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Custom publishing is a proven branding and messaging strategy that can be an important part of an integrated marketing campaign. But this communications approach—whether "sponsored" supplements, newsletters or magazines—can also play a role in a strategic PR initiative.

Custom publications normally target a company's current customers, clients or prospects. A sponsored supplement, for example, can help manufacturers demonstrate how their products work in real-word settings, using informative, full-length magazine articles that demonstrate a business need's being met.

A newsletter can assist real estate agents develop a relationship with renters considering buying their first home or condominium. And a luxury auto manufacturer like Lexus can use its arts and lifestyle magazine to reinforce its brand while showing Lexus owners how to live the high life at fine restaurants and secret getaways.

But such tools can also serve a greater purpose as a PR vehicle—a device to get a company's name and message before broader audiences—if specific tactics are used in their planning and distribution. The key is to take advantage of the audiences that a sponsored supplement can reach, and then make sure the messages you are sending are clear and to the point.

Here's how three companies we know of did it.

One software consulting firm teamed up with a leading marketing publication to sponsor a series of seminars that discreetly promoted its services by using speakers from its clients to present mini case studies. The proceedings provided the consulting firm with the basis of sponsored supplements that were stitched into the publication that's read by the exact business prospects the firm wanted to reach.

Two years and four supplements later, the firm had doubled its client roster, with the new business directly attributable to the supplements.

Other companies have successfully used sponsored supplements to introduce new products to new target markets. One major software developer created an "advertorial" package that explained its new line of healthcare-related data management software.

Rather than straight product pitches, the articles within the supplement focused on the issues and challenges facing hospitals when managing patient information in an increasingly computer-centric world. The supplement was inserted into a magazine read by hospital administrators who manage patient data operations, putting relevant news they could use at their fingertips.

Consider, also, the story of a major New York retailer that launched a glossy fashion and lifestyle magazine for its credit card holders. The intent for launching the quarterly was to help communicate with the retailer's best shoppers, showcase products and develop the store's brand awareness.

Ultimately, the retailer's managers determined that the publication was too useful as an alternative public relations tool, so they launched a program to sell it on newsstands, inside its stores and even through subscriptions. Although the high-end consumer whom the retailer wants to attract is more than aware of the publication, the additional channels being used to distribute the magazine are helping place the retailer's name among a much larger audience than originally intended.

Is launching a custom publication right for your organization? Or do you already have one that might be put to broader uses? Here are five considerations to help you weigh your options:

  1. Is your marketing communications plan and budget open to adding a custom publication? If your marketing or public relations focus is on expensive collateral materials, advertising and straight media/public relations, the budget (and marketing philosophy) might not accommodate a custom publication. However, if resources can be reallocated, the nature of a custom publication as a discreet selling tool can make it a worthy alternative to product brochures or sales slicks because of its informative, editorial approach.

  2. What audience are you trying to reach, and in what order? Recent research indicates that fewer people are reading fewer publications, which means that custom publishing initiatives should be focused on addressing that fact. For example, the strategic consulting firm cited earlier needed to reach decision makers at companies that could use its services. For the retailer, the focus initially was on current customers, but that shifted once management realized the opportunity it had to reach out to the general public with a quality publication. It's critical to identify the desired audience so efforts aren't wasted.

  3. What support is available for custom publishing efforts? The point here is to determine whether it is a smarter idea to outsource the production of the publication or use existing staff to create the final product. While it may take some time to get an outsider up to speed on your organization and its business and marketing philosophy and strategies, producing the publication internally could also inordinately stretch your resources, resulting in a product that may not suit anyone's purposes.

  4. Where is my custom publication going? Once the magazine is published, one of the most important decisions (after determining the target audience) is figuring out other distribution channels. A company like Home Depot makes a limited number of its Style Ideas magazine available free of charge inside its stores. Because the quarterly is designed to target women home decor enthusiasts and do-it-yourselfers, Home Depot is able to differentiate itself from the competition. Another option might be to send copies to the trade press, which may create enough of a buzz to motivate coverage as well as enhance brand awareness.

  5. How do I measure the return on investment (ROI)? The metrics involved in determining ROI on a custom publishing venture are subjective for each company, each project and each publication. Some companies establish systems to learn how a new customer (or shopper) decided to buy a product or learned about the product's availability. Others compare pre-publication sales volume with post-publication volume, over time. Whatever the methodology, be sure to apply it consistently in order to help determine whether the strategy was successful and is worth continuing.

Industry statistics show that custom publishing is a solid communications strategy. The Custom Publishing Council, New York, says that corporate America produces more than 50,000 unique custom publications each year, spending between $15 billion and $20 billion annually.

Last year, 13.2% of the average corporate marketing budget was spent on custom publishing, up from 11.1% in 2003. Additionally, 40% of companies surveyed plan to spend more on custom publications in 2005.

If well planned and thought-out, a custom publishing program can go a long way toward supplementing a company's existing marketing or promotional programs. Additionally, as the examples show, the concept can work across various industries and business categories.

Most importantly, whether a sponsored supplement, a newsletter or a glossy magazine sold on newsstands, a custom publication gives your business the control over how your message is delivered to the audience you want to reach.

Continue reading "Custom Publishing: More than Just a Marketing Approach" ... Read the full article

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Chris Scott is vice-president of Chicago-based Hodge Communications, Inc. ( and head of its custom publishing division, Hodge Media Group. He can be reached at