The benefits of treating brands like subscribers

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Contiki sent staff members and selected readers to Europe, activating an audience of college women
Contiki sent staff members and selected readers to Europe, activating an audience of college women

It doesn't take an advanced degree in economics to crunch the numbers currently plaguing the magazine industry. According to the Audit Bureau of Circulation, subscribers are down, as are ad sales and impulse buys at the register. And all of this is happening at the same time publishers are trying to make the switch to digital and mobile platforms, hoping to connect with a younger, tech-savvy readership base.

When my two cofounders and I started in late 2009, we were faced with this quandary. We knew that free online content meant readership, which led to publicity and an opportunity to generate income through partnership advertising. Though we weren't sure if those financial opportunities would be enough to sustain a media business, we made the decision to turn down full-time employment with a more established company to start one of our own.

The importance of partnership marketing cannot be stated enough, especially for up-and-coming entrepreneurs who want to keep ownership of the company they started without giving up the keys to an outside investor. For, it meant that instead of selling content-based subscriptions to consumers, the company would have brands subscribe to its audience. This move gave the likes of Victoria's Secret PINK, Bing, Intel, and Contiki the opportunity to connect with a coveted readership base through a bevy of activation options, including on-campus events, sponsored content, and social media campaigns.

The concept of subscribers isn't unique to our business, or even to the magazine industry. Cable subscribers, the majority of who pay on a monthly basis, can add or subtract channels with one 15-minute phone call. Fans of sports teams can subscribe to a team's season ticket package, which gives them access to a select group of games. Ditto with wireless providers, satellite radio, and fitness clubs.

Most client/subscriber relationships are of the public-facing B2C variety, but B2B opportunities can prove just as beneficial, provided they offer value in these four areas:

Planning: For a brand like OCM (Our Campus Market) which specializes in all-things dorm, the moment the previous back to school season ends, the next one begins. In a client-subscriber relationship, the ability for both parties to understand key periods of activation allows for the proper allocation of assets and resources. It's why a health club will target New Year's Day with a barrage of advertising, knowing that potential new customers have just committed to getting in shape.

Innovation: Without innovation, subscriptions don't last long. Clients and subscribers must constantly adapt to an ever-changing audience—something that couldn't be more true with our college-aged demographic. Innovation means understanding the latest trends in pop culture, technology, lifestyle and audience activation, and not only utilizing them but also educating the subscriber on the best methods of doing so.

Relationship building: This is vital, not just in a client/subscriber sense, but also as an opportunity to build relationships with your consumer audience. Contiki, a leading travel company for 18- to 35-year-olds, utilized Her Campus to become our official travel sponsor, establishing themselves as a go-to brand for college students. Men's clothing company Miltons uses Barstool Sports, a leading sports website for 18- to 35-year-old men, to “pimp” a reader's look each month. Each effectively creates a relationship with the reader, even though the partnership between the two companies is essentially B2B.

Flexibility: The more flexible your business is, the easier it is to connect with a potential B2B subscriber. While a traditional ad may land a company on TV for 30 seconds, it won't create that first-person interaction that yields a unique consumer experience. Whether it's bar nights with Bing, or Mobile Manners classes with Intel (two recent Her Campus campaigns), the opportunity to engage a subscriber in an innovative fashion are as limitless as one's imagination.

Windsor Hanger is cofounder, publisher, and president of Her Campus Media.

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