Thursday, February 17, 2011

Time Warner Leverages SI Swimsuit Issue to Launch All-Access Subscription Model

Watch out for ‘brain drain’ at your company as economy improves

In case you somehow missed it, the annual midwinter Oogle-palooza for the publishing industry, aka. the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue hit newsstands, mailboxes and inboxes this week and once again managed to raise eyebrows and male pulse rates. But, this year the buzz wasn’t just about the risqué swim attire, which included see-through suits, body paint suits, and one “suit” which consisted of nothing more than a strategically placed kayak paddle. According to Bloomberg Sports (see video report), Time Warner is using its billion-dollar Swimsuit Issue franchise as a launching pad for its new “all-access” subscription model. Here’s the bet—raise subscription prices 23 percent in hopes that subscribers (and advertisers) will buy into SI’s full range of content delivery platforms including digital, online, mobile and tablet (other than Apple-i).

Our take? Even without Apple on board, the all-access model is a good call will gain traction throughout the publishing business as some content – action sports, celebrities, how-to and yes near-naked women—is simply more compelling with audio and video streaming than words on a page. However, we don’t like the strategy of charging subscribers—and presumably advertisers, more for the privilege. It shouldn’t be treated as a premium offering so much as a must-have for any publisher hoping to survive and stay relevant 11 years into the new century.

Just as most publishers are still figuring out newsstand sales by the number of returns they receive nine months later and are still sending annoying renewal notices—rather than billing subscribers’ credit cards via negative option—they need to get out of the quaint mindset of being publishers and realize they’re competing against bloggers, social networks, software companies, mobile apps, cable companies and telecom’s for subscriber/advertiser mindshare. It’s a faster, more cut-throat game than they’re used to—with smarter, hungrier players who generally pay their staffs better to come up with ideas.

Producer price index hits highest level in 27 months

On Wednesday, the Labor Department reported that producer prices in the United States rose in January. The core index, which excludes the volatile food and energy sectors, rose 0.5 percent, the biggest jump in 27 months, the agency said. Yesterday, The Fed announced it expected economic growth of 3.4 percent to 3.9 percent this year, up from the previous forecast of 3 percent to 3.6 percent. Even Fed head Ben Bernanke said “the economy is straightening out” but joblessness could remain high for several more years as companies continue to post profits with a smaller workforce than they had before.

Brain drain on the horizon at your company?

Our take? Despite the lousy job and housing market, the latest economic growth report, coupled with the recent rise in consumer and producer prices shows we’re essentially operating in a non-recessionary climate. It’s hardly a go-go era, but essential staples for households and businesses are being purchased on an ongoing basis and of course, advertising and marketing spend will have to grow to lift demand.

Here in the B2B media business, we don’t put too much stake in the jobs reports. Our industry has always been a fluid one based on ideas and contacts—not raw output or years of service you’ve put in at the same company or government organization. We’ve always relied on a deep pool of experienced independent contractors to get things done and there’s more than enough work to go around—it just doesn’t fit into the W2+B (steady paycheck, plus benefits) hiring model.

What’s more, the lift in “intention to hire” is the biggest in 11 years according to researchers at Bernhart Associates who conducted a survey of digital and direct marketers.

As New York Times columnist Bob Herbert pointed out last week, businesses have figured out how to prosper without putting the unemployed back to work in jobs that pay well and offer decent benefits. Corporate profits and the stock markets are way up. Businesses are sitting atop mountains of cash. Put people back to work? Forget about it. Has anyone bothered to notice that much of those profits are the result of aggressive payroll-cutting —companies making do with fewer, less well-paid and harder-working employees?

Unfortunately, Bob (and corporate America), you have to look at the long-term viability of “doing more with less.” Just as your customer prospect pipeline dries up when you cut back too far on your advertising and marketing programs, too many workers who’ve been doing double- and triple-duty to hold onto their jobs during the downturn are simply getting exhausted and not seeing commensurate increases in compensation or status for holding the fort down during the depths of the recession. They’re out the door as soon as the first decent opportunity comes along. Many organizations will be facing a serious “experience vacuum” as knowledgeable workers bolt for the doors and take their smarts, contacts and ideas they were too afraid (or disgruntled to share) with them.

It will take years for the influx of newbies to get up to speed and become productive. Let’s hope you’re treating your best people as well as you can right now. Now that the economy’s on the rebound, your toughest test is yet to come. Gotta go now. They just posted behind the scenes videos about the making of the Swimsuit Issue. The Twittersphere’s abuzz with rumors of wardrobe malfunctions.


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