Publish or Perish: Using Custom Publishing to Drive Sales

Taking a swipe at the growing parade of major brands adding custom publishing to their direct marketing mix, USA Today business writer Theresa Howard recently labeled such customer publications “admazines” and “magazine-length ads.”

Claiming the trend started about ten years ago, Howard reports how Coca-Cola, Nike, Ford and other major brands are jumping into the “self-publishing” arena in order to have “100% control over the editorial content” and to have a “slam-dunk opportunity to promote marketing partners?and bolster their brands.”

Except for most of her facts, Howard is correct about custom publishing.

Customer magazines and other customer media can be slam-dunk opportunities for bolstering brands and building deeper relationships with customers. They can also complement other direct marketing activities. However, if they are perceived by the recipient as magazine-length ads — print equivalents to infomercials — then they’ll be as compelling and effective as, well, a really bad corporate website, another medium in which companies have 100% editorial control.

The practice of sending “self-published” magazines to customers is nothing new. Indeed, one of the first began back in the ’90s by John Deere — the 1890s. Deere has been publishing The Furrow continuously for the past 106 years, making it one of the longest continuously published magazines of any type in the U.S.

The magazine, produced in-house by Deere, is distributed quarterly through its dealer network to farmers nationwide. While keeping customers up-to-date on John Deere innovations, the magazine can hardly be called an ad, as most of its stories are profiles of innovative farmers and how-to tips on topics ranging from agricultural insect control to coping with computer software bugs.

Far from being magazine-length ads, custom publications often have an advertising-to-editorial page ratio much lower than, say, USA Today. For instance, a new magazine for New York City-area teens started by Coca-Cola will have only one page of product advertising.

In order to compete for reader attention and customer retention, the publishers of customer magazines can’t fill the publication with self-serving hype, but must carefully craft an editorial product that meets a reader need. By doing so, it enhances and reinforces the sponsoring product’s brand.

In much the same way successful direct marketers practice the art and science of merchandising on each page of their catalogs, the successful publisher of customer magazines must carefully balance the sales needs of the company with the interest, lifestyle and brand expectations of the customer. Rather than infomercials, great customer magazines are like Hallmark Hall of Fame: compelling content artfully produced, reaching the desired audience within the context of a trusted brand.

When executed successfully, a customer magazine can create an experience, a sense of community, or an entertaining environment of discovery and learning, in which the direct sales experience can be enhanced.

Recognizing this, many savvy direct marketers are even morphing their catalogs ? or at least portions of them ? into magazine-like products, perhaps taking a cue from the success of Abercrombie and Fitch’s quarterly catalog-magazine, A+F Quarterly.

The publication has grown to more than 300 pages with the center 100 pages providing a catalog of the store’s latest fashions. On either side of this catalog well, the editorial content ranges from satirical to sensual to edgy alternative journalism. College-age models are featured in lavish photo spreads wearing Abercrombie clothing or nothing at all. And often, the photos feature little product placement. Turning controversy into opportunity, the store now shrink-wraps each copy and sells them in their stores for $6 each to ID-carrying customers.

The magazine works as a sales vehicle, traffic generator and a brand enhancer because it carefully blends the best of direct marketing practices with compelling editorial and design to craft a publication that is a greatly anticipated and consumed editorial product by its intended audience.

After a century of success with readers ranging from farmers to frat houses, customer magazines and newsletters continue to prove they can be a solid foundation for an effective relationship marketing and direct sales effort.

Seven Tips for Successful Customer Magazines

What can direct marketers learn from the longevity of customer publications like the John Deere’s 106-year-old Furrow Magazine or the hip popularity of Abercrombie & Fitch’s A+E Quarterly, part of the $1.5 billion in annual customer media industry estimated by the Custom Publishing Council of the Magazine Publishers of America? Here are some lessons from their success.

1. Know your audience. John Deere and Abercrombie & Fitch know theirs. Rural rugged or campus chic, your publication will work only if it fits naturally into the work and life of its readers.

2. Don’t make your magazine (or website or newsletter, for that matter) a magazine-length advertisement. Hype is hopelessly boring.

3. But don’t refrain from aggressively selling your products in your customer publication. There’s a difference, sometimes subtle, between introducing your customers to great products and providing them the means to make a purchase with the less-effective hyping of new product features, or worse, the company CEO.

4. It’s all about the relationship. Most custom magazines are intended for existing customers, rather than to attract new customers (with some notable exceptions). You’ve hit a homerun when your magazine becomes the centerpiece of a conversation among you and your customers.

5. Have a clear mission and purpose. Are you using your editorial focus to reinforce your brand by setting your message in the context of a certain lifestyle? Or, is your mission to create a more informed and educated user of your product. Knowing your mission can lead you to choose from a vast array of editorial approaches: from coffee table glossy to rugged professional journal.

6. Execute with precision. You are not merely competing with other customer magazines. You are competing for your customer’s attention with all other media.

7. Integrate all customer media. Make sure your customer media all work together, from content on your website, to email distributed newsletters to magazine. Let each reinforce the other.

8. Utilize research. Know who among your customers respond to your publishing efforts. Seek to compare the purchasing patterns of customers who receive the publication with those who do not.

Want to know more about customer magazines? Visit Hammock Publishing.

(This article, by Rex Hammock, originally appeared in ADV Magazine.)