Magazines Still Struggling With This Social Media Business

Building brand awareness on Facebook has been easy, but making money there and on other social media has not

Magazines have figured out how to use platforms like Facebook — and to a lesser extent Twitter — to build brand awareness, but they're still a long way from making money from social media.

That was the message from publishing executives and their resident social media gurus at the MPA's inaugural Social Media conference, held in New York on Tuesday.


"We're all learning," Steven Schwartz, chief digital officer at Rolling Stone and Us Weekly publisher Wenner Media, admitted.

Schwartz said that while some of their magazine campaigns have won the company bigger business from ad agencies and healthier slices of their accompanying budgets, advertising revenue from social media, at least directly, is not happening yet. "The reality is, they're bundled into packages," not sold as individual ad deals, Schwartz said.

This is a troubling reality, considering social networks are projected to attract $4 billion in advertising in 2011.

Part of the problem is traditional display advertising, for the most part, doesn't work well in social media. Twitter users, for instance, are not used to advertising within their streams. And Facebook users are already bombarded with marketing that spills all over their profile pages.

"We don't wake up in the morning wishing there was more advertising on Facebook and Twitter," said Nat Ives, an editor at Ad Age.

Another problem is that advertisers are becoming increasingly adept at social media on their own. Chevy, for example, has 300,000 fans on their own Facebook page, where thousands of "friends" gather to discuss cars. For other advertisers, though, “there is a lot of handholding,” Schwartz said.

“We get caught thinking social media is this bright new shiny bullet,” Robert Michael Murray, vice president of social media for National Geographic, said. “Magazines have been doing these things for 100 years.”

But Murray seemed to be against the idea of selling advertising across Nat Geo’s social products. “I walled that off [from advertising],” Murray said, adding that he spars with the marketing team over his hard church-state stance. “It’s content driven.”

In terms of content engagement, magazine executives here seem to have a handle on Facebook.

Christie Griffin, digital director of Fitness magazine, said they're planning a cover contest that will leverage its Facebook community, and put an emphasis on uploaded essays rather than photos. “We're not looking for skinny pretty college girls,” Griffin said.

But these same magazine executives seem to have less of a grip on social platforms like Twitter, Foursquare and Tumblr.

"Twitter has been a tough nut to crack," Griffin said, adding that Foursquare has been frustrating, too — but that's because the start-up "is overwhelmed" by publishers' requests for badge approvals.

Rolling Stone has just begun to use Foursquare, offering “rock-n-roll history tips,” Schwartz said, with plans to build out its location-based tools in the second half of 2011.

Mark Coatney, who was responsible for launching Newsweek’s popular Tumblr, said he worried the magazine would come off “tone deaf and clueless in this space.” (Coatney's fears were alleviated, he said, when a Tumblr user commented, “There is now not less than a zero chance that I would read Newsweek.”)

And then there’s the issue of staff resources — and defining exactly who’s in control of the brand on all of these still-nascent social platforms.

“We have a whole team of people working on our Twitter feed,” Jim Frederick, managing editor of Time.com and executive editor of Time, said. “There’s an art and science to Twitter.”

Frederick said that while Time holds a “bimonthly steer meeting” with top managers to share ideas for how to approach social media, the Time editorial team “has the final say.”
 
The 150-year-old Atlantic magazine, on the other hand, has just one person in charge of its social media initiatives: Jared Keller, a recent college grad. “I guess they trust my millennial judgment or something,” he said.

Keller pointed out that despite the Atlantic’s digital success, there are some old school columnists at the magazine who are social media averse. James Fallows, for one, refuses to allow comments on his blog or engage on Twitter.

But during a panel called “Who Controls Social Media at Your Magazine?,” Sasha Smith, Rodale’s executive director of creative services, answered the question like this: “I really hope as media companies we're beyond the, ‘I'm not on Facebook,’ ‘What's Twitter?’ badge of honor.”