Business Week has been on the block for months, and by reports it will soon be sold. At the start of the sale process, the story was that the magazine might be sold for $1. Now there seems to be enough interest that it may be sold for rather more than that, perhaps to Bloomberg. That would be an ideal outcome. Bloomberg have the capital and the network to restore Business Week to its rightful place as the most important general business magazine in the US market.
What are the essential planks of the new business plan that Bloomberg should enact?
- Advertising has been the bedrock of Business Week's revenues for decades. Until recently was a massive cash gusher; but it has fallen dramatically. In 2000 Business Week carried 6,000 ad pages (yes, that averages over 100pp a week). Last year fewer than 2,000 ad pages were filled and this year the total is heading towards 1,250 pages (source: 24/7WallSt.com). Since the page rates will inevitably have softened, it is likely that BW will in 2009 gather perhaps only 15/20% of the ad revenues that it clocked up in 2000. Do not neglect the print advertising, it is still far too important to the annual budget. But the business plan should not be predicated on rapid recovery in print advertising.
- Do not assume that the web site advertising will hold up either.
- Advertising is not the solution. A solid subscription base to the circulation has to be the bedrock of the new business plan. The easy part is to fix the print subscriptions and to do that by charging a realistic subscription rate that makes money for the magazine from marginal subscribers. Some print subscriptions are being sold at a 90% discount from the official rate. Such deep discounting undermines the list prices and there is no point in selling subscriptions at a loss when the advertising targets have been drastically reduced. Hold the print price and be prepared to increase the price....
- If increased value is being delivered to print subscribers be prepared to raise the price on the news stand and through subs. Quality in the editorial matter is fundamental. Improve the editorial product, so that the magazine again becomes a must read for its core audience. The circulation may be pruned by reducing give away subs, but it can be rebuilt from a firm content offering.
- Develop the digital subscription offering. This means delivering a digital edition service which is complementary to print subscribers (automatic benefit when they have communicated their email/user name), which provides comprehensive access to the excellent archive. Make it a genuine web subscription so that bookmarks work, so that special issues can be given away as samples via the BW web site, and so that the subscription works on all web-enabled devices (iPhones, TVs, Wii's etc).
- The print circulation base to BW is just under 1 million. Some of those marginal subscribers will be lost as prices are adjusted, but it is perfectly realistic for BW to aim for a digital subscription base much higher than that. BW as a digital offering could become the leading international business magazine for consumer-subscribers. But it will take time to build the digital subscription audience to 100,000 and then to 1,000,000.
- As well as offering complementary digital subscriptions to all print subscribers, offer digital only subs at a reasonable price (not too low, perhaps 50% of the real print sub price). This will mean that the digital sub is very good value for overseas subscribers. But that is an audience that BW already to some extent has, and needs to consolidate.
- Do not muddy the waters by 'throwing in BW' subscriptions as part of the Bloomberg subscription. Tempting though that option is, the aim has to be to develop BW as a distinct and valuable subscription offering in its own right.
- Consider carefully whether it really makes sense to offer BW via the Amazon Kindle, when Amazon is taking a 70% cut, and the Kindle edition is showing up without colour and full content.
- Consider carefully whether it would not be highly advisable to sell digital subscriptions via the iPhone App store. Having a Free App is an interesting starting point, not an end game.
- Fundamental rule. Believe in the value and quality of the magazine as a print product and as a digital service. The integrity and editorial substance of the magazine is its key asset and lies at the heart of its digital success.
Many of these recommendations amount to saying "Make Business Week more like The Economist". One can be sure that The Economist does feature in a competitive analysis of what has gone wrong with BW, but The Economist also has not yet figured out how to deliver a solid audience of digital subscribers. BW will have some advantages in getting this right first. This sale is a break with the past. So much has not been working out well for BW in its digital initiatives that it is time that some sacred cows were sacrificed and some simple steps taken. Building digital subscriptions is the obvious path that needs to be developed.