With most things in life, going it on your own is hard. As a coming-of-age teenager, that first break from parental supervision might be exciting, but the novelty of freedom quickly loses its sheen once you discover that no, the Kleenex box doesn’t magically replace itself, and that yes, an ATM (unlike mom and dad) will stop dispensing money no matter how convincing your sad face is. In business, the dynamic can be similar: parent groups are there to support, to invest in, and advocate on behalf of all their “children,” both the nascent and the established. Perhaps the biggest advantage for companies within a larger conglomerate is the ability to share in best practices–to adopt the methods that have worked well for others without having had to endure the growing pains of trial and error. In the magazine publishing world, one would think this kind of sharing among sister publications would be particularly collaborative. After all, many of the titles at places like Condé Nast, Hearst, and Time Inc., share physical office space (if not the same floor, the same building), design teams, cross-company content standards and, most important, the same basic goal: to innovate in order to keep print alive.
In our 2012 Digital IQ Index: Magazines report, our research revealed that despite common goals and a common boss, sizable disparities in Digital IQ currently exist within each of the the three major U.S. publication groups. In the chart below, you’ll see that Condé Nast (17 titles), Hearst (16 titles), and Time Inc. (13 titles), all register very high scores for a handful of titles, and all register “Challenged” or “Feeble” scores with others. The spread within Condé Nast and Time Inc.’s portfolios is fairly evenly spaced with approximately half their magazines falling into the “Average” category, and the other half distributed evenly between “Gifted” and “Challenged.” At Hearst, however, where 14 of 16 titles earned IQs of “Average” or better, the lone outlier, Town & Country (ranked 80 out of 80), pulled down the parent group’s average IQ from 108 to 104.
Which begs the question, how could an organization with three of the country’s 10 most digitally competent magazines (ELLE, Seventeen, Cosmopolitan) allow one of its own to to be such a digital laggard? Before we speculate, it’s important to point out that the “Average IQ” is not an entirely fair metric by which to judge a parent group. Each of the magazines in a group’s portfolio holds a different priority–each is held to a different sales and circulation standard. It makes sense, then, that for those with larger readerships (and larger revenue streams), more capital would be allocated to them. In the case of Town & Country, whose modest circulation of 485,000 is 4x smaller than the average Hearst title, this could explain why Hearst only just this past February launched an iPad app. Another explanation is readership demographic. The T&C reader is, on average, skewed heavily female (72 percent) and 51.5 years old. Though older people are becoming increasingly web and tablet-savvy, they certainly aren’t trading their print issues for iPads at the rate 20-and-30-year-olds are. According to new data released by comScore this week, two-thirds of tablets in the U.S. belong to people 45-and-under. Brand managers with limited resources look at all these figures and set their priorities accordingly.
Is a magazine attached to a parent group better off than an independent? It depends. For a smaller company like Rodale, home to the like-minded Men’s Health, Women’s Health and Runner’s World — all of which earned “Gifted” Digital IQs — the answer appears to be yes. But the bigger the parent company and the wider the subject-matter portfolio, there’s no question that it is harder for smaller niche titles to keep up with their mass-appeal (moneymaker) counterparts.