Last Fall a new photography-themed magazine called Imaging Edge launched in print and as an online app, and by all counts was an instant success. In fact, the very first print issue reached an audience as large as the subscription base in the U.S. for both Popular Photography and American Photo magazines combined–all with minimum fanfare or promotion! While few magazines ever reach several hundred thousand readers on their first try, that accomplishment didn’t come as a surprise to the folks at Bonnier Corporation, the publishers behind Imaging Edge and dozens of other magazine brands including Popular Photography and American Photo magazines. They gave Imaging Edge the real “edge” it needed to reach a huge target audience without having to fight for attention on the newsstands–simply by including every issue of I.E. in with existing PP and AP subscription. That “poly-bagging” trick was a great deal for subscribers who wound up getting more to read than they paid for, but why would a publisher give away a new magazine about photography with titles that already ruled the photography space?
The answer to that question is a story in itself–and one that might help to re-shape the future of print magazines–or not. You see, although each of the four by-monthly issues of Imaging Edge looked the part of a modern photo magazine–containing great pictures, interesting stories on photographers, and features on cutting edge photo and video equipment, it wasn’t really a normal magazine. Instead, it was perhaps the most ambitious example yet of a “Branded Content” magazine. (If you’re not familiar with that term, think “Advertorial”.) The difference between the two genres is significant. For starters, normal magazines rely on a two-part income model: Part A (Editorial) comes from the subscription and newsstand prices charged to readers. Part B (Publishing) comes from the ads sold to companies trying to reach the magazines readers. After production, paper and ink, shipping, and labor costs are subtracted from both income pools, you have what’s left in the form of profit. Now, within most normal magazines, a separation of state exists between the two “income-generating” models just described. On the editorial side you have writers, illustrators, and editors trying to create content that attracts more subscribers and higher newsstand sales. On the publishing side, you have ad sales people and publishers trying to sell advertising and promotional events with rates that are based on how many readers are being reached.
That’s the way magazines like Popular Photography and American Photo work. Readers tolerate ads because they’re a necessity that helps pay for magazine costs and keep the subscription price low, but they demand that advertisers not be allowed to influence editorial opinions and overall content. When editorial appears to be influenced by advertising, readers vote with their wallets and find something else to read. But when ads dry up–no matter how objective and useful the content–heads start rolling or magazines go under. Other major factors to consider in the equation are that production, paper, and mailing costs have gone through the roof and will continue to do so for print publications, while competitive web-based magazines (with very low overhead) continue to steal ad dollars from traditional clients. That’s why publishers like Bonnier are experimenting with additional revenue streams including downloadable magazine Apps, niche publications with higher subscriber fees, and “Branded Content” publications such as Imaging Edge.
Did I mention yet that Imaging Edge Magazine is exclusively about Sony products, Sony photographers, and how to get the most from Sony camera features? The teaser issue, consisting of only a few spreads, gave some hints about its purpose. Oddly, it was attached upside down to the back of the July issues of both Popular Photography and American Photo magazines. When you flipped magazine over and upside down, it looked like a new publication for the first 8 pages. Inside, there were photo credits for some great photos, several ads, and descriptions of stories to come, but no story bylines. The absence of bylines remained the case with the four issues that followed on a by-monthly basis, only these four issues were stand-alone and contained about three times the content . Missing story by-lines can be a clue to the fact that you’re reading advertorial or branded content, since many writers prefer anonymity when crafting advertorials. And unlike objective journalism, branded content serves a purpose mandated by the sponsor of the content–which is usually to promote all the great features and capabilities of a product, or highlight the positive experiences of users and representatives. All pluses and no minuses–but designed and written to look less like a company catalog of products and testimonials than a magazine filled with articles, reviews, and information about new products of interest to the reader.
From my point 0f view, Sony is a company that has been furiously busy on the photography front for the last several years, and continues to lead the pack in the shear number of its innovative camera designs, video quality improvements, and wireless technologies. Yet, magazines such as Popular Photography can’t spend a disproportionate amount of time covering Sony products and features, or their Nikon and Canon fan base would protest. In the past when a manufacturer’s products and features got overlooked (or it felt that way), opportunities arose to sell special “Advertorial” inserts that would give the target audience a choice to read and be entertained. Done correctly, advertorials are often written and designed so that the voice and look of the articles mimic the magazines style. By-lines are rarely included so that normally-objective writer’s don’t appear biased, and more-importantly, advertorials are usually marked as such on the top or bottom of the page so readers know what they are viewing.
That’s why some industry analysts were a bit surprised when the first issue of Imaging Edge arrived with no “Advertorial” marker to be seen on any page or the cover. But they shouldn’t have been. After all, publishing companies are not the only ones in the magazine business. Nearly all large consumer electronics companies print “magazines” on a regular basis–everything from stock reports to Xmas catalogs. Or they partner with channels that sell their goods to create info-flyers and top-10 lists. Walk into any Best Buy and pick up a blue flyer, stop at a trade show booth for a camera brochure (the 20-page long versions), or look through a Victoria Secrets Catalog (ok, I had to get your attention!) So the only difference between these publications and a paid-subscription magazine is who’s paying for the Branded Content and how it gets to the target audience? If Sony is actually covering the production and shipping costs then it’s like a free brochure arriving in the mail (or an over-sized insert flyer falling out of the magazine). For now, the general consensus appears to be that a stand-alone magazine doesn’t need to say “advertorial” if it is obviously all about one manufacturer’s products and ads. Anyone reading I.E. could see that it was all about Sony–and more importantly–readers weren’t paying extra for it–Sony was!
This last distinction may be why the print future of Imaging Edge (despite its GREAT name!) is in serious doubt. All advertorial products run their course, and end just like all ad campaigns. If a magazine continues to reach the right target audience, then advertisers continue to purchase ads, but traditionally advertorials have been temporary measures that were needed to get a bigger story out to readers. For Sony, I think that bigger story is about video, and telling that story in a print publication is hard to do. However, digital apps like the one created for Imaging Edge (available for Apple and Android OS devices) have the potential to do much more. They easily display written content and colorful photos but can also serve up unique video content and links to extra info (or even specs).
I think that was the “app” plan at the beginning for I.E, but so far it hasn’t lived up to its potential. Instead, the App does the least it can to merely reproduce the copy from the print magazine with no bells and whistles, not even active links to additional content. Worse, there are no video samples added from any of the featured photographers or new Sony cameras, despite multiple articles describing those cameras and features. No wonder users have given it a thumbs down, 2 star out of five rating.
So now I’m waiting to see if another issue of Imaging Edge arrives in the May issue of Pop or AP. My guess is that it won’t, but I hope that it’s not dead and Sony and Bonnier learn something from the experiment. From my perspective, the only way a Branded Content publication such as I.E. can remain viable is to continue offering its readers compelling information about a sponsor’s products that’s either hard to find, or isn’t available at all. While the print version of Imaging Edge did a great job showcasing the still-photo capabilities of new Sony cameras, and introducing readers to the work of talented Sony photographers, the App fell short when it came to highlighting the ground-breaking video capabilities of those same cameras and their innovative uses. Fix the App, and it could stand alone–and still reach the target audience. You have heard of subscriber email lists, haven’t you? You can purchase them from the NSA.