A recent phone call to my office prompted me to do some digging for Footings.
The style of the call might be familiar to you if you work for a trade association or membership organisation of any sort, and particularly if you're part of the construction industry. We get these calls about once a month:
"Hi, how are you?! [Gushing enthusiasm from stranger on phone].
"I've been talking to your colleague Jim and he really wanted me to give you a call. We publish a very high quality journal that goes to all the key decision makers in the construction industry and my editor really wants to run a big feature on your Association. What issues are of most concern to you at the moment? Zero carbon agenda? Building Regulations? Health and safety must be a big one.... [Blah, blah]
"Well, we can offer you a full page/two pages/six pages of free editorial.... No cost to your Association, but great coverage in a glossy quarterly that's read by 40,000 senior decision makers - all the top specifiers, housebuilders, RSLs, housing associations, local authorities, major contractors, special sub-contractors, architects, QSs, surveyors, structural, mechanical and civil engineers, government agencies, public utilities, materials manufacturers...." [Blah, blah]
If you're anything like me, major alarm bells are ringing by now.
- I've never heard of this publication before (it has one of those generic titles like UK Construction World, Building National, Property Now etc).
- I've never heard of the publisher either.
- It's claiming a circulation well in excess of what we'd expect, covering pretty much the WHOLE industry and all its diverse disciplines.
- It's not got an ABC certificate of course.
- Oh, and guess what, they want to promote the fact that you're "collaborating" with them on this "exciting feature" to all the Association's members in order to invite them to advertise. They may even want a list of your members in exchange for this "great opportunity".
Welcome to the trade mag version of vanity publishing, and its close cousin 'support advertising' features.
Fed up with these calls and curious about what was going on with this particular rogue publication (which has recently changed its title again), last week I had a really helpful chat with a bone fide publisher who knew the set-up. He explained that these tactics tend to cluster around three types of features:
- Project features about a particular building project, where the developer writes some blurb about the project and all the companies, contractors and suppliers involved on the project are invited to place advertising saying how pleased they are to be associated with Building X and its developer.
- Event features about a major exhibition like Interbuild, Ecobuild or a conference, where the event organiser writes the blurb and all the exhibitors are approached to advertise in support.
- Trade association/membership organisation features, where the Association writes some blurb and all the members are encouraged to advertise in support.
You get the picture.
As a publishing model, it can occasionally work well for all parties, he told me. Sometimes.
BUT there are major dangers:
- If the sales team can't sell enough advertising around the feature, it won't get published at all, so you've wasted your time.
- There is usually very little information about who receives these publications, and readership numbers are not the same as actual copies distributed (assume a standard multiplier of x 4).
- The quality of the content can be shockingly bad.
- The ad sales techniques can get very pushy, which is also bad news if the Association then receives complaints from its members. They may feel obligated or bullied into advertising in a magazine where they would or should not spend their money.
- And there are (allegedly) cases where a publisher has simply taken the advertising revenue, published enough copies of the magazine to give one to each of the advertisers, and pocketed the rest of the cash. Illegal, immoral and pretty much invisible fraud.
I'm afraid our sector has its fair share of these sorts of publishers. If you call me, I'll give you the names of our prime suspects.
So here's the bottom line: No up-to-date ABC certificate, no editorial and certainly no list of our clients' members. Sorry.