Feature

As Facebook joins the growing brand print club, when is a magazine not a magazine?

Facebook has joined a swelling band of digital brands in launching its own print publication. But is it marketing or magazine? And does that matter?

What do Airbnb, Asos, Casper, Dollar Shave Club and Net-a-Porter have in common? All of them are so-called digital disruptors. And all of them have their own print publications. Now, so too, does the digital daddy of them all – Facebook. Just don’t call it a magazine.

Despite being packaged in the shape of a magazine, bearing all the hallmarks of a magazine and having the words “a quarterly magazine for business leaders” emblazoned on its magazine-like cover, Grow by Facebook is categorically not a magazine according to the Facebook PR team. No – this is, they say, simply a piece of marketing collateral. A brochure even. It’s almost as though Facebook doesn’t want to be called a publisher or something.

Whatever you want to call it, Grow joins an ever-expanding collection of branded publications whose arrival has coincided with major consumer titles such as NME and Teen Vogue closing their print magazines. So why is it that dead tree media is proving so desirable to companies that have built their success on eschewing legacy technology?

“Trust, authority and credibility,” says Terri White, editor-in-chief of film bible Empire. “The digital space is a hectic, loud, cluttered landscape with bloggers, influencers, journalists, editors, writers, marketeers all shouting into the void – their voices surfacing, or not, depending on SEO or algorithms. In such a crowded space, how do you ensure that people trust what they read on your website or social channels versus the other 30-odd people/brands in your area? How does your brand stand out?”

In contrast, she says, “a visceral, powerful connection” is created when readers hold print in their hands. “The intimacy is unrivalled. Smell a magazine right now and tell me it doesn’t give you a head rush, tell me it doesn’t make you feel. In this increasingly digitised world, you cannot underestimate how much people just want to feel something real. And if you’re the brand that does that for them? Bingo.”

It doesn’t take a congressional hearing to figure out why a media format trusted by consumers would look so alluring to Facebook, which has found itself embroiled in both the fake news scandal and marketers’ crisis of confidence in digital advertising in recent times. According to A Matter of Trust, a November 2017 study by media buyer Mediacom and Magnetic, the marketing body for magazines which naturally has a vested interest in such matters, 70% of magazine readers trust magazines, but only 30% of social media users trust social media.

“There’s been a bit of a wake-up call in the last 18 months in terms of people’s disbelief around fake news and their worries that what they’re being sent and sold and reading is not real,” says Magnetic chief executive Sue Todd. “People’s response to that is to be a bit more diligent, and that means they’re looking towards the most trusted channels.”

And where audiences go, brands follow. “The thinking is: if there are challenges around the trust in our content and our brand, then a magazine, a printed magazine, is a good way for us to change that conversation and build more trust,” adds Todd.

Like the suitably luxe Porter magazine from upscale fashion retailer Net-a-Porter, or the stylish Woolly made by mattress startup Casper, Grow by Facebook undeniably looks the part. Designed by London content studio Chapel, the first issue wraps impressive illustration and photography around features on Paris’s tech scene, Diageo’s foray into the craft market and H&M’s “millennial whisperer” Oscar Olsson. Copies are being distributed in the British Airways lounges at Heathrow and Gatwick airports – a clue as to the kind of business reader the striking publication aims to attract.

That much we know. Much else about Grow – such as its own growth plans or whether Facebook was aware that it shares a name with America’s “quintessential cannabis horticulture magazine” before launch – remains a mystery because of Facebook’s unwillingness to even acknowledge it as a magazine.

“Grow by Facebook is a business marketing programme that shares thought leadership content directly with our clients through an annual event as well as print and online marketing channels,” explains Leila Woodington, Facebook’s head of business marketing in Northern Europe, in official blurb. “We do not sell any advertising or charge for any of the events or content as this is purely intended for marketing communications purposes.”

“The minute you say magazine it does become a bit loaded,” says Danny Miller, founder of creative studio Human After All which publishes its own mag named Weapons of Reason. “Immediately people are thinking, 'Oh right, do we get to hear Facebook's opinions on things now?' When we used to make [indie movie mag] Little White Lies, it was telling people what we thought about films. What Facebook, Airbnb and others are doing is a piece of marketing communications that takes printed form, but because it's printed with regularity it's closer to a magazine than it is to a book or an annual report.”

For Miller, Facebook Grow is redolent of the Think Quarterly publication his agency created for Google in 2011, which ran in print for two years before morphing into its online content platform Think. “It's similar to what we did for Google in that print is just a component really,” he says. “At the heart of it they're making content. They're making a certain kind of content for a certain kind of audience.

“What print did [for Google] for two years was build a relationship with the kinds of people it wanted to speak to, and it was able to transfer that into digital. Print can mobilise communities to do the things you want them to do. It has the gravitas to do that. But it’s very expensive and time consuming to produce a print product, and it’s not necessarily something you need to do forever.”

While Facebook's print ambitions remain unclear, other brands see such value in their printed products that they’re willing to put a price on them akin to a consumer magazine. Net-a-Porter’s magazine, with its sales pitch of “180+ pages of the ultimate fashion inspiration... read and shop every page,” is yours for an annual subscription of £17. Fellow fashion retailer Asos has grown so enamoured with its magazine, which started life as a direct mail freebie and has become the UK’s highest circulation fashion title (435,287 – ABC), that it now also sells it on its website with a £1 cover price.

Brand magazines have increasing clout. But can they ever rival their consumer counterparts for quality? Can Porter and Asos match Vogue and Marie Claire?

“It depends on the team making the content, the autonomy they’re allowed to do their jobs and the commercial pressures they’re under,” says Empire’s White. “Who are you writing for, editing for, designing for? A client with a stack of money or your reader? When your first priority is the former, you’ll produce content that the client could well be cock-a-hoop over but how does that translate to the audience and what they’re after?”

Brands that want to make a success of print will need to make the kind of investment in it that publishers Time Inc and Conde Nast were no longer prepared to for the NME and Teen Vogue. Hence Airbnb outsourcing its magazine production to publishing titan Hearst after failing to find success with its own in-house effort, Pineapple. Or Facebook enlisting Kate Maxwell, a luxury magazine journalist who has worked for Conde Nast, as editor-in-chief of Grow.

“Brands should hire great storytellers, let them tell their fantastic stories,” says White. “Invest in them. Invest in great photography. See beyond the transaction – strive to create a robust, emotional bond with the audience. I believe that everyone ultimately buys with their heart, not their head. Capture their heart and they’ll buy whatever you’re selling – whether that’s a subscription to a magazine or a top in the sale.”