What we can learn from the end of Time

Time Inc. has finally shut its doors after years of decline and failed re-structures – here’s how to learn from its mistakes

The American media powerhouse of Time Inc. is no more.

The home of Time, Sports Illustrated, Fortune, Life and more has been bought out by competing publisher Meredith Corporation.

Much has been written about the forces behind the apparently unavoidable decline. But while reading this longer piece by Howard R. Gold that has been doing the rounds, I started thinking about what lessons it holds for content marketers.

Gold traces the root of the problems to the advent of the internet. The shift to digital channels, he argues, was the death knell for Time Inc. and many other print publishers.

It’s certainly a compelling argument and is well worth a read if you have a few moments.

Depending on who you talk to, marketing and content marketing are going through – or have already gone through – a similar transition.

So, what should we take from the example of Time Inc.? How should we navigate our own transitions?

Lesson 1: Focus on your audience

Time Inc. was an early adopter when it came to the internet, with the launch of Pathfinder in 1994. But in Gold’s estimation this early lead also sowed the seeds of its eventual downfall.

With Pathfinder the company embraced banner advertising at the expense of subscription dollars.

Initially, this decision seemed to pay off. But, with Google and Facebook taking the lion’s share of online ad revenue, this wasn’t going to last.

As Joshua Macht argued in a piece from 2013, they lost sight of who their audience was and failed to build a meaningful relationship with them.

For content marketing, the lesson is clear. Don’t lose touch with your audience in the rush to jump on a new channel. Think about your existing audience relationship and build a strategy to support this.

Clickbait articles might boost vanity metrics, but content that meets audience needs will actually deliver leads and sales. After all, there’s no point getting a million page views if none of them are from your target customers.

Lesson 2: Don’t forget who you are

In his article, Gold argues that the move to digital and focus on page views was accompanied by a change in style and tone. Time Inc.’s online offering departed from the longer-form content of its print offering in favour of shorter pieces.

Norman Pearlstine, editor in chief at Time Inc. between 1995 and 2005, defended this by citing the decline of long-form content.

But this is a hard claim to square with the strong position of a publication like The Economist, which has maintained longer content across print and digital.

Time Inc. moved away from its traditional style and, in the process, lost a bit of what made them who they were.

This isn’t to say that every brand should go all in on long-form content marketing. But, they should think carefully about how to maintain style and tone of voice across different channels and mediums. (And any plan to change it needs a strategy in place.)

Your style and tone of voice is a big part of who you are as a company. Changing it completely between channels can confuse your audience. Keep it consistent.

Lesson 3: Be bold

Time Inc. saw multiple restructures following the disastrous merger with AOL in January 2000. But it never seemed to be enough.

For Gold the problem was clear: the organisation never made the big decisions that were necessary to survive the shift to online. He puts this down to a risk-adverse culture.

Ironically this culture seems to have emerged due to the success of the company as a whole. When things are going well it takes a brave person to rock the boat, so in the case of Time Inc., bold and innovative decisions fell by the wayside.

As the winds of change rose and boats began to rock, Time Inc. found itself unprepared to weather the storm.

With the pace of change increasing rapidly over the last decade, marketers have had to adapt.

Time Inc. is a sobering example of what happens to companies that aren’t brave enough to encourage people to take calculated risks and embrace the opportunity to learn from failings.

While it’s a tough task to say exactly what the future of marketing will look like (which doesn’t stop many from trying), one thing is for certain: it won’t be business as usual.

You have to be ready to try new things, fail quickly and learn from your mistakes if you hope to survive.

The death of Time Inc. is a monumental moment for the publishing industry, but they aren’t the only ones struggling to keep up.

As marketers, we have to work harder than ever. So do yourself a favour and learn from other people’s mistakes.

Editor's pick

Most popular