Behind the “Innovation” Trap in Magazine Media

“Why have publishers stopped throwing so much spaghetti on the wall?”

That’s the pressing question Casey Welton poses in Folio:, as he attempts to understand and explain why the rush toward innovation was doomed to fail in the magazine industry.

“Forget about the struggles in the industry for a moment (but only a moment), and instead think about all the trends and fads that have taken shape since those struggles began about 10 years ago,” Welton writes. “We have seen publishers chasing countless shiny new objects and take leaps that, in hindsight, seem ill-conceived and were sometimes fatal.

“Of course, I’m not going to name names, but we all remember gimmicky fads like clunky AR integrations, insanely high investments in VR and content farms that were generating more listicles than volumes of books in the New York City Public Library,” Welton continues. He talks about the breathless “pivot to video” (and the pivot back to reality); the all-in social commitment, followed by the startling realization that social wasn’t the industry savior they’d been looking; and, of course, digital editions that never lived up to the hype.

As Welton notes, it’s not that these were flash-in-the-pans that disappeared. There are plenty of examples of media brands thriving in particular new channels.

“But what I am saying is it seems as though publishers are finally pumping the breaks when it comes to ‘innovation,’” Welton continues.

I like that Welton puts “innovation” in quotes. I’ve used air quotes myself talking the publishers we work with, and I agree it can be a vague buzzword.

“It’s a cultural meme, in which no real measure or thoughtfulness is applied to actually creating something new or solving a problem, but instead innovation is simply reduced to going all-in on the latest fads,” Welton continues. “Perhaps it’s to stay in step with competitors and avoid FOMO, or maybe it’s from being enamored by something new—or worse, it’s desperation?”

Whatever caused it, Welton sees it ebbing. So do I.

I see publishers embracing unique models that work for them and their audiences. I see ad-free high-end magazines; I see niche titles leading the growth trend; I see magazine brands waking up to paid content strategies and leveraging their first-party user data.  Ultimately, we are witnessing the industry move away from panic-stricken “innovation” to inspired marketing tactics – and it starts when brands look to their audience to inform their strategy, using data to inform their insights.

“So then, what does it all mean? I think it means we should be cautiously optimistic about the future. Perhaps the correlation between less experimentation and less bad news is purely coincidental, but I don’t think so. I think the industry’s contraction is slowing, and it has a forward-looking strategy that will be driven by data and content.”

It’s an interesting thesis that bears watching.