Spotlight conversation: Taking TV Guide beyond TV

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Scott Crystal
Scott Crystal

Q: You played a critical role in transforming TV Guide from listings to a full-on magazine. Can you describe that process?
A:
What we did with the magazine in transforming it is really about reflecting what consumers were doing when it comes to viewing TV, and how their role was changing dramatically over the last few years. Because of the whole concept of place-shifting and time-shifting and the idea that now you can watch TV on numerous portable devices, TV Guide as a magazine needed to evolve.

The basis of the entire transformation is to make it more relevant and more compelling to today's generation of TV viewers. We started to do a lot of research in the marketplace and found out that what consumers today in the market want is less on specific listings and more on the entertainment aspect of TV, going behind the scenes of people's favorite shows and what's coming up and really taking a different perspective. So we literally inverted the model: the magazine used to be 80% listings, and now it's 80% feature edit and 20% listings, and that came out of research from consumers.

We spent about 2 years and millions of dollars conducting in-depth research, and the end result of transforming and eliminating the iconic digest was not a decision we took lightly. We believed in more than making a design change, so design, format, context, mission, distribution — there wasn't anything we were doing that wasn't transforming.

Q: How has TV Guide adapted its distribution and marketing strategies to changes in the marketplace over the past few years?
A: One of the things we changed was the distribution: we made it available in an exponentially larger amount of retail outlets. Because the digest was localized by 140 different editions, people didn't pick it up at airports — it wasn't even available there because customization didn't make sense unless they were staying in same zip code or where their cable provider was.

We invested significantly in circulation and got significantly more pockets at major retailers: the checkout pockets where celebrity entertainment titles sold, Wal-Mart and Kroger, but also places like airport terminals and mass transportation hubs. The last two were all new channels, so it broadened distribution.

We also marketed ourselves through different campaigns. From an awareness standpoint we asked, how do we alert consumers that this is not your father's Oldsmobile, so to speak, and that was a huge challenge because people would still see it as TV Guide the digest. We had to invite them inside the magazine to realize there's something new and different here.

We used our own platforms extensively – the TV Guide network, interactive e-programming guides and the Web site were all used significantly.

Q: How big a role does direct mail play in your marketing strategy?
A: We've increased our direct marketing campaigns and our direct mail. In the first year [of the redesign], we mailed over 25 million pieces of direct mail, and those were everything from standard to elaborate mini-magazines — 16 page folios of the full-sized TV Guide — so someone could get the sense and feel of tonality of the new magazine.

We had numerous creative packaging and different test offers to find out what would resonate the most, and they went out to different lists. We did a lot of predictive modeling on target lists, trying to make it appeal to females who were younger and more affluent. The goal was to entice a whole new generation of TV viewers and TV Guide fans.

We buy lists from different magazines; we test magazines that are indexing in the 130-150 range from direct mail success on their subscribers, and that's light years ahead of where we were 4 years ago, when we tested primarily house lists.

Q: And online?
A: All publishers are looking at online as a way to try to drive new subscriptions and new customers and new sampling. Our web site has grown almost 100% in traffic over the last couple of years. There's a great synergy of integrated content across the magazine and Web site. The site is very interactive, with a lot of polls as on the sexiest stars initiative. The ability to build community is one of the key areas for us, and I think lots of magazines, to really tap those passions that resonate with your constituency.

Q: What were some of your more unique campaigns?
A: During last fall's preview timeframe, we did a unique campaign with TV ads. Most media companies and most magazines don't do television advertising; you don't see many magazine brands advertising on television. We created 15 different customized spots that tied into specific shows and would only run during the air time of that show.

The awareness was phenomenal – we got tons and tons of unsolicited phone calls, and that was a really cool, quick and fun reminder that TV Guide brand can help get you through the week because they were timed to run near the end of an episode. At end of Lost you're tensed up and need to find out what happens, so we help you get through the week, going behind the scenes in the magazine. It really helped cement the position of the brand.

Q: What are the challenges of marketing a weekly title?
A: The more topical you can be, the better your ability to connect with consumers. Our marketing absolutely tries to make it relevant and topical. We have a compressed window for how we want to use marketing. For direct mail, we schedule numerous printings —not 20 million at the beginning of the year. About 6 times a year we change the message and make it topical. 

Q: Tell me about the decision to take 6 million out of your rate base in Fall 2005?
A: That had never been done, and people were shocked. I said the circulation and distribution models for magazines will have to change, and other publishers will have to look at what we did and change things. In 2006, almost nobody followed, then, sure enough, Time took 750,000 out of its rate base, Newsweek 500,000, and Readers Digest took 2 million out just last year.

Then Star became the first celebrity magazine to reduce, and then you see it across women's service, and the seminal moment just took place at the beginning of this year when the perennial rocket ships of In Touch and Life and Style took a fairly dramatic rate base cut.

You have to be willing to be a pioneer, which makes you a very easy target for all the cynics.  At the end of day, if you really believe in it, tested it, researched it, be willing to make changes that need to be made, as long as they're for the right reasons.

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