Print is the new black.
I vividly remember the look on my VP of Finance's face when he saw the invoice. "This food better look fucking amazing," he said. It was $1,500 billed to a food stylist, who'd been part of a photoshoot we'd done involving ... fortune cookies. I was not, at the time, working at Real Simple. Actually, I was not working at a magazine at all. I ran marketing at a 40-person tech startup selling marketing software.
Like many companies in our space, we had a thriving blog, which generated traffic and sales leads. And yet, we knew that our readers were mainly practitioners -- digital strategists, marketing managers, growth hackers -- and not the Fortune 500 executive types who had power over purchase decisions.
In a world that's now inundated with digital content of every size shape and form -- in which each and every vendor is pumping out blog posts, tweets, ebooks and webinars, and even your Aunt Kim is pivoting to video -- we've reached a tipping point. Some call it "content shock" -- the idea that today's marketing is defined by the exponentially increasing amount of content intersecting with our limited human ability to consume it. (Like everybody else, I spend a not-insignificant sum of money each year on tools that block things: ad blockers, call blockers and spam filters.) The oft-used analogy is that digital marketing now is the equivalent of shouting into a hurricane.
Print with purpose
Enter the marketing print magazine. NeueHouse, Acne and Design Hotels are just a few recent examples of self-publishing brands.
I was recently approached by a CEO who wanted to turn an ebook series into a beautiful series of hardcover books; another CMO wanted to take all the most popular blog posts his company had written over the course of the previous year and turn them into a big glossy magazine, complete with custom artwork and photography, which could then be mailed to their top clients and prospects.
Analyst firms have taken note. A recent Forrester report suggests that b-to-b marketers should "Repurpose digital content in physical formats to leave an enduring impression," and emphasize visual elements in their marketing materials. This is a stark departure from the old format: statistics wrapped in text and hidden behind a lead form.
True, this is not an entirely new approach. Branded magazines have been around as long as modern advertising, and the custom publishing industry is based on the demonstrated value of branded content, predicted to be a $20 billion industry by 2021.
While consumer companies have long used the tactic -- take John Deere's The Furrow, which published its first issue over 120 years ago -- b-to-b companies are the most recent adopters. It makes a certain kind of sense: for companies where marketing is relationship-driven, a piece of content that feels not just created but carefully crafted sends an important message about longevity and quality. Not to mention that a well-crafted print magazine is a clear differentiator for b-to-b companies, who have been slower to adopt this tactic than their B2C counterparts.
That doesn't mean the model is perfect. The organizational attitudes and skillsets required to make a magazine -- art direction, editorial design, line editing, etc. -- are not things that come naturally to most digital marketers, who are experts in lead attribution and retargeting but less familiar with things like prop styling and typography. Google's short-running Think Quarterly, which was well-intentioned but ultimately torpedoed by lengthy approval chains and lack of executive buy-in, is a lesson in how bureaucracy can get in the way. As Forrester says, "Don't expect your blog authors to turn into National Geographic-quality photographers overnight."
As brands continue to embrace print as an effective content marketing strategy, the question many of them face is how find the expertise needed. ItT's one thing for a finance brand, for example, to hire a blog writer, But quite another to hire the sort of creative team needed to put out a high-end print magazine. The same goes for partnering with custom content agencies and vendors: while those companies are effective at helping brands with digital creative, their expertise in print is lacking.
Perhaps this is an opportunity for traditional magazine publishers; perhaps there will be a new breed of content agency that can offer the kind of specific expertise needed for print.
In my own case, it was a combination of an in-house art director and a roster of freelancers that did the trick. The magazine we created came complete with high-gloss paper, custom illustrations, high-end photography and at least one quasi-celebrity interview. It helped us get into conversations with the C-suite execs we were targeting. And, most importantly, the food shots looked great.
(This story first appeared in Ad Age.)