Ebony Aims for Rebound With Redesign and Circulation Consultants

Making New Pitch After Missing Rate Base for a Year and a Half

By Published on .

Ebony magazine is introducing what it calls its first cover-to-cover redesign since its introduction in 1945 as part of a bid to regain momentum after missing its paid circulation guarantees to advertisers for a year and a half.

Ebony missed its guaranteed rate base of 1.25 million by an average of 6.5% in the second half of 2009, 10.8% in the first half of 2010 and 20.2% in the second half of 2010, according to its statements with the Audit Bureau of Circulations.

Ebony's April cover
Ebony's April cover

It places most of the blame on its prior circulation management, which it says it has improved by outsourcing it to circulation veterans last October. Their diagnosis found insufficient direct-mail campaigns and prices that were occasionally more aggressive than other magazines.

"If you're not constantly reaching out and asking people to come back on, they fall off," said Rodrigo Sierra, senior VP-chief marketing officer at Johnson Publishing, which owns Ebony and Jet.

Last August Johnson Publishing named Desiree Rogers, the former White House social secretary, to take over as CEO, just one of several personnel changes that might play a role in Ebony's effort to rebound.

Ebony's latest step is the redesign from Amy DuBois Barnett, who was named editor in chief last June, and Darhil Crooks, who joined in January as creative director from Esquire, where he had been art director.

"This is a top-to-bottom redesign, not a small one," Ms. Barnett said. "This is everything from introducing an evolution of our 65-year-old logo to really taking apart every single page in the magazine and putting it back together with an eye to the brand pillars that we now think best reflect our target demographic."

"In talking to our demographic I saw that there are so many African-Americans who are doing extremely well and yet everybody talked about striving," she added. "The people I really want to make sure read this are really goal-oriented and working on improving their lives. I've woven that theme throughout the book."

A new eight-page section called Elevate, for example, focuses on inspiration, empowerment and advocacy -- intended to deliver a mind, body and spirit perspective more than just tips on losing weight or what kind of berries to eat, Ms. Barnett said.

Other elements include four new editorial departments, a first "evolution" of the logo, cleaner design and a new color pallet.

Ebony has also been suffering in ad page sales. Ebony's ad pages declined 11.2% in 2010, compared to a 0.1% slip across magazines as a whole, and sank 38.9% in 2009 while magazines on the whole fell 25.6%, according to the Publishers Information Bureau.

The circulation shortfalls didn't help. "We can now go out in the marketplace and say we'll be back to our 1.25 million in the first half," said Stephen Gregory Barr, the former OK magazine publisher who was named senior VP and group publisher at Johnson Publishing last month.

"A lot of people were saying, 'Oh, they're damaged, they're going to fold,'" Mr. Barr added. "Even with the slip we were a little under a million. The demand didn't go away. We're now coming to the table saying we're still here."

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