A crafty editor builds his brand by fishing for Palm Pilot readers

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It was late. The day's work had edged to a close and my brain needed the uncluttering only an engrossing narrative could engineer. I leaned back in my facsimile Herman Miller Aeron, pulled out a gripping short story I'd heard so much about (entitled "The Perfect Fire," it had already been optioned to Warner Books and was a sure cinema sale down the road) and started reading.

"The men who fight fires in Worcester, Massachusetts, spend a lot of time waiting," Sean Flynn's story of death-by-inferno began. "They sit around on chairs they fish out of the Dumpster behind Commonwealth Stationers."

I couldn't put it down. Good thing it was in my Palm Pilot. Good thing Esquire magazine put it there.

Yes, Esquire. Left for dead several years ago. Not relevant to this fast-paced world of venture-capital transacting, technology-devouring, rave-gracing nouveau hipsters. Still insistent that the story is king, that emotions rule, that men like to read. That Esquire has just come forth with the most crafty, contemporary application of new technology to classic purpose I've yet seen in the conventional periodicals industry. Best of all, the venerable monthly did it in support, not violation, of its brand values -- and will wind up tapping a whole new audience as a result.

"There's a need in print these days to try to broaden your audience," Esquire's editor, David Granger, told me the other day. "With a magazine like Esquire, which is on the rebound, to find the readers we want, especially when your circulation department tends to think traditionally, can be frustrating. As I thought about those readers, it's people who own Palm Pilots or should own them. So when this idea came up -- and with it, the possibility of reaching a million new eyeballs -- I though it would say to them, `Take another look.' "

I want to tell you about this novel idea. But first, a word to the magazine junkies and gossip mavens who, knowing my history with Esquire (I was canned), may be tempted to divine double meanings in my words: Don't.

If you think you see irony, you are wrong. I am an admirer (and occasional lunch partner) of David Granger; I know how difficult the road he's had to slog. I can also see -- via the increasingly frequent, flattering media mentions, the nominations and awards, the ad growth -- that the world is circling back to his way of thinking, which he describes thusly: "The only way I know to connect to readers is to tell great stories and make them laugh, make them cry, make them afraid, engender an emotional response, so they'll come back to the place they got it."

Hence the beauty of Esquire's multi-platform program. For many years, the magazine has met the dog days with an issue devoted to summer reading. Granger (no one attaches "Mr." to his name) wanted to give the great bulk of the number to only four, long pieces, fiction and nonfiction, each devoted to a writerly, adventurous narrative. While the notion hewed to the Esquire tradition, the stories' lengths, in this era of abbreviated attention spans, was quite bold.

So was a concept advanced by Deputy Editor Peter Griffin: Publish the stories electronically -- before they appear in print. Brendan Vaughan, Esquire's Web editor, was dispatched to explore deals -- or "alliances" as they're known in the New Economy. He recommended Esquire affiliate with Peanut Press, a Web-based operation that publishes electronic books for PDAs. Peanut saw the Esquire brand and content as a chance to showcase its technology. The Peanut deal joined other arrangements the magazine made, including one with Rocket eBooks, which helped plant Esquire on the Barnes & Noble and Border's Web sites.

Granger says he's anticipating 10,000 to 15,000 downloads total. "But I feel certain," he added, "that one million people or more will have seen the promos, and connected us to an innovative idea." And not just any people; Esquire has showcased the multi-platform gambit at advertiser lunches, and sent Rocket readers to advertisers.

Oh, and the total cost of this inspired digital strategy? Other than the extra effort the staff put into formatting the pieces for the tiny screens, nothing.

The problem with so many New Economy business models is they depend on consumers -- excuse me, I mean people -- changing habits of the heart or life. More would-be billionaires ought to spend time, as Esquire did, trying to bend technology to our extant desires -- and our business needs.

Mr. Rothenberg can be reached at rothenberg_randall@strategy-business.com.

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