Despite Claims to Contrary, Magazines Still Rooted in Past

Few Titles Have Committed Meaningfully to Brand Management, the Web

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Two weeks ago Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, pleased delegates from the American Magazine Conference who were visiting his campus during their last session by telling them that the internet was a "cesspool" and that their brands could help with the necessary filtration project.

This was arguably the theme of the magazine publishers' annual shindig, which kicked off with Nancy Pelosi telling those of us assembled that the banking industry, which she and her colleagues were responsible for regulating, had also become a cesspool, and that she had just decided on our behalf that a wad of our money should be used in the clean up operation.

Accidental themes aside, Mr. Schmidt's theory is an interesting but flawed one. Of course trusted media brands would seem an obvious place to start a quest for information, entertainment or even goods on the internet, but that's simply not a role they've embraced or been given by consumers. Major magazines' corollary websites still account for only a tiny percentage of all web activity.

Very few magazines -- the exceptions being ESPN, National Geographic, Real Simple and The Economist -- can be considered brands that have established much meaning beyond their printed forms. Many think they have. Major publishers have repeatedly told me that their titles are also powerful brands, and this same conference's title last year was "Magabrands." (This year it was "Unleash the Power," which sounded a little to me like something Optimus Prime might say but at least employed real words.)

But magazines are not marketed like brands. They spend little advertising themselves to either consumers or the marketers that support them, and when they do, their messages tend to be focused on the content of the publication. In other words, their marketing isn't brand marketing; it's customer-acquisition marketing.

In recent years an increasing number of magazines have designated someone as VP-marketing or CMO, but more often than not this person is someone with a career in print publishing, not brand management. Even when they have big ideas to expand their titles' meaning into new avenues, they end up refocusing on the printed product and, at best, managing a few half-assed licensing deals.

Few have committed to the web, despite protestations to the contrary. There are still top-50 magazines whose landing pages are essentially ads for their print versions. Web teams are often a depressing fraction of the size of the print staff, despite the fact that running a compelling website probably requires more man-hours, not fewer, than putting out a monthly.

But nowhere is the magazine industry's stolid failure to embrace the web more obvious than in the realm of e-commerce.

Even as marketers and TV players have repeatedly tried to get closer to the holy grail of consumers being able to buy the items they're seeing in their favorite shows, magazines have refused to go this route. Why can't I buy direct from Vogue's 10 Most Wanted list (other than that I'd look ridiculously dodgy in those Christian Louboutin heels)? I love Outside's buyers' guide, but I can't throw that backpack I want in an Outside shopping cart? In a world made up of e-tailers, many of which neatly combine editorial filtering with making money, this just doesn't make sense.

A lot of magazine executives are -- whatever they say and however forward-focused their conference -- clinging to the idea that print will stay around. But with more and more of the advertisers who support media such as magazines looking for sales-based ROI on their dollars, I can't help wondering whether that's where they should be placing their bets.
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