Sunday, September 3, 2006

Business Magazines Are Dying and It's our Fault!

The PPA make an excellent job of producing research that shows how important business to business media is to its recipients. We all know that this is true even without reading the research because our own experience tells us so. But business publishers are much cleverer than you think because over the last ten years they have been seducing readers with more media than just magazines. We have created trade shows and conferences, awards and databases, newsletters and directories. Business publishers have been powerhouses of innovation. The media buyer must be very happy.

To be fair, some are. But in aggregate Advertising Association figures show that in real terms, expenditure on business to business advertising at least, has hardly grown at all in fifteen years.

Many years ago, senior Reed executives used to talk about the information pyramid. They argued that if you deliver “must have” information your customers will pay you more and your company will make better margins. The more “must have” the information is, the higher up the information pyramid you climb and the more money you make. This simple and elegant view of the world has informed their strategic progress for years and has served them rather well. They sold their consumer businesses in book publishing and magazines (which are not “must have”) and acquired information rich companies like Lexis Nexis. The City rather liked what they did so they did some more of it.

When I was thinking about this I started to wonder whether the “must have” idea infected magazine publishing at all. Could it be that the content of business magazines is not good enough to inspire real growth in business to business advertising? If this hypothesis is true it’s pretty alarming. After all the heart of all business media companies is magazines and without them most of the other media diversifications that have been pursued would be pipe dreams.

Before outraged business publishers begin explaining how their publisher sponsored research proves that their magazine is read for hours at a stretch by the most important decision makers in the land, let me admit that there are some fantastic business magazines around.

The problem is that of the 5000 or so titles that are published in the UK, not more than a hundred of them would pass a test of editorial excellence. Too many business publishers have sacrificed their editorial integrity. Too much of the content is “advertorial”, that cunning blend of advertisement and advertisement, as Ian Hislop once so memorably put it. Too often the news desk is under resourced and left to cut and paste dreary press releases and then keep them separate with small, poorly reproduced photographs. My heresy is this; that 98% of the business magazine published in the UK are really not very good.

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