Big Change For a Big Media Change Agent and a Big Publisher

Laura Lang has a proven and powerful track record as a media change agent.

As CEO of Digitas, she helped uber-marketers like Procter & Gamble and American Express move smartly into digital advertising. And she is conversant and fluid with new publishing platforms – and knows how to make them profitable.

Now, she’s been asked to lead Time Inc., and its 21 venerable titles, which include Time, People and Sports Illustrated.

Time Inc. has absolutely amazing brands with outstanding reputation, heritage, editorial staff, and customer bases; but, at the same time, the business model of magazines is structurally breaking.

What an interesting – and tantalizing – choice.

And you can’t be a media leader today, unless you’re willing to innovate on the business model itself.

Which is why Laura seems so promising.

I love the idea that at Time Inc. she’ll be able to innovate in core product, just like she did at Digitas. I also love the notion that she’ll aggressively develop new products for advertisers.

What will be new to her is the actual business of publishing – a business where Time Inc. stands stronger than almost any other player.

The central question for me is whether Time Inc. is ready for the change that a leader like Laura will want to (and need to) bring.

Indeed, Time Inc. has fundamental open questions to address when it comes to its own relevance in the digital world.

While the powerful brand of Time magazine has set the American agenda for decades, Time.com has wandered.  In the past, Fortune magazine always spoke to the most important business issues and people; but today, its online brand is less clear, with basic confusion even in its home-page address (http://money.cnn.com/magazines/fortune/). This simply muddles Fortune, Money, and CNN.

To be as successful in the next century as it’s been in the past, Time Inc. will have to adapt more fully to the digital world. That means developing new business models, as well as new attitudes toward consumers, advertisers, and the product itself. It will also require a healthy reinvigoration of key brands, an area where I think Laura may especially shine.

All of this will take nuance, to bend things without breaking them.

I’ll end the year on an optimistic note, and say that I hope Laura can finesse major innovation for this major publisher. If she can, watch out world – because very interesting and far-reaching things will happen.

People StyleWatch: Print Magazine Learns Five Lessons From Digital Media

People StyleWatchDespite the significant economic pressure they are under, it’s all too rare to see a print magazine let go of tradition and embrace a new model.  So I was delighted to find that at least one Time Inc. magazine is doing just that.

Stephanie Clifford’s article about People StyleWatch in the New York Times last week shows what happens when offline executives adopt a digital mindset.  Clifford points to a number of things that Susan Kaufman, People StyleWatch’s editor, is doing well, and notes the results:  8.6% circulation growth in the second half of 2009 and 130% growth in ad pages in the first quarter, easily besting a shrinking industry.

Although I wouldn’t call it top-tier journalism (does “Find Your Perfect T-Shirt Bra!” really merit an exclamation point?), People StyleWatch replaces an elitist, artistic view of its subject with a pragmatic appreciation of what their audience likes.  It’s a habit learned online and applied offline.

Here are five lessons from online media that the publication is successfully bringing to print:

  1. The text is brief.  Photo-heavy pages with short captions work.  They make for easy scanning, moreover it’s a fashion shopping magazine; ultimately readers care more about the products than a writer’s description of them.  Ironically, although the content is brief, it is resulting in 93 minutes average engagement, with each easily consumable section leading to the next.
  2. The content is advertiser-friendly.  Any web site that is ad-sponsored knows how important it is to create “context” and targeting for advertisers in order to add value and charge higher rates.   Shopping is one of those brilliant subject choices where advertising is content and vice-versa.  It is analogous to paid search online: because searchers are often looking for businesses, their click throughs and effective CPMs are far above internet average.  Moreover, People StyleWatch is open to creating pseudo-editorial sections with featured retailers (such as the recently announced JCPenney partnership).
  3. They offer exclusive discounts. Consumers love to get a deal, and coupon / discount web services (including the recently hyped group-coupon genre) are very popular with women online.   People StyleWatch goes beyond the celebrity watching and fashion trends to become part of their readers’ lives, changing the value proposition from just entertainment to a great way to get more for less.  In so doing, they are enhancing the reader’s experience.
  4. There is a clear call to action.  Most of the products include not only pricing information, but web sites, 800 numbers, and in some cases, text messaging options for buying information.   This is beneficial for both readers and advertisers.
  5. Content costs are low. Some of the most successful online properties such as Facebook, YouTube, and Yelp rely primarily on user-generated content.  Successful online publications like The Huffington Post regularly feature guest bloggers.    Traditional high-cost content is increasingly difficult to support profitably with advertising given the fragmentation of media consumption in recent years.  People StyleWatch features lower cost content, with research consisting of quick calls to publicists or product marketers, and images from paparazzi or retailers rather than expensive celebrity photo shoots.

This is more than just flexing editorial styles to meet the expectations of web-addicted younger readers.   The magazine is embracing a new business model with lower costs and more attractive content for advertisers that allows it to grow in an otherwise contracting space.  They are hitting on one of the key success factors for Publishing 2.0, namely an adaptive business model.  Time Inc. CEO Ann Moore, who has led the People brand for more than a decade in various roles, no doubt is taking notice.

Regardless of your personal opinions of the content, the results – in both readership and profitability – are hard to dispute.