Were Publishers the First DTC Brands? How 2 Areas of Marketing Align

DTC brands are hot entities. Practically any consumer product can be translated to a paid subscription business model. As a direct result, circulation and subscription marketing professionals have become very attractive new hires to the growing bevy of direct-to-consumer brands.

DTC brands are hot entities. Practically any consumer product can be translated to a paid subscription business model.

As a direct result, circulation and subscription marketing professionals — a mainstay of the direct marketing discipline for decades — have become very attractive new hires to the growing bevy of direct-to-consumer brands. In reverse, too — publishers are enriching their content offerings for their customers in service to them, acting as DTC brands, themselves.

That was a main thrust at a recent joint meeting of the Direct Marketing Club of New York and The Media and Content Marketing Association. The joint meeting, titled “What DTC Brands and Publishers Can Learn from Each Other in Today’s Subscription Economy,” allowed publishers to exchange ideas with DTC brand reps and others.

DTC brands meeting
Source: DMCNY, Twitter @dmcny | Direct-to-Consumer Brands, Publishers and their Admirers exchange perspectives around customer value and experiences.

“Magazines are the original DTC,” said Mike Schanbacher, director of growth marketing at Quip, a subscription business for toothbrushes and dental care,. He noted that traditional circulation metrics, such as lifetime value and churn rates, very much factor in the business and marketing plans of a subscription commerce company.

Alec Casey, CMO of Trusted Media Brands Inc. (TMBI, which manages 13 brands, among them Reader’s Digest), described how his business continually explores expansion of product and content — to books, book series, music and video — and potentially podcasts and subscriber boxes.

“We are always DTC,” he said, meaning that customers’ interests drive every brand extension in the company.

Data can reveal interesting patterns, he noted. Visitors to Family Handyman digital content is 50% men, 50% women, for example, while print content is dominated by men.

DTC Is High-Speed

One hallmark of the newest DTC brands is velocity.

“When bananas and avocados are sitting in the warehouse beneath you, there’s urgency,” said Tammy Barentson, CMO of Fresh Direct, who previously had had a lengthy career in publishing with Time, Meredith, Hearst, and Conde Nast. Innovations are sought for and tested constantly … and rapidly: “There’s a mindset here … ‘That bombed. What did we learn?’’ ” she said, which is a marked change from her previous publishing posts, where testing was more considered.

Barentson also noted that the Fresh Direct executive team meets every morning to listen in collectively on each department’s dashboard of metrics — and that can inspire action.

“There’s a lot I can learn from operations and customer service data,” she said. “For example, how many deliveries are made per hour might tell me geographies where I might focus more customer acquisition.” Her own team pores through subscription data — who orders groceries one, two or three times a week, or just for special events — “how do we bring them up the food chain?” she quipped.

One of the first publishers to capitalize on digital was Forbes and Forbes.com, said Nina LaFrance, who is Forbes’ lead for consumer marketing and business development. Today, the corporation’s digital sites generate 80 million unique visits per month — but it’s the drill-down on the data that is perhaps the most exciting, enabling Forbes to help advertisers connect with customers across print, digital, programmatic display, brand voice, social channels, live events, apps, webinars, and more. Forbes has its own in-house studio to help brands develop content for marketing across the portfolio.

“We adapt and embrace,” LaFrance said, responding to the all the challenges and opportunities presented to publishers and DTC brands alike — issues, such as coping with “walled gardens,” tech giants, privacy laws, data restrictions and regulations, and the Cookie Apocalypse.

Communities Are Sticky

A common theme expressed by the panel was the desire to create a sense of “membership” and “community” — going beyond the transaction to create “stickiness.” That’s where content development matters. “

At Quib, we try and give a membership feel,” Schanbacher said. “Data is the goal,” noting the better consumer understanding and insights that come from content engagement, data collection, and analysis.

However, not every piece of content translates equally to profit, LaFrance reports.

“Visitors to our home page, or who respond to direct mail, may be more profitable to us than those who link to an article from a social post,” she says — and the ability to measure that customer value across channels is a success, in its own right.

Which is probably the most valuable insight of all. These professionals — DTC brands and publishers — revere how data serves, bolsters, and builds the customer relationship, and they have all pursued a shared culture for measurement, insight, and application to build the brands, build the business, and connect to consumer experience. As subscription commerce grows — it has doubled in the past five years — we know how invaluable such data reverence can be.

No, B2B Media Doesn’t Have an Ethics Problem

It broke my heart when I read the recent blog post “B2B Media, The Ethics Virus & The Pursuit of Consumer-Grade Experiences,” which argued the majority of B2B/trade publishers have a problem of selling out editorial integrity to advertisers. In the piece, Publishing Executive editor-in-chief Denis Wilson wrote, “If you think your organization is immune (from editorial integrity issues), I’d wager you’re a minority or just wrong.”

It broke my heart when I read the recent blog post “B2B Media, The Ethics Virus & The Pursuit of Consumer-Grade Experiences,” which argued the majority of B2B/trade publishers have a problem of selling out editorial integrity to advertisers. In the piece, Publishing Executive editor-in-chief Denis Wilson wrote, “If you think your organization is immune (from editorial integrity issues), I’d wager you’re a minority or just wrong.” Also, that “B2B media has an especially nefarious legacy of playing fast and loose with the journalistic craft.”

I may have taken the post personally, having been a B2B publisher on and off for 40 years. I never sold a word and, must admit, I have no memory of thinking my competition did either. I do not suggest all B2B publishers are beyond reproach when it comes to bending to advertiser pressure. I do say the vast majority do not do so, nor do they have a culture of selling out.

When I came up in the business, there were storied trade publishers like McGraw Hill, Chilton, Gralla, Penton, CMP and many others. There were fat magazines with solid content that industries relied upon, such as Variety, Automotive Week, Billboard, American Banker and Aviation Week. I used to read Crain publications like the old Ad Age with as much enjoyment as consumer books. Women’s Wear Daily, famously known as WWD, had such quality journalism it gained a significant consumer readership.

In the post, Wilson talks about how B2B publishers today are finally learning “quality original content drives audience engagement and monetization.” Those publishers mentioned support my view the industry was built on quality content.

The ASBPE Focus on Ethics

Ethics was indeed discussed at the ASBPE conference. As Wilson points out, that is to the credit of the journalists in attendance. I heard everything Wilson did, but recognized that those few stories of difficult advertiser pressure were presented not as the norm. The example of one publisher giving into ad pressure was worthy of discussion, because that publication had never crossed a similar line before.

We heard about when the rigid wall between church and state required an editor to stop dating an advertising sales assistant or be fired. Another example described when a feature story was written about an industry problem for which a big client happened to advertise a solution. The advertiser relationship had not driven the story. The fact the publisher had to pull their hair out over whether to run the ad opposite the story opener speaks to their integrity. They were worried that although ad and story had no causal relationship, it would simply look like they did. In my opinion they made the correct decision to run the ad opposite the opener, that it was helpful to readers and no lines were crossed.

Yet Wilson and I reached different conclusions as to why ethics was discussed so prominently. To me, it was a reflection of a profession that thinks that is how important editorial ethics are, not to cure endemic problems.

Think back to all the articles Publishing Executive and other media publications ran when native advertising first became a thing. Despite most of us having published advertorials in the past, there was overwhelming pushback that native adverting crossed a line. It was not just theoretical venting. Truly, a majority of B2B publishers during those days told me their staffs would not let them entertain the notion of native. The knee-jerk resistance speaks to a culture not in the habit of doing things for advertisers.

Editorial Contributions

The article correctly acknowledged the importance of editorial contributions from industry experts who happen to work for advertisers or potential advertisers. I’ve been an editor and publisher my entire career, but today as I write for Publishing Executive I am a vendor. My instincts have me steer clear of writing about what I sell and Wilson and I discuss anything I fear may be too close to the line. That has worked out well.

In his post, Wilson attributes industry contributors to low budgets. No doubt that is a huge driver; but there is more to it. I was associate publisher of a trade book called Modern Horsebreeding in the ’80s. Guess who knew much more than all of our writers? The veterinarians and pharmaceutical companies. We did occasionally run articles by their experts — there were no such thing as blogs — though never once tied them to advertising.

When I published a magazine and then website about RFID technology, we were thrilled to get some deeply knowledgeable pieces from industry experts. Sadly, most were not advertisers. But this was terrific content and simply had nothing to do with advertising. If a prospective advertiser really liked that we ran their engineer’s helpful information, great. We’ll take all the good vibes we can get with prospective advertisers. Conversely, when an advertiser complained that we didn’t run their content, we would invite them to suggest a topic. We provided written guidelines they must adhere to, advertiser or non-advertiser. We edited each piece and were glad to consult as they worked on it. I believe approaches like these and those of PubExec are the norm.

The Opposite Reality

From what I have seen, advertiser pressure is something ad salesmen feel more than it being a routine reality. I personally sold ads for decades and ran ad sales teams. Ad salespeople are always hopeful the magazine runs articles plugging clients; it’s in the blood. They sometimes whine to editors about running more copy on their clients. In my experience, editors mostly ignore them with thinly veiled pity.

One speaker at ASBPE said advertisers were purposely overlooked and not written about to avoid the appearance of corruption. As Wilson wrote, “the sticky politics of accepting vendor contributions wasn’t worth the trouble.” In my experience, this is far and away the bigger secret we all carry: advertisers tend to get screwed. We heard how one company mandated that editors not use advertisers as sources for stories. I have personally seen multiple situations where editors avoid calling executives at advertiser companies for quotes out of fear it would look like the publication was kissing advertiser butt.

Big advertisers are often the larger companies in any given industry. These same companies have the biggest budgets for research. These companies are often actually involved in many newsworthy issues and situations because of their commercial reach. It would be self-defeating to avoid tapping their knowledge; yet because of the fear of appearing unethical, I have seen this time and time again.

Advertisers, too, might surprise you. I will never forget at my RFID publication a news investigation that we ran on the cover slammed perhaps the largest company in the industry at that time. They were not advertisers and I thought, well, we’ll never see a dime from them. But it was an important, well-reported story. To the lasting credit of an SVP of Intermec, he told his ad department to place some cover ads in our new magazine. He felt the industry had to support quality journalism.

I repeat: Of course I have heard stories of pay-to-play. The few I’ve heard are memorable because they are rare, not pervasive. One former VP of editorial told me long ago he was made to run feature interviews with some advertisers. Again, that stood out in his mind because it was the opposite of everything else in his career.

I am not saying B2B publishers are ethical saints. Wilson made some excellent suggestions in his post on what editors should watch out for. However, I do believe the B2B publishing industry overall is not rife with virulent ethical lapses.

Lavishing: A Branding Must Do!

I was already familiar with the radically different publishing company called Twelve, and had used them as a model in some of my client work. One of the publisher’s key points of differentiation is that it purposefully publishes no more than 12 books a year. This is a contrarian approach, as most of the publishing world simply does not work that way. With over 1 million-plus books published just last year (according to Bowker’s figures), most publishers release a plethora of titles.

I was already familiar with the radically different publishing company called Twelve, and had used them as a model in some of my client work. One of the publisher’s key points of differentiation is that it purposefully publishes no more than 12 books a year.

This is a contrarian approach, as most of the publishing world simply does not work that way. With more than 1 million books published just last year (according to Bowker’s figures), most publishers release a plethora of titles. Most have their A list books/authors, B lists and C lists, and plan promotional dollars and energy accordingly. Out of all those millions of titles each year, only a few will trickle to the top of our country’s reading lists and generate worthwhile conversation, information, and entertainment. Most of the rest get lost in the shuffle until they are “remaindered” (like a funeral for a book).

But it was one verb in The New York Times description of Twelve that made me linger: “Twelve is an experimental boutique publisher dedicated to releasing far fewer books than a traditional publisher, with the implicit promise that an unusual degree of editing, publicity and marketing would be lavished on each book.” LAVISH. That really was the publishing company’s brand differentiator. The product developers (in this case publishers/editors and publicists) were lavishers.

Twelve’s mission statement declares: “Talented authors deserve attention not only from publishers, but from readers as well. To sell the book is only the beginning of our mission. To build avid audiences of readers who are enriched by these works-that is our ultimate purpose.” They go on to share 12 Things To Remember about TWELVE … here are just a half dozen:

  • Each book will enliven the national conversation.
  • Each book will be carefully edited, designed, and produced.
  • Each book will have a month-long launch in which it is the imprint’s sole focus.
  • Each book will have the potential to sell at least 50,000 copies in its lifetime.
  • Each book will be promoted well into its paperback life.
  • Each book will matter.

For Twelve, lavishing works. Its books garner rave reviews, bestseller list success, and have won almost every publishing award available.

Lavish. It’s a powerful brand action. How might having a lavishing mindset make your brand more focused? Create more relevant products? Delight more of your customers? Why not spend a few minutes creating a “Lavish List” and just see where this verb leads you!