The print industry is battling a headwind of digital disruption. And like any industry amid turbulence, magazine publishers need to dig deep for the courage to transform — not just to ensure survival, but more importantly, to advance resilience.

This was the essence of the speech by our SPH editor-in-chief of English and Malay newspapers, Patrick Daniel, when he spoke about transforming the media business in the digital age last year. The words were not verbatim — this author admits to be seduced by Christensen’s idea of disruptive innovation — but the call for transformation was unmistakable in its urgency. 

The publishing business needs to accurately identify its core strengths and relative advantages, to quickly formulate responses in this volatile media climate.

This is the story about one such journey of transformation. This is a narration of learning processes we undergo in SPH Magazines as we revolutionise our businesses by disrupting the traditional magazines business cycle and opening new opportunities in the process.

The death watch: How do we get to this point? 

Contrary to how it may sound, there’s nothing cool about this. In fact, our journey began from an unenviable starting point: a death sentence. Such as this one. Or this one. And since third time’s the charm, this one.

You know you have hit the rock bottom when you have Newspaper Death Watch and a Museum of Dead Magazines erected in the industry’s honour. 

Clearly the old publishing model no longer works. Magazines cannot survive simply by offering paid ad spaces to brands. Technological sophistication means that brands are becoming savvier in developing their own private label media. Social media platforms allow brands to directly communicate with customers, while the latter make their sentiments — good or bad —known in real time.

So this leaves only two options for magazine publishers. 

  1. We can resolutely believe in the power of print and make print ads more attractive — experimenting with creative print executions, give more editorial support, boosting our titles’ visibility through strategic partnerships. In short, offer continuous innovation.

  2. Or we can revamp the whole business model — accept that print is not the be-all and the end-all, develop non-print platforms, and repackage our offerings to remain relevant to our partners.

In other words, continue the print publishing cycle or disrupt it altogether.

We decide to do both.

Magazines as a multi-platform solution provider 

As the first step, we went back to the drawing board to rediscover our raison d’être. We asked ourselves three tough questions:

  1. Whom do we serve?

  2. Who else is in the landscape?

  3. What is it really that we bring to the table?

The fact remains even today that magazines serve two masters: readers and advertisers. More specifically, we act as a bridge between the two entities — reaching them wherever they are, understanding their needs, and delivering a satisfying solution that meaningfully brings both together.

In fact, putting customers (that is, readers, advertisers, and agencies) at the center of our approach shifts the focus away from the print versus digital debate, which on hindsight was perhaps the biggest red herring in the publishing industry.

As INMA Executive Director Earl J. Wilkinson puts it: “We are too obsessed about print versus digital. Where we are … is neither print nor digital. We are a print + digital industry… a hybrid industry.”

Publishers gradually discover that it makes more sense to put the two together rather than pit them against each other.

So taking stock of all our existing brands, we lay them out according to print, online/social, and digital platforms to meet readers at every available touch point.

A brand campaign should be able to reach out to its target audience at any time of the day — whether they are taking a quick browse on mobile while commuting, leisurely browsing on tablet at night, catching a post-lunch read on their desktop, or flipping the glossy at the dental clinic. Also, it is important to offer them a consistent user experience which they have come to expect of a particular magazine title.

Still, the magazine reading experience does not limit itself to passive textual and visual consumption. Magazines offer an immersive, interactive experience offered through events that embrace the brand’s DNA. This is why our signature events such as Shape Run, Men’s Health Urbanathlon and Female 50 Gorgeous People have been such hit year after year.

Magazines also offer a physical tactile experience, highlighted through creative executions on print (e.g. paper creatives) and on digital (e.g. microsite, Augmented Reality, and branded apps).

Lastly, and true to our mission of bridging advertisers and consumers, we make a concerted effort to get to know our readers and offer advertisers a clear view of their consumer’s insights.

The SPH Magazines Integrated Solutions

We consolidate all these touch points into the SPH Magazines Integrated Solutions — a customer-centric, platform-neutral approach that we adopt across titles and platforms.

 This is our attempt to extend our core offering — decades of print publishing expertise — to make it more intuitive for readers to enjoy their magazine moment across touch points, while value-adding our professional partnerships by tapping into solid technical, event management, and research expertise.

This is all well and good until we realise we are no longer the only kid in the playground. 

How do magazines, as paid media, navigate their role vis-à-vis other types of media to remain relevant as a bridge between brand owners and consumers? 

Strengths of a legacy publisher: The ABC of magazines

Web 2.0 has changed the rules of the game. The role of media is no longer just providing paid ad space for brands. In fact, paid media like magazines co-exist alongside owned media, both aiming to help brands get their earned media — word-of-mouth from consumers that promotes loyalty among existing customers and recruit new ones. 

So where do magazines stand, and what values do we bring to advertisers? Why should brands consider parking their money with magazines when they can invest in developing their own Web sites, videos, apps and social media channels?

We take our cue from other industry veterans, where a little article by Mequoda on the ABCs of Publishing hits particularly close to home.

Don Nicholas, Mequoda’s CEO and lead consultant, sums up our situation neatly thus, “Here’s a huge strategic advantage for any legacy publisher. They have three things that other publishers don’t. I call them the ABCs.

A stands for Audience. The Fédération Internationale de la Presse Périodique (FIPP)’s Proof of Performance 2012 affirms our belief that “(t)he magazine medium’s essential strength lies in the active way in which readers choose and use their magazines, and thus find titles which connect with their personal self.”

This privileged relationship between a magazine and its audience is something that other media are unable to replicate, and is born largely from the very nature of the medium itself as a lean-forward media.

To advertisers, this means greater ease to retain and recruit customers, an increasingly difficult feat as the latter become more finicky and spoilt with choices.

Nielsen Media Index 2012 indicates that magazines inspire greater trust in advertisements compared to ads featured in other media. The reason, based on studies tracked by FIPP and Magazine Publishers of America (MPA), is partly because readers perceive ads as an integral part of the magazine reading experience. 

Greater trust in magazine content also inspires greater likelihood of consumer advocacy, which is the most effective form of advertising according to Nielsen’s Global Trust in Advertising 2013.

Unlike the old linear model of the consumer’s decision journey, purchase is no longer the end point for brand’s engagement with consumer. Instead, purchase is a watershed moment whereby consumers either stop just at that one buy or continue to be loyal to the brand.

Those who are already predisposed toward the brand due to positive ad exposure and engagement have higher likelihood to become advocates, which in turn propagates the brand’s loyalty loop.

B stands for Brand and C stands for Content. In the turn of the 19th century, these factors are enough to make the newsroom the most sacred space in hallowed publishing houses. But the growth of content aggregation tools has led to a “democratisation” of content, and today, everyone with a decent Internet connection can become publisher.

So what distinguishes legacy publishers like SPH Magazines from the abundance of online-aggregated, user-generated content out there?

First, content primacy. Everything starts with content. Share, search, and social only come afterward to feed on and aggregate these content.

Magazines have an inexhaustible archive of existing content that offers a solid foundation for brands that wish to elevate their own private-label media. All it needs is a good eye to curate the right content for the right campaign.

Second, content credibility. Magazines boast editorial expertise to create original quality content with distinct voice and personality. This credibility and coherence distinguish magazines content from content aggregator sites, which put together articles with varying quality and tone.

Content, in the right context, is king — but poor context kills content!

Ultimately, magazines’ brand equity and quality content help brands to cut through the clutter to stand out among competitors and reach their desired target audience.

Selling audience, brand, and content — not paid ads

So there we have it: audience, brand, and content.

While the ABC of Publishing seems intuitive enough at a glance, they belie a massive paradigm shift in the industry.

Sure we love our circulation dollars, but paid ads are sacrosanct. They are the lifeblood of any publisher. (In fact, an inexorable dip in the ad revenue is likely the main reason why the earlier mentioned Museum of Dead Magazines is so quickly populated. The idea of selling anything else but ads is downright blasphemous!)

But we also realise that a sole reliance in paid ads will make magazines completely irrelevant to — or worse, an adversary of — brands that are growing their owned and earned media.

So we will say it again: What SPH Magazines is offering to advertisers is quality audience, brand equity, and professionally curated content.

One way to tap into these is of course through paid ad pages, but this also opens up a new vista of value-added services for the publisher.

SPH Magazines takes up this challenge to provide end-to-end support in marketing solutions for brands. Developing both our paid ad platforms as well as tailor-made content marketing solutions to support brands’ owned and earned media allows SPH Magazines to maintain our performance advantage, while continuing to develop our range of core expertise and serve a broader pool of customers.

Paving the way to transformational change

We have been forewarned that the hardest thing about innovation, let alone a disruptive one, is to manage the organisational change that comes with it. But we’re getting there. The past few months have been a flurry of activities at our new media desk, as our digital media director, Joe, will be able to attest.

His team has been busy developing everything from interactive campaigns to branded app to tinkering with e-commerce, in support of our print and online properties

It is an exciting time to be in the publishing industry as the wind of change blows — although some turbulence is inevitable as we navigate our way to transform this headwind into tailwind. We are rolling out our ABC approach to the Singapore and regional market and are excited to hear what you think about this. Until then, welcome on board and enjoy the ride!  

A version of this article was first published in SPH Magazines Research Blog in January, 2014.