Friday, March 22, 2013

Health and Fitness Magazines and the Coming Digital Disruption

The news that Maxim magazine and associated web site are for sale is not particularly surprising.  On paper, the magazine looks rather formidable.   Alliance for Audited Media puts its total paid circulation for 2012 at 2, 543, 563, which earns the title the #18 position on the list of the top 25 print magazines in paid circulation.   Riding a favorable demographic tide, AARP’s Magazine is on the top of the chart with its Bulletin right behind.

Lists and round numbers can be very deceiving because they don’t tell us much about the actual health of the magazine.  Reader’s Digest, which has undergone a series of restructurings in recent years and just declared bankruptcy, is on the list.  So is the American Legion magazine.  I still get the title even though I cancelled my subscription soon after my military adventures.  I guess veterans never really die.

Maxim, expected to be slightly profitable in 2013, resides in a publishing cul-de-sac shared by many of its brethren: offering discount circulation to drive print advertising sales.  I understand that some fifty years ago magazine publishers began to push circulation levels to questionable levels to compete with the growing threat from the nascent television franchise.  And they have regretted that decision ever since.  Nonetheless, many still play in that sandbox.  Maxim sells twenty print issues for $24.00 ($1.20 an issue) and ten issues for $14.97 ($1.50 an issue).  For a high-touch, glossy issue that’s a steal and likely does not cover the full cost of paper, production, and postage, areas that take the biggest piece out of a publisher’s revenue pie.  I will add that Maxim appears from its website to have a very muscular digital strategy, available on iOS and Android platforms as well as on Zinio.  The company is selling subscriptions for $14.99 and some back issues for $5.99 an issue.  This is very aggressive digital pricing for Maxim or any company but likely not enough to offset declining print advertising.  Magazine publishers continue to trade analog dollars for digital dimes.  

I understand Maxim sells very well at military establishments.  Having been at sea for as long as six or nine months without touching land (or anything else), I can understand this hockey-stick graphic on the magazine’s circulation chart.   Maxim “is your source for hot girls” and it will continue to stand up and salute this anthem.  Nothing is left to the imagination and no event unworthy of being appropriated.  The website informs us that there is a “strip bracket” for those aficionados of March Madness.  For the more reserved set, there is a discrete search for “hometown hotties.”

Maxim was launched in the UK twenty years ago by Felix Dennis, already very wealthy from his computer and related titles.  I was in the UK at that time as part of the team launching Rodale’s Men’s Health, which was just beginning to find its legs in the US.  The first issue of Men’s Health did very well, selling more than 100,000 copies on the newsstand.  But I kept looking over my shoulder at Maxim.  Felix Dennis was not your typical publisher.  He was brash, outspoken, unpredictable, and a genuine truth-teller in the business.  On a regular basis, Dennis excoriated American publishers for being fat, slow, with overpaid staff and puffed-up editors.  Felix wasn’t invited to many publishing events because of his sharp tongue, but proved his point with a very successful Maxim in the states and more recently The Week.  Blender and Stuff were subsequently shuttered.   He sold Maxim for $250 million, apparently knowing when to get out.  Perhaps in response to all the pulp he used up, Dennis has already planted 600,000 trees in his native England.

Time always moves on, but with social media it has simply moved a little faster.  Though Maxim’s cheekiness is unique, much of its content can be found on the Internet and social media platforms in some form.   My background is editorial and I always suspected that Men’s Health, in the brash Cosmopolitan way, would eventually win out and it did, with a current total paid circulation of 1.5 million and 40 international editions.  It sits astride of the men’s magazine mountaintop.

I started my publishing career as an associate editor for Prevention magazine.  The formula was very simple.  Rodale subscribed to all available medical journals, including The Lancet, The New England Journal of Medicine and many others.  We simply translated the medical findings into everyday language.  No one had done this better than Rodale.  However, now everyone does it.   Medical doctors regularly report medical journal findings to their television audiences, as casually as if it’s a traffic report.  It’s no accident that pharmaceutical advertising is usually one of the top categories for media.

The conventional wisdom is that special-interest areas (and the high-design, high-touch versions) will be the last to be disrupted by technology and social media.  I’ve long suspected that health and fitness editorial would have this protection.  After all, WebMD didn’t seem to have much effect on magazines like Men’s Health and Men’s Fitness or Prevention.   And the aging demographics and the needs of this sector for lots of health information should work to the advantage of print.

I recall asking Mike Lafavore, the founding editor of Men’s Health, how he accounted for the success of that title.  He said, in effect, that the secret source was in the tone of the magazine.  Since men are usually uncomfortable talking about health under any circumstances, he had to entice them in with guy humor, understatement, bravado and yes, lots of sex.  And it has worked amazingly well.

One reason  Men’s Fitness, published by Weider (a subsidiary of AMI), has lagged far behind Men’s Health in terms of advertising, circulation, and market position is that the title, in my opinion, has not fully understood the psychology of the male nor found the right tone or editorial sensibility.  In some respects, the language and graphics of the magazine is too muscular and perhaps too full of itself.

AMI Chairman David Pecker recently announced that he hired David Zinczenko, longtime Rodale wonder-boy for Rodale’s Men’s Health and some blockbuster books, as a consultant to work his magic on Men’s Fitness, Shape, and Natural Health.  If anyone, Zinczenko is the man to do it.  I worked for Pecker at Hachette and have learned not to underestimate him.  Though I worked at Rodale early on, I have no inside knowledge about whether the recent shedding of so many key staff might leave the company vulnerable.  But I do know that it is hard to dislodge a brand, especially one with the wind at its back.

But perhaps I’m looking for disruption in all the wrong places.   For the last year, I’ve been nosing around the digital health space, keeping an eye on digital startups, and whether the considerable noise I’m hearing is a blip or a sign of genuine disruption.  While with Qualcomm, I learned what the company was doing with Qualcomm Life, part of Qualcomm Ventures, which is devoted to the next wave of wireless health innovations, including body worn or implantable biosensor for chronic disease care, medication compliance, and fitness and wellness need; low cost ECGs that work with smartphone; and mobile technology that permits access to live patient data.  Qualcomm is a huge footprint in this space because of its business and strategic relationship with both device manufacturers and carriers.   And they seem to have gobbled up some very promising companies.  But they have company.

We know media has been disrupted.  Given the work of Khan Academy and the institutionalizing of online, accredited courses at many tier one universities, we can assume education is not far behind.  Now the multi-billion dollar health and fitness industry seems ripe for disruption.  If you have any doubts about that please read the February 2013  blockbuster article in Time magazine—the most read in its history, “Bitter Pill: Why Medical Bills Are Killing Us.”

A very good source of information about startups, health incubators, Venture Capital funds, and the like is Rock Health.  The organization is a first-seed accelerator exclusively for startups.  It provides capital, office space, mentoring, and operational support from entrepreneurs.  Rock Health is looking for product-centric ideas to solve real problems in health whether through mobile or web apps, hardware or sensor components.  I’m hoping to induce some health magazines to join this scene, using their rich audience data and other interfaces with customers to develop more personalized editorial coverage.

The range of offerings coming through Rock Health and elsewhere is quite staggering, having been informed by mobile technology, crowd-sourcing, reward systems, and the full weight of mobile analytics.  Achievement Mint is an intelligent incentive network that rewards consumers who make good health choices.   BitGym’s technology uses an iPad to turn any cardio machine into an interactive gaming experience.  Cardiio provides software that turns ordinary cameras into biosensors.  CellScope used optical attachments to turn smartphones into a diagnostic-quality imaging system.  ChickRX is a woman’s personalized health platform.  HealthRally is a crowd-funding platform for personal health motivation.  (Many thanks to Rock Health for this information that I have summarized).

In 2012, 134 digital healthcare companies each raised two million dollars.  Most funding went to companies developing personal health tracking tolls and consumer health engagement.  I don’t know any aspect of healthcare that is not getting some attention, from diabetes, to acne, to the efficacy of supplements.  Most of these efforts are tied to the smartphone.  Moreover, this is not just about content per se but how dense medical information can be turned into a beautiful digital product.  Medical apps have become commonplace in the various stores.  Most popular seem to be those that diagnose ear infections, take a pulse, measure BP, perform cardiograms, and complete blood, urine, and sweat tests.   So whether we like it or not, healthcare is moving out of the clinics into our homes.

To be sure government regulations and privacy issues could stall innovation in the digital healthcare section but there is probably too much money and potential savings at stake for them to be terminal.  For one thing, the ubiquity of the smartphone suggests consumers are becoming much more at ease with using their phones as tools.  Paul Jacobs, Qualcomm CEO, refers to the “born mobile” generation that is growing by the day.  I’m not sure of the source, but I read that a physician claimed to be prescribing a lot more apps than medicine.  This story might be apocryphal, but there’s plenty of evidence showing that the new breed of physicians are very mobile-savvy.

Within a few years, I expect that most information available in health and fitness magazines and attendant web sites will be available in one form or other in the app stores or in web apps.  By definition, the information will be more personalized and interactive.  It will be updated.  Without question, graphics will dominate.  Some offerings will provide response in real time through a video chat.  Maybe you will be able to decide who among the beautiful people will take your blood pressure.

Some consumers will still want a branded, filtered experience that comes in one package.  But maybe I will want my own personal health and fitness magazine, based on my interests, Twitter feeds, health profile and concerns, and family needs.  These could be in the form of apps or curated, personalized content that is delivered right to my smartphone and tablet or on my device “at birth.”   This kind of market segmentation has already begun.  And maybe Verizon or ATT will get involved and make this content part of my data feed and deliver it at off-peak times to save me money.   Perhaps I will choose to take advertising along with my medicine, this defraying the cost.  I might accept native or sponsored content if it useful and actionable.  I probably won’t spend much time on deciding what content represents Church and what represents State.  That seems so nineteenth century.   My fantasy is to become the editor of my life.  After all, I will have as much information at my hands as the editors in New York or Emmaus, Pennsylvania.  I will get it faster, in a personalized, curated form at the time of my choosing.

What I am describing might well be a video game.  My interest is much more modest: I am sketching a business plan.  

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