Text: Linda Ruth
Originally appeared on Mr. Magazine Blog
After a great opening presentation on why magazines and magazine media matters by Susan Russ, Senior Vice President, Communications, MPA: The Association of Magazine Media, attendees at the Magazine Innovation Center’s ACT 7 opening dinner were treated to a rare experience last night: three publishing luminaries, three members of the same family, three powerful speakers. Phyllis, Brian, and Eric Hoffman of Hoffman Media treated the crowd to stories about how they built their company and tips for publishers and students in the audience of what worked for them.
In publishing, founder Phyllis Hoffman began, there are no rules, no manual on how to be a successful publisher. “When we started in 1983 I was clueless,” she told the audience. “I knew that needlework was huge; I knew there were not magazines. And that was pretty much all I knew.” Hoffman was laughed out of every printer but one. They had no concept of direct mail.
“What we did was printed up little brochures for shipowners to put into customer bags, inviting the people to be a charter subscriber. We went to Atlantic Media show with nothing but a single poster. We knew our break-even—it would be 3500 subscribers, paid in full up front, and that’s how many we got for the first issue. So we knew we could go one year.”
Additional subscribers began to trickle in, till one day, Phyllis remembered, that she went to the post office with her two-year old sons, and the box was empty. Her heart sank—until the postal clerk invited her to retrieve the sacks of mail in the back, too much to fit into her box. By end of first year they had 100,000 subscribers, a 95% renewal rate—and they were turning down advertisers. That’s right—with a 68 page magazine, 70% content, 30% advertising, there just wasn’t room in the book.
Brian Hoffman, one of the two-year-olds at the post office that day in 1983 and now a co-president of the company, took up the story with Southern Lady magazine, Hoffman’s first magazine to branch out from craft to lifestyle. “Our company’s growth has followed our conversation with our customers,” he explained. “We listen to what they want, what they need, and then we work to give it to them.” An important lesson that Brian shared was to be patient. “Creativity is important, and it’s exciting,” he said.
“But don’t change for the sake of change. Readers don’t feel the need for constant change; they are looking to you for consistency, to give them what they need and love. It’s easy to get off course, but listening to your readers will put you back on.” Creativity is important, innovation is important, but Brian emphasized the need for creative constraint as well, and for listening to the readers and acknowledging what they want. “Put your content out there. You’ll soon know if it’s a success,” he said. “The readers will tell you.”
Eric Hoffman—the other twin boy, the other co-president—wound up with advice to the students in the audience. “I asked my young children what they would advise,” he said. “Be patient. Try hard. Work as a team. Help each other figure things out. It’s good advice,” he said.
“Here at the ACT Experience, we’re a team, and we’re figuring out some big problems.” The lessons that Hoffman Media can bring include a belief and dedication to quality, in circulation, in editorial, in product, in audience. Hoffman runs each of its revenue streams as stand-alone profit centers—each has to make sense on its own, each must be a strong component of the whole.
“The gimmicks built into the magazine business have caused a lot of problems,” he said. “We don’t give stuff away. Not to our subscribers, not to our advertisers. We work with our advertisers and prospects—the ones we believe belong in the mags. Just because they spend money doesn’t mean they belong with us. It keeps our business focused.” It is this focus, this understanding that they cant be all things to all people, that has guided Hoffman Media to a double-digit growth in a down market.
“This is an amazing business,” Eric finished. “All the dot coms are jealous of what we do. This is what we want to be doing 30 years from now.”