vogue, from Atlantic Monthly to Maxim, from GQ to Hello. If you’ve picked up an issue of any of these, you know what they are, what they stand for and maybe even who there audience is.

For magazine brands’ digital media, it’s not a question of:
  • Whether the magazine or a larger organization that includes a magazine should have sway on the Web site. (Should the company or the individual magazine control the “.com.”)
  • Whether the marketing or editorial department should oversee it all.
  • Whether content from online should inform the magazine or vice-versa. It’s not an either-or, nor should the question be phrased that way.

The magazine is a different medium than the Web, which may again be many media. The metrics and operations and concept of the magazine should not be imposed on the Web or mobile WAP site, any more than a TV show borne of a magazine would be. You might, in conceiving aTV show, say “what do we have that can make this TV show more interesting, enhance it, be a cross-promotion.” But you would not -- unless you wanted to be really boring -- insist that the show hew to the structure, form and content of the mag. Nor would you insist on any straight-line connection in story selection, order of presentation or the like.

Likewise, for the Web, it should be first: What are we? What do we stand for? A policy magazine for retired Americans? The ultimate guide for the ski enthusiast? The magazine of luxury for those who can afford it? Discussions about life and society? Who is our community? What do they want/need? And so on. And with that in hand, conceive of Web content, structure, materials, staffing. Throw in business imperatives as well, if you need to. (What of these ideas and sections will attract revenue from ads or subscriptions or lead generation and such.) What blogs, social network, email and the like should we institute? How excited can and will our community be? What will keep it all flowing and bubbling and hopping and interacting? That will free the thinking to go much beyond a Web site, to anything from podcasts to Twitter, Pownce or myriad other applications to numerous tolist.
Rather than an anxiety-producing exercise -- which is how I interpret some of the furrowed brows I saw -- it should be a wonderfully creative exercise that takes initiative and figures out the digital presence that will work. works, I think because those who’ve put it together have defined the brand as all things by for and about food for foodies. has a community of avid TV fanatics, perfect for their brand and happy to yell at each other online and get text message news alerts about their favorite shows. I’m not sure how well Meredith’s Better.TV works, but it is a creative effort to translate the Merdith home and lifestyle magazine concept to a TV-style presentation without necessarily making it conform to any magazine.

Yes, the technology and technological choices are important -- as, in magazines, are the choices about typeface and ink and printing plants. But those choices should flow from the overarching concept, and be guided by the larger imperatives. The operational choices of course will always be a balance, but the first questions can and should be whether the defined goals and missions are being fulfilled. I say: first define the goal, then worry about the rest

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