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5 content marketing lessons from the cutting-edge magazines at ModMag

Rachael Stiles , 13 December 2018

“If you don’t reinvent, you go backwards.”

– Jeff Taylor, Courier magazine

London’s Modern Magazine conference (ModMag for short) is an annual exploration of the frontiers of printed content. Organised by indy magazine hub magCulture, the event brings together founders, editors and creatives from the publishing world to share ideas. This year’s theme was Reinvention, and we went along for a day of talks that were at times surprising, reassuring and inspiring.

While largely focusing on independent magazines, there was still much that can be applied to branded content. Indy magazines might be more experimental and consciously artistic than much content marketing, but they share the same goal as all content creators – to communicate messages in compelling ways. Many of the leftfield ideas and trends we saw will filter into mainstream content, so here are our five key takeouts.

ModMag 2018 Conway Hall

1. To thine own self be true

It seemed appropriate that Shakespeare’s familiar words are stencilled above the stage of Conway Hall, where ModMag takes place – because the magazines on show were all ringingly authentic. From zeitgeisty business magazine Courier to the more-relevant-than-ever National Geographic, the event was a powerful reminder that content finds an audience when it’s honest and bold.

ModMag showcased magazine makers who are telling stories and creating things they love, for people who share those passions, from football fans to witches. Our takeout? Nobody knows your members or customers as well as you do, and by extension it’s our responsibility to infiltrate and fuel their interests and the causes they care about.

But authenticity can be challenging online: search engines don’t reward artful imagery or a nice turn of phrase. As Perrin Drumm, editor of New York design journal AIGA Eye on Design, put it, there is “less serendipity online”. Her solution was a parallel digital identity that complements the print magazine rather than overshadowing it. “Print can be amplified by digital to make something really elegant,” she said.

2. Think big on covers

This doesn’t necessarily mean a big production with budget to match – just big ideas. National Geographic was a showcase in high-concept, simple but effective covers. A perfect example is its ‘Planet or plastic?’ cover, featuring an instantly iconic image of an iceberg that’s also a plastic bag. It immediately went viral on Twitter.

The Creative Director of National Geographic, Emmet Smith, admits that there have also been mistakes along the way, but it’s only through trying and failing that you achieve greatness. The art director of green-fingered coffee table tome The Plant urged experimentation, and that was echoed by Jeff Taylor of Courier: “If you don’t reinvent, you go backwards.”

3. Keep an open mind

This goes for your content and your audience – not always who you think they are. Mundial, a homage to footie culture made by football fans, became unexpectedly popular with coffee-table-mag-loving Instagrammers who’ve never watched a match in their lives. They loved its high production values and lifestyle-inflected covers. Likewise, it’s important to remember that the people consuming your content don’t necessarily fit into the niche that you imagine. For them, it might be a new passion or they may be life-long enthusiasts, so inclusivity is key when it comes to branded content.

4. Show don’t tell

There’s an interesting battle going on between words and picture currently, with a trend to long reads on the one hand and an Instagram-fuelled vogue for picture-led storytelling on the other. The most extreme example of the latter was fine art magazine Ordinary, which lets images speak for themselves, the only text relegated to captions. This isn’t for reading, it’s for artfully Instagramming next to a flat white.

As always, everything in moderation and while words might be increasingly read by voice recognition software instead of our eyes, they aren’t going anywhere. But it goes to show the importance of listening to (and looking at) the wider world and keeping abreast of shifting habits and the ways people absorb content.

5. Respect your heritage, don’t be shackled by it

When Emmet Smith was tasked with redesigning National Geographic, he felt the weight of a 130-year legacy and millions of subscribers. But, as he told us, even classics need to “evolve or die”. Some board members quit when the magazine introduced photography in the early 1900s, but its striking imagery has become its bedrock, demonstrated by its 95 million Instagram followers.

The team had to consider their digital-savvy generation of readers, while still being serious about science and exploration. They walked the line between reinvention and consistency and delved into the archive to find typographical inspiration. The yellow border remained as a nod to Nat Geo heritage, but modern flourishes brought the magazine forward  for the next wave of knowledge-seekers. Similarly, we don’t want to alienate long-term supporters, but it’s an important reminder to always keep an eye on the future. Let’s keep it fresh.

ModMag takes place annually in November. Event photography by Dunja Opalko.

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