Friday, March 5, 2010

An Offer I Can't Refuse

In yesterday's snail mail came an extraordinary offer from a magazine I respect and admire--Inc., the journal for entrepreneurs. It was one of those subscription offers we all get from time to time. But this one offered the lowest price I have ever seen for a mainstream business magazine: $5 for a year's subscription or $10 for three full years. The latter offer provides 30 issues of the magazine for 33 cents a copy, less than the cost to mail the magazine. Add in the costs of reporting, writing, editing, design, art, printing and paper, and it's not hard to see that Inc. is losing quite a bit of money on every issue it sells. My guess is that the cost to produce a single issue of Inc. is closer to $1.50 to $1.75. So Inc., which is owned by Mansueto Ventures, my former employer at Fast Company, is willing to take a loss of well over a dollar an issue to get me as a subscriber. And this is for an exceptional magazine of very high quality, smart writing, and attractive design.

Why? Largely because it's doing what almost all magazines do: it's trying to maintain a circulation or rate base that is higher than it's natural demand. By keeping its rate base at its current level, it can charge advertisers a higher price than it otherwise could. Inc. is hardly alone in playing this game. Pretty much every U.S. magazine has the same strategy. If you're the circulation director of a publication, you have a simple choice: pay large direct mail costs to get new subscribers who really want the magazine, or lower your subscription costs to a point where you're pretty much making an offer that is hard to refuse. Although I have never paid for a subscription to Inc., I'm filling out a check for $10 right now. As a magazine junkie and a new entrepreneur, I simply cannot refuse this offer. Inc., you got me.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Why Digital News Consumers Are So Promiscuous

One of the most surprising stats to come out of the new Pew Research Center study released earlier this week is that 65% of online news consumers say they don't have a single favorite website for news. That number inevitably brings you to one of two conclusions: 1) The web is still a wide open marketplace for new content startups because there are precious few dominant players in the space, or 2) Digital news consumers are far more likely to be promiscuous when it comes to the news. Because the web makes it so easy to sample many media sites (and they are largely free), it's far more likely for people not to have a single favorite website for news. Indeed, the study also showed that only seven percent of Americans get their news from a single source and that 46% of Americans get their news from four to six media platforms on a typical day.

That sounds about right to me. At BusinessWeek, we once asked McKinsey and Co. to study our web users and found to our surprise and chagrin that our brand users were remarkably promiscuous. On average, they visited 18 different media brands--TV networks, newspapers, magazines, and websites--a week to satisfy their news appetites. At first, we thought this was a shocking number, showing little loyalty to our brand. On reflection, however, we came to realize that many of the readers of BusinessWeek are news junkies. They devour information and analysis, and it's obvious that they would seek news from lots of sources on a regular basis. At the time, BusinessWeek was not a news site to be depended on for the most important breaking news, but rather an analysis and insight website, picking and choosing the issues on which to opine and dig deeper. But I digress.

I think the fact that 65% of Americans don't have a single favorite website means both 1 and 2, not either or. This finding tells me there is still plenty of room on the web for new, smart ways to make the news more participatory, personal, and social. New web entrepreneurs who adopt disruptive technologies and business models are likely to prosper. And because of the overwhelming wealth of information on the web, it's unlikely that people might have a "single favorite website" for news. To my way of thinking, that's a good thing, assuring that readers get a wide diversity of opinions and ideas from a wide variety of brands.

A few other fascinating results from the Pew study: Our relationship to news is becoming "portable, personalized, and participatory." Some 33% of cell phone owners now access news on their cell phones; about 28% of people on the internet have customized their home page to include news from sources on topics that interest them, and some 37% of internet users have contributed to the creation of news, commented about it, or disseminated it via postings on social media sites from Facebook to Twitter.

Concludes Pew: "To a great extent, people's experience of news, especially on the internet, is becoming a shared social experience as people swap links in emails, post news stories on their social networking site feeds, highlight news stories in their Tweets, and haggle over the meaning of events in discussion threads. More than eight in ten online news consumers get or share links in emails."

I suspect these numbers will dramatically increase in the near future as news becomes even more of a social activity. The old rule of thumb that only 10% of Internet users are pro-active and only 10% of them participate by writing comments on stories is just that: old. Increasingly, as this Pew study clearly shows, more and more people are contributing to news. It has become a "shared social experience."  It's why I believe deep and meaningful engagement with your audience is an essential ingredient for a news organization.

What do you think?