Why Hoffman Media Is Doubling Down on Print

By: Greg Dool

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Print is anything but dead at Hoffman Media.

The Birmingham, Alabama-based publisher of 11 Southern-focused special interest magazines—several of which boast nationwide print audiences numbering in the hundreds of thousands—has distinguished itself as something of an anomaly in the current landscape by continuing to stake its bets on reader-driven print revenue.

The company says it hit a record high in newsstand sales last year (as of the most recent MagNet report, from Q1 of 2017, Hoffman was the only top-15 publisher to see a year-over-year increase in either retail units sold or newsstand revenue). It says its magazine business grown steadily since its founding in 1983, and it’s difficult to argue the point; in the last three years alone, Hoffman has bolstered its portfolio by launching four additional regular frequency titles, with a fifth planned for 2018.

Moreover, the company is kicking off the year by investing further in two of its flagship titles: Southern Lady, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, and Taste of the South—increasing both magazines’ trim sizes to 9 inches-wide and adding 16 pages to Taste of the South (Southern Lady saw its page count increased a year ago).

For Brian Hart Hoffman, president and chief creative officer and son of company founder Phyllis Hoffman DePiano, it’s about offering a quality product to readers, first and foremost.

“We really value the relationship we have with our readers, and they demand and command the quality that we put into each of our publications, whether it be through our photography, the quality of our recipes, the extent of our travel coverage,” Hoffman tells Folio:. “They told us they wanted more. It’s a wonderful problem to have readers that love what you’re doing so much that they want to see more of it.”

Folio: sat down with Hoffman to learn more about what’s allowed the company to remain bullish on print, and where the medium is headed in the future.

Folio: A big part of Taste of the South‘s refresh is increasing the magazine’s travel coverage. Why?

Brian Hart Hoffman: We’ve entered into a period of time where the hunger for culinary travel is really strong, so we knew that by adding pages we could double down on our commitment to that. Social media is such a lens into our readers’ daily lives and what they love and want more of. We constantly get messages from readers saying, “I’m traveling to Atlanta; give me the top five places to eat.”

Taste of the South is read nationally. The readers are Southern by interest, Southern by heart. They want to travel and explore the South, and food is something that they think about in that planning.

Folio: What are some ways you take a regionally-focused title and appeal to readers in new markets?

Hoffman: Newsstand placements, absolutely; making we’re sitting front-and-center in key markets where we’ve seen a lot of success. But social media is a big vehicle through which people learn about us. We work with a lot of influencers now who are in the Southern food and lifestyle space. They love being in print and we love seeing our products in blogs and on social media.

Folio: How has social media impacted the decisions you make when it comes to designing a print magazine?

Hoffman: Readers love to take photos of what they’re reading. We see a lot of social media engagement when subscribers receive their copies of the magazine in the mail. They love to style their own images with coffee or muffins or something they’ve made from the magazine. They have it sitting on the counter and they want people to know that they’re spending their Saturday reading Taste of the South and baking something in their kitchen, or that Southern Lady is accompanying them on a road trip or an airplane.

People love to engage with the brand digitally, but show that they’re also reading a print product.

Folio: Do you think your magazines lend themselves particularly well to that idea, because they do tend to skew toward those thicker, coffee-table type of books? 

Hoffman: I think so. Our quality is absolutely something we want people to engage with, and they do. It’s not uncommon for us to hear from our audience that the paper is so nice, the photos are so pretty. We get photos from readers of the stack of magazines on their bookshelf because they can’t come to part with them.

We’re moving in the direction of higher quality, nicer paper, wider format. We’re not looking to cut back to the point where readers would start to feel like it’s a disposable product.

Folio: Does appealing to new readers on the newsstand ever come at odds with maintaining that level of quality for your regular subscribers?

Hoffman: We absolutely value the balance. Some of our magazines have much higher cover prices than a typical publisher might set; we have some titles at $12.99. Southern Lady is $7.99. Taste of the South is $5.99. When someone sees that price on the newsstand, the quality has to match that ask. They have to see it when they turn the pages; they know right then that they aren’t buying something that doesn’t provide value back to them.

It’s the same with our subscribers. We don’t offer $5 subscriptions and undervalue the quality of what people receive in the mail. They pay a price that’s indicative of the product they’re going to receive.

Folio: What about when it comes to advertising? What considerations do you make when trying to maintain that quality for the reader?

Hoffman: We limit some of our publications to a 70-30 edit-to-ad ratio. So you’ll definitely see more editorial in all of our publications. The higher the price goes, the more limited those advertising opportunities are. We are looking for quality advertising partners. We’re not chasing rate bases and doing things to keep the audience size at a certain level.

When someone chooses to advertise with Hoffman Media, they are getting a file of qualified and paid customers, so they are getting an active and engaged audience. That’s what we deliver to them—that relationship. And their ad is going to be visible. It’s not going to be buried.

Folio: Has it become a tougher sell as advertising budgets have moved towards digital media?

Hoffman: We’re absolutely still seeing demand. Our advertising revenue has grown each year for the last three or four years. It’s all in the relationship and the package we bring to that partner.

Sure, it now involves digital elements and engagement with our audience through social media or our newsletters. But they absolutely still see the value of being in the print product.

Folio: That’s contrary somewhat to what we’re seeing more broadly in the marketplace, where a lot of publishers have had to move away from print toward other revenue sources. What has Hoffman done differently?

Hoffman: I don’t have the crystal ball to speak to other publishers’ strategies, but I can speak to ours, and it’s delivering more of what people tell us they want. I know that sounds simple, but we enjoy a really great relationship with our core audiences, and they’re very vocal.

As an example, I am an avid baker. I had been producing content for a number of years that had baking elements for Taste of the South and other publications; we would do special editions geared toward baking that were very successful. The light bulb went off when we asked, “Why is there not a baking publication?”

We introduced the Bake from Scratch brand because we knew there was an audience there. After successfully testing it, we launched what became one of the hottest launches of the year.

Folio: What are some of the ways you identify or test which markets might be right for a new product?

Hoffman: If you look at some of our brands like Southern Lady or The Cottage Journal or Southern Home, we often test “sister content,” that feels a part of the brand, but may be kicking the wall out into a new sector. We conduct newsstand tests for subject matter, for branding, for various things. When we see really strong success, we have internal conversations about how to do more of that and whether it’s worthy of expanding to its own brand platform.

Folio: More broadly, what kind of trends are you paying attention to? Where do you see print magazines heading?

Hoffman: I would say it’s trending toward quality. The audience that we see engaging on the newsstand and in subscriber publications is for higher quality products, and they don’t mind the price. Obviously, everything has a price threshold.

I’m often asked about Classic Sewing and its $25 cover price. But when you look at that niche and that product and see the value that’s contained within that polybag, it’s not just a publication. They can immediately look at that package and see that the $25 price is providing way more value to them than that monetary amount.

You will see more and more of that from us. I have said before, you will never see Hoffman Media launch another publication at $4.99 or less. I guess I should never say never, but we are definitely seeing the numbers and the trends indicate that the higher quality and higher price is working.