Magazine Strengths

What is the Job To Be Done?  

from Issue #1, 2014

by Jim Elliott

Talking with publishing executives, I keep hearing encouraging comments about their businesses. Many have remarked that magazines don’t seem to be under a cloud, as they were not so long ago. Remember “print is dead?” We almost never hear this anymore. To be sure, some individual magazines are sick, for a variety of reasons, and some categories are in trouble, but everyone realizes now that there are bright spots. Whole categories are thriving.  

Less often now, critics of magazines find a weakness in one publishing segment and generalize it to all magazines, or attribute problems caused by changing conditions in one market to the printed format.  The format may have nothing to do with current business problems if the market has dried up.

There are some things that magazines can do better than any other product.  It’s a long list, pick your favorites. Magazines are trusted. Printed magazines have physical presence that cannot be ignored. They often look great, and print can be read without any technological devices but a little light.  

I believe that Prof. Clayton Christensen of Harvard University has the right idea. His powerful method for analyzing products is based on the simple concept that we need to understand what job a buyer is trying to do by “hiring” a product before we can really understand the purchase. He quotes Peter Drucker’s remark that “the customer rarely buys what the company thinks it is selling him.” It is very easy to misunderstand the motivation.

For example, take news. A reader whose “job to be done” is to ensure he or she doesn’t miss important news used to follow a predictable pattern. The reader would scan the daily newspaper or watch television news every day, and read at least one weekly newsmagazine. But today, with news instantly available not only through Internet newsfeeds but also Google Alerts and other sources including social media, nobody needs to wait for the daily paper.  They certainly do not need to wait for a newsweekly. Now, most people consume newspapers, television news and newsweeklies for very different reasons than just a few years ago. Some papers are making a comeback by emphasizing their unique role as the voice of a community.  

But magazine buyers have many more reasons to devote time and money to magazines than just to find out the news.  They may love to peruse the luxuriously printed pages of gorgeous fashion magazines, or enjoy in-depth stories of life-changing adventures. Some want to see the latest in mountain-climbing gear. Others look forward to sharing motorcycle rides into the sunset. The point is that the “job to be done” is defined by each reader, and some magazines are still the very best way a particular reader can scratch a very specific itch.

With the unique advantages of magazines, it is crucial that publishers do not throw obstacles in the way of the readers.  Because of the financial morass of the past few years, many publishers have turned to digital distribution to cut costs. Some put their financial interests above the interests and preferences of their readers.

Bill Lane, who was the publisher of Sunset, one of the best magazines ever published in my opinion, once commented that peace and quiet may be one of our competitive advantages for magazines as long as we show this quality as a springboard for action. Mr. Lane wrote that in the 1960s, before anyone foresaw the frenetic development of digital media. I believe that printed magazines provide the tranquil respite we need for thoughtful preparation for action better than most of the alternatives, most of the time.  At least, they do for me and my “jobs to be done.”