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How to Start a Magazine, Content Website or Newsletter that Will Last

by Cheryl Woodard, Posted March 2000, Updated October 2008 [PRINT VERSION]

From a reader's viewpoint, the relationship with a good magazine, website, or newsletter is a little like dining at a successful restaurant - you know what to expect each time you visit. If the experience is a good one, you will visit often. Similarly, publishers strive to establish a pleasant, comfortable relationship with readers based on familiarity. For example, the "Talk of the Town" section of the New Yorker Magazine is always located in the same place and written in the same slightly irreverent tongue-in-cheek style readers have come to expect. The first step for publishers, then, is to create a bond with readers, a relationship based on trust and predictability. Once this essential reader bond is firmly in place, many other profitable business opportunities become feasible for the publisher smart enough to efficiently exploit them.

Unfortunately, many new publications perish quickly because their editors fail to attract enough readers. Sometimes the expected audience doesn't exist in the first place. Sometimes readers are out there, but the editor misunderstands what readers need. Occasionally, the publisher identifies a great audience and publishes a dynamite periodical to meet its needs, but the business is disorganized and inefficient. In short, establishing and profiting from a strong reader relationship is harder than most new publishers appreciate.

The secret to launching a publication that will last is to focus on building long-term relationships with your customers. Think of each new reader or advertiser as a lifetime contact, not just a one-time sale. There are six steps to creating a long-lived business: finding an audience, creating a product, building a viable publishing operation, converting casual readers into regulars, establishing advertiser relationships, and finally creating highly profitable add-on or spin-off products.

Step One: Targeting the Right Audience

Few of us have $20 million to launch a mass market publication or website. Instead of wasting money chasing a huge audience, niche publishers focus on a select group of readers or site visitors - and then build a profitable publishing business based on serving the unique needs of those people.

It is far easier and cheaper to connect with a niche group than it is to reach a mass audience. Also, many niche customers spend more money per capita than the general reading population, and so they have the potential to support a much more profitable publishing business. Finally, many advertisers like to reach readers who match a specific demographic profile (accountants, librarians or swimmers, for example), so niche publishers can usually charge higher per reader advertising rates than can their mass market counterparts.

Having identified an audience you understand, and one that can support your business, you must next figure out how to reach it efficiently using direct mail, free samples, email promotions, keyword ads, and other marketing efforts. Plan to test all of these different circulation strategies to locate good prospects at an affordable cost.

Step Two: Creating the Product Your Audience Wants

All successful periodical publishers need to know what their audience wants to read, and how to package it appropriately and consistently so that readers will keep reading, issue after issue.

Knowing your competition is also essential when you're designing a new publication. Study your competitors carefully and then offer features that your readers want, but that your competitors have ignored.

Besides competitors, study publications and websites that might serve as role models for yours. For instance, when you find well-organized content, note how it is done. Also note the design features that your readers are likely to expect - because they commonly see the same elements at other publications or websites.

Step Three: Building a Viable Publishing Business

Repeat business is the key to profitable publishing. If readers and advertisers love what you did for them last time, they'll come back to see what you are doing today - and that leads directly to profits for you.

In the very short term, most publications lose money, especially in their early years while they are working to find an audience and win their trust. Their initial losses can range from a few thousand to many millions of dollars, depending on the kind of publication.

Publishers start to make money only when they begin to transform their early connections iinto lasting relationships by turning casual readers into regular customers, creating predictable relationships with advertisers, and developing new products that they can sell to their loyal customers. Along the way, publishers have to assemble the people, vendors and resources they need to continually provide top-notched products to their loyal customers.

Step Four: Capturing Reader Loyalty

Casual readers include people who visit your website once - through a search link - or who accept a "come and try it" direct mail offer. Sometimes casual readers get the publication for free as a sample. To make a profit, publishers "convert" as many casual readers as possible into full-fledged subscribers or regular website visitors. Finding readers and then converting them into loyal customers requires a good marketing plan.

Step Five: Capturing Advertiser Loyalty

Advertisers want to reach your readers and website visitors. Once you've found an audience, you can usually find advertisers eager to reach the same people. If your niche is broad or deep enough, there will be many advertisers who sell relevant products and services.

Winning the loyalty of most advertisers is the hardest task for most first-time publishers. As with audience marketing, you need a long-range plan for advertising sales, and a budget that will help you understand which advertising relationships contribute to your profits and which ones don't.

Step Six: developing profitable spin-off products and services for your loyal readers and advertisers

Once your readers are converted into loyal subscribers, and the advertisers are on board, you can increase profits by selling new products or services to the same customers. New products and services that grow out of the original publishing business cost less to develop and promote. They have a high potential to be profitable. Books, trade shows and spin-off publications are common examples of ancillary products for print publishers. E-letters are common spin-offs for websites. Look at any well-established magazine, content website, or newsletter and you're likely to find dozens of examples of good products you can create to cement your reader and advertiser relationships.

More Information

I recommend my book for first-time publishers. You can read it in one weekend, and you'll learn everything you need to know about starting publications. My second book, Every Nonprofit's Guide to Publishing (co-authored with Lucia Hwang) covers editing, design, and other topics I could not address in the first book. Look for both in your local library, well-stocked bookstores, or buy them right now from I wish these books had been available when we launched PC Magazine back in 1981.


If you are working on a publication and you need specific advice, feel free to email us. We work with newsletter, magazine, and book publishers of every variety. The chances are good that we can help you, too.


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