GIMMICKS, READERS CATCH UP WITH WHITTLE

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What does it tell you that while most media properties are booming, Chris Whittle's are floundering?

It tells you-at least it tells me-that his various enterprises were basically gimmicks to lure advertising dollars. Ads in books delivered free to recipients, ads in Special Reports magazines placed in doctors' offices, ads around posters sent to veterinarians-the ads were what his business was all about and what went around them was incidental.

That's not a long-term formula for success. The people who received his various ad carriers didn't give two hoots whether they got them or not, and that's why most of them eventually withered away.

Place-based media can be very effective, but their success always centers on whether they are a service to consumers and viewers.

Actmedia's supermarket aisle coupon machines, Turner's airport television and good old point-of-purchase advertising are examples of services that have proved helpful to consumers. Turner failed with TV at the checkout counter, however, and a similar TV venture aimed at shopping malls is destined to flop because people don't want to watch TV when they are doing something else.

Unfortunately, too many placed-based media operations have concentrated on the ad dollars and not on whether anybody really needs what they're offering. And many of them have been emboldened by Whittle's difficulties. They smell ad dollars looking for a place to go.

It was only six years ago when we proclaimed that the Whittle operation "could be the most active magazine publishing operation going."

It had about 40 media properties, including magazines, newsletters, videos, wall media and even a syndicated radio program.

"No one today is as successful at launching magazines as we are," Chris Whittle said at the time. "The mass media no longer deliver the impact or the audience reach for their advertisers the way they once did. With new approaches and new technologies, we found ways to directly target audiences."

That is true, he did. But it's one thing to "target audiences"; it's another to get those people to absorb the message. What Whittle discovered is that consumers found it easy to slip out of his grasp.

Whittle made a fatal mistake at the opening bell. When he announced "The Whittle Family System," six quarterly magazines distributed to the offices of 15,000 family practitioners, obstetricians, gynecologists and pediatricians in 125 major markets, he demanded that the doctors display only two other magazines.

Since magazines derive a good chunk of their total audience numbers from the high pass-along rate, the industry declared total war on the Whittle plan. As Hearst's George Green put it: "It's an extremely unfriendly action."

But if readers had actually wanted to read what Whittle produced he might have prevailed against the entire magazine industry. You can't automatically turn "target audiences" into satisfied readers, and that's a good lesson for all of us to keep in mind.

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