• Gourmet Magazine's Closing Offers Lessons for Navigating the Broadband Era

    Earlier this week when Conde Nast pulled the plug on Gourmet magazine and 3 other titles, there was much hand-wringing about the depressed state of the magazine industry. But while falling ad sales, costs of production, editorial issues and redundancy were all contributors to the 68 year-old Gourmet's ultimate fate, in my view, its failure is part of a much larger story of how much the media business has evolved. More specifically, Gourmet offers abundant lessons for those trying to successfully navigate the broadband era.

    Gourmet, and its owner Conde Nast, are part of a proud media tradition that relied mainly on tying an editorial approach and brand to one specific media outlet - the magazine. In this traditional paradigm, the media world was thought of in terms of categories: broadcast TV network, newspaper, radio, cable, etc. While the same corporate owner might have interests across categories, the specific mission of each media property was well-defined: turn out the best product possible for your chosen medium and keep your audience and advertisers coming back for more. (As a sidenote, this is a key reason why most magazine companies did not launch cable TV networks related to their areas of specialty 25 years ago, thereby opening the field for upstarts.)

    The problem is that this model is out of synch with the way many real people actually experience media today. People affiliate with media brands in a more deeply self-identifying way. It's no longer just the information and entertainment that's conveyed, but also about the statement affiliating with that media brand makes and/or the implied trust and comfort that's provided. For better or for worse - depending on your perspective - brand affiliation is now a deeply ingrained part of our cultural landscape.

    Smart advertisers know this too. They are not just interested in just reaching their target audience when they pick up a magazine for example. They want to surround consumers with their brand whenever consumers engage with their chosen media. Advertisers continue to grapple with how to optimize their media spending to gain mindshare and drive sales.

    Forward-thinking media companies have realized for sometime now that changing consumer and advertiser preferences must drive the way they do business, not the other way around. Two examples I like to cite are ESPN and Food Network, two highly successful cable networks that have built strong media brands and prospered by constantly reinforcing the value of their core franchises.

    Among the many non-cable activities each has launched are successful magazines. That may seem ironic given the magazine industry's woes, but in truth each has figured out how to extend their brand, editorial, and importantly, advertiser interest into print. Food Network magazine's recent success is all the more remarkable; while Conde Nast has undergone a wrenching downsizing, Food Network Magazine, which launched in October '08 (in partnership with Hearst), has recently expanded its circulation base to 900,000, nearly on par with what Gourmet achieved after 68 years.

    Noteworthy for ESPN and Food Network have been their successful online initiatives and push into broadband video, all reinforcing their core franchises. In addition to its ad and commerce supported web sites, ESPN has rolled out ESPN 360, a subscription online video service available in 41 million U.S. broadband homes for which ISPs pay a monthly fee. Food Network too has been busy expanding its franchise in online video, among other things recently launching Food2, a broadband-only channel catering to younger viewers that cultivates up-and-coming talent. And as I wrote on Monday, Scripps Networks (Food's owner) just announced a deal with 5Min (an online video syndication platform) to proliferate its content across the web while also gaining access to additional targeted ad inventory to sell.

    ESPN and Food Network are not alone in having capitalized on the trend away from the single media outlet model, though they are surely among the most successful. On the other hand, giants like Conde Nast (even despite its successful Epicurious.com site) and others continue to struggle in finding the formula for success in the new media world. To be sure, there's no respite in sight; I only see the multi-platform media model accelerating from here. For example, mobile-delivered video, currently being driven by the iPhone, but soon by other smartphones too, represents the next big wave to crash against traditional media's shores.
    Learning to successfully adapt to these new realities is not an option. The alternative is the eventual demise of other proud names.

    What do you think? Post a comment now.