How to Start a Magazine or Internet Publication that Will Last

by Cheryl Woodard, Posted March 2000

From a reader's viewpoint, the relationship with a good magazine or website is a little like dining at a successful restaurant chain because you know what to expect each time you visit. If the experience is a good one, you can repeat it often. Similarly, magazines and newsletters 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, most new newsletters and magazines perish quickly because their publishers fail to build a healthy and profitable reader relationship. Sometimes the expected audience doesn't exist in the first place. Sometimes it's there, but the publisher misunderstands its needs or wants. Surprisingly often, the publication itself is put together poorly. 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 a trickier enterprise 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: finding the right audience

To find an audience, you have to understand what a group of potential readers want, figure out how to locate them at a reasonable cost and determine how much they will pay to get your publication. Depending on the scope and type of publication, carrying out these tasks can be quite different. Mass market publications, for example, must appeal to and locate lots of people ­ as many people as possible. By contrast, niche products need a much smaller number of customers, but must develop a very loyal following within their target group.

Most new publications today are designed to address a very targeted audience, at least in part because it's easier and cheaper to understand their needs 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. For example, Architectural Digest has a more affluent audience than Good Housekeeping, so they charge much more for their ads.

Having identified an audience you understand, and one that can support your business, you must next figure out how to efficiently reach it. Traditionally, magazines and newsletters find readers by using direct mail. Some also put copies onto newsstands or in other retail outlets. Many are now testing different forms of electronic distribution, from commercial on-line services like America Online to the Internet. All of these different circulation strategies are designed to locate good prospects at an affordable cost.

Step Two: creating a good product that suits your audience

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. The trick is usually to study your competitors carefully and then design around them. For example, offer features that your readers want, but that your competitors have ignored.

As you begin to design your product, you'll probably find yourself wishing you had endless resources to produce the publication of your dreams. No question, it's tough to create an appealing product that you can afford to produce on a regular basis, since the final package has to meet reader needs and your own bottom line at the same time. Success will require both a creative hand (usually the editor's) and a sound business head (commonly the publisher's) working together.

Step Three: building a viable publishing business

Short-lived relationships are rarely profitable. So even if a new publisher can find a good audience and create a product that grabs their attention, there is still a critical problem to solve: how to build a publishing business that will prosper well into the future. The trick is to build upon your initial successes until you have created solid, enduring relationships within your market.

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 in a market into 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: converting casual readers into regular customers

Casual readers include people who buy your publication at a newsstand or who accept a "come and try it" direct mail offer. Sometimes casual readers get the publication for free, at trade shows and other venues. Whether or not they pay for their copy, publishers rarely profit much from casual readers. To make a profit, publishers "convert" as many casual readers as possible into full-fledged subscribers who will pay a full fare over an extended period. This is doubly true for publishers of newsletters, who depend almost exclusively on readers for income. There is a lot of work involved in finding readers and then converting them into loyal customers. You need a good marketing plan for subscription sales, and a budget that will help you understand subscription profits. The essential trick is to think about readers as lifetime customers and plan ahead for the relationship that you want to have with them.

Step Five: establishing profitable, long-term relationships with key advertisers

Advertisers want to reach your readers. That is, once you've found an audience, you can usually find advertisers eager to reach the same people. Publishing a magazine or a newsletter is a little like hosting a business conference. You set the agenda, create a congenial atmosphere, and invite all the most appropriate people. If your niche is broad or deep enough, advertisers who sell relevant products and services want to use your ability to gather lots of potential customers in one place to their advantage.
In many situations, advertisers add to the publisher's relationship with readers, just as they are welcome participants at many conferences, since your readers will be actively shopping for products or services and may buy your periodical to see the ads.

In other situations, advertisers' presence is more challenging, and the publisher has to limit or control them to some degree. For instance, when the readers are young children or people with serious medical problems, publishers may try to protect readers from overly aggressive advertising by regulating it. For example, Sesame Street Magazine, which is written for pre-schoolers excludes ads. But the magazine is bundled together with another one that is written for parents, and the parents' magazine is chock full of ads.

Occasionally, running ads in a publication would seriously compromise it or diminish it's very purpose. Consumer Reports offers one example of an editorial mission that is incompatible with advertising.

It takes a lot of work to win the loyalty of most advertisers. Enduring advertiser relationships are more profitable for a publisher than short-lived ones. As with subscriptions, you need a long-range marketing 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 new 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 your profits by selling ancillary products or services to the same customers. It's a similar idea to a popular lunch restaurant adding breakfast to its menu. Because new products and services should grow out of the original publishing business, they will usually cost less to develop and promote, with the result that they have a high potential to be profitable. Books, trade shows and spin-off publications are common examples of ancillary products. On-line databases, compact disks and computer bulletin boards are newer versions of the same idea &style; delivering your publication's contents, in a familiar style but a newer form, to a closely overlapping audience. Look at any well-established magazine or newsletter and you're likely to find dozens of examples of good products you can create to cement your reader and advertiser relationships.

Starting and Running A Successful Newsletter or Magazine, by Cheryl Woodard is available in bookstores or from


If you are working on a publication and you need specific advice, feel free to email 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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