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Peter Houston 

Marketing services, rewards and risks for magazine publishers

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The move to marketing services has gone so far for some publishers that they're not even really publishers anymore, says Peter Houston, founder of Flipping Pages Media. There comes a danger of publishers trying to be everything to everyone, and they need to make sure that they add real value and don't tarnish their magazine's credibility in the process...

It used to be a lot easier to describe the cogs in the magazine media machine.

Advertiser - a buyer of space to display advertisements.
Agency - a creator of advertisements to fill space.
Publisher - an owner of the space in which advertisements are displayed.

Digital media - more specifically content marketing - has royally screwed the simplicity of that paradigm. Advertising is no longer about space, or even necessarily about advertisements. Marketing is becoming less and less about sales messages 'shouted' from pages at potential customers, more and more about ongoing engagement through content-driven, multiplatform campaigns.

Earlier this month, Dominic Mills wrote on Newsline about YouTube's plans to help advertisers create video content. As Dominic said, there's nothing new about media owners offering to create advertising materials as a way to win business. The magazine market has seen more than its fair share of make-up merchants bundling box-ad layouts into the price of display space.

But the modern day marketing services offered by some magazine publishers are a far cry from the design and layout assistance used to snare short-sighted companies that wouldn't spend a penny on advertising if ad materials weren't thrown in.

Magazine publishers are now trading on their reputation for content creation, production, distribution and audience development to convince advertisers that they can deliver integrated marketing campaigns where once they just filled the space between the ads.

They're now taking on custom publishing projects that go way beyond old-school paid-for supplements. Microsites, games, webinars, entire content channels populated with native advertising (advertorial) content - the sky's the limit when it comes to content marketing.

Faced with the evaporation of space-based revenues - it's hard to know what's declining faster, print bookings or banner response rates - cash-strapped publishers spot an alternative revenue stream. Many even see the offer of slick marketing services as their only defence against brand owners setting up their own content operations; a preemptive strike against the self-publishing practiced by the likes of American Express and Red Bull.

The move to marketing services has gone so far for some publishers, they're not really publishers anymore. One of the most notable UK examples is UBM. The one-time B2B magazine powerhouse has reinvented itself as what CEO David Levin calls an "events-led marketing services and communications group." Not a bad move if you look at their recent numbers.

And it's not just print publishers jumping on the marketing services train. Over the pond, online pureplay Slate has launched the Slate Custom Group to help fight a drop in the effectiveness of banner advertising. The in-house agency develops and distributes $100,000-plus content marketing programs that have helped raise revenues by 26 per cent in the last year.

The publishers of the Atlantic magazine have gone a step further and established their own consultancy to work with agencies and help brands "understand the best ways of reaching its targeted audiences in a fragmented digital landscape." Whatever that actually means, the Atlantic group has moved.

So far so smart: In the face of slipping revenues... diversify.

But operating as a marketing services business means working directly with brands and that's a very different relationship from publisher and advertiser. The publisher doesn't simply sell space any longer. They're selling creative thinking, content and production skills, campaign management and, ultimately, customer satisfaction.

That's a very different mindset for a publisher that was once focused on creating and managing content that would engage a targeted but broad audience, irrespective of advertiser spend. In the past, ad space was bought in a space defined by the editors of a publication. Now, clients have a paid stake in shaping that space.

From project pricing to project management, the game has changed. If nothing else, brands expect customer service from their agencies. Are publishers going to take that on? Are the same content teams that produce the brand's foundation content going to produce content to a custom brief? Are they going to prioritise client projects ahead of the journalism that built the magazine's reputation with its audience?

If publishers are honest they'll admit that all an advertiser ever really wanted from them was their audience. Great journalism and fantastic layout, to an advertiser at least, were little more than audience bait. And if the bait has become less effective, it makes absolute sense for publishers to create better ways of catching the reader's attention on behalf of advertising clients.

The danger is that if the great journalism goes away, the publication's credibility will go and any reader attention with it. There is no doubt that modern marketers are looking to buy more than the space to display their sales messages.

But there is a danger of publishers trying to be everything to everyone. Anyone adopting a marketing service agenda has to be sure they give clients a reason to work directly with them. They have to add real value and make sure that the direct relationship between advertising brands and custom content doesn't tarnish their magazine's credibility as an independent information source. They need to be sure that they pay attention to the risks as much as the rewards.

Peter Houston writes about magazines - in pixels and print - at the Flipping Pages blog.

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