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M. Shanken

Good Ideas Any Publisher Can Use

A recent article in Forbes offers a very thoughtful interview with Marvin Shanken, founder of the eponymous M. Shanken Publications, a company best known for its titles such as Wine Spectator and Cigar Aficionado.

Marvin Shanken is more than a successful publishing entrepreneur. He’s also a true industry innovator. He has started publications that were mocked at launch because nobody thought they had a chance, before they went on to achieve remarkable success. He blends B2B and B2C publishing strategies in ways that few have tried. He’s stayed focused on print more than his peers and continues to profit handsomely from doing so. 

Shanken attributes his success to the quality of his content, and there is no doubt he produces smart, passionate content for smart, passionate audiences. But as the article notes, that alone is not enough these days. So what’s his secret? I think it’s a series of things. Interestingly, many are concepts we’ve held out to data publishers over the years. Let’s review just a few:

First and foremost, Shanken makes his publications central to their markets. His primary technique: rankings and ratings. By offering trusted, independent ratings on a huge number of wines, Wine Spectator in particular began to drive sales because its audience relied on it so heavily. This in turn caused retailers to promote the ratings to drive more sales. That in turn forced wine producers to highlight the ratings, and in many cases, to advertise as well. Wine Spectator is a central player and made itself a real force in the wine business. This drives both readership and advertising.

Secondly, Shanken gets data the way few B2C publishers do. You can’t spend much time on the Wine Spectator website without getting multiple offers to subscribe to the Wine Spectator database – reviews and ratings on a remarkable 378,000 wines. Content never ends up on the floor at M. Shanken Publications – it’s systematically re-used to create not the typical, mediocre searchable archive offered by most publishers, but rather a high-value searchable database. It’s more work but it’s work that yields a lot of revenue opportunity.

Third, Shanken believes in premium pricing because it reinforces the quality of his content. There is something of a universal truth here, provided you don’t go crazy. I can think of few data publishers who charge for their content “by the pound” and are at the same time market leaders.

Finally, Shanken sees the power of what I call crossover markets, where there is an opportunity for a B2B publisher to repurpose its content as B2C.  Indeed, Shanken got into many of his current titles by creating glossy B2C magazines from modest B2B titles.  But he hasn’t exited B2B: he successfully publishes for both business and consumer audiences.

There’s more, much more, but you get the idea. Some of the key success strategies in data publishing work just as well in other forms of publishing because they are so powerful and so fundamental.