by Karlene Lukovitz
Matt Bean, who became VP and editor-in-chief of Rodale’s Men’s Health last September, doesn’t need to be sold on the wisdom of the 30-year-old magazine’s tradition of practicing a disciplined, sales-driven approach to covers.
Bean held key print and digital editorial roles spanning Men's Health and other brands during his first tenure at Rodale from 2004 to 2012, and subsequently at Time Inc.--including editor-in-chief of newsstand staple Entertainment Weekly.
Also, before switching his career path to media, his pre-med undergrad work at the University of Chicago included doing studies in the field of cognitive psychology, he related during a presentation at the 2017 MBR Conference.
“It’s my training to understand how people perceive information, and that’s ultimately what we do at the newsstand,” he said. “I think I’m able to divorce myself from whatever level of ‘artistry’ I’d like on the cover and make sure that you can really sell the hell out of it first, and then come through with those extra little flourishes.”
The factors considered in developing any Men’s Health cover, he said, include: “Where are the magazines placed? Where does the main sell fall in the eyeline of the potential customer? How legible is that main sell if I’m in an airport walking past it at 50 feet? What’s the secondary sell underneath it that might take me from having that hook in my mouth to setting that hook? How am I going to get you to put that magazine in your hand, your basket—and your life?”
On a fundamental level, Men’s Health has “the benefit of being a service magazine, so there’s a certain urgency,” Bean said. “We’re not an escapist magazine. I believe that driving home that service to the reader, whether it’s recipes or workouts or travel tips, is that extra edge you have versus titles that are designed to help you forget the world—because Facebook does that pretty well these days.”
The main sell for MH, he said, is actually the logo itself, because “it conveys the quality that readers, in some cases, have been consuming for dozens of years.” But employing specific benefit headlines is more crucial than ever. “The average Men’s Health reader doesn’t have abs like [the magazine’s cover models], but he wants to lose 10 pounds, so that’s what we emphasize—we have specific plans that are going to help him do that.”
At bottom, “Creating value is what it’s all about,” he stressed. “I talk a lot with my team about driving value. Why is this magazine worth $5 or $6?”
And in the end, while a cover grabs the prospective reader, “it’s what’s inside” that clinches the sale, he said. “We try to make sure that the product is continually surprising, refreshed, renewed, and also sophisticated, so that it’s worth the money.”
A key part of the balancing act is finding ways to attract new newsstand buyers and readers without alienating the core, loyal readership. Men’s basic hopes and fears “haven’t changed in the last 50 years…what’s changed is how we accomplish those goals, the nuances,” Bean said. “So our challenge is to always reinvent Men’s Health without changing the bones of the magazine.”
So, for instance, the July/August cover (shown below)—which showcases the magazine’s new redesign—includes a skyline promoting a new column by self-help guru Tim Ferriss, author of “The 4-Hour Workweek.”
“That’s not the main [headline] or sell, because it won’t appeal to many in our audience, but it’s going to kill with that 20% that we’re looking to convert to the magazine,” Bean said.
Bean says he’s upbeat not only about Men’s Health, but the general outlook for quality magazine brands. And that’s because of, rather than in spite of, digital media.
“I think mags are uniquely positioned in this day and age,” he said, because of the often overwhelming barrage of texts, calls, emails, videos and podcasts.
“I don’t know about you, but a lot of times, when confronted with digital media, I have the urge to go into the woods and take up cabinet making for a living,” he half-joked. ‘I want to do something tactile, that I can wrap my hands around, and feel like I’ve accomplished something at the end of the day. Well, that’s exactly what a magazine offers. You can pick it up and feel deeply in your bones that those editors have pulled the best of the world that month for you and put it in your hands. When you’re finished with it, you have the satisfaction of knowing you’ve completed something. I don’t get that with Facebook,” where new posts are never ending, he said.
“I encourage you to think about that: There is a value to magazines that has never been as relevant to the reader,” Bean urged.
At Men’s Health, “we’re really trying to emphasize that we’re filtering that confusing world for people,” he added. The magazine’s readers are “guys with a high household income, with an average age of around 40. What unites these guys most is not that they want to lose 10 pounds, but that they’re successful. So we edit it to be a magazine that helps them optimize every aspect of their lives, [including] relationships and how they dress.
“Another quality we want to increase in the magazine is authenticity, because social media have fundamentally changed how we communicate with each other,” Bean said. “Anyone on Instagram is a publisher now.
“Our tagline for the redesign is ‘sophisticated grit’—we didn’t want to be too sophisticated, or off-putting, because we’re a mainstream magazine. Through passalong, we reach 14 million people. We’re also now showing our guys out there in the real world—like a guy in scuba gear on a beach—not just on an airbrushed white cover. We won’t do that with every photo, but context is important. We’ve followed through on that in [images] on Instagram and other social media, as well.”
In the digital world, “like most companies, we’re trying to solve for mobile,” Bean reported. “Mobile is a big challenge for us, because it represents 80% of our digital audience, but there’s less inventory there to remind them about the magazine and the books and other things we sell.
“We’re trying to create a virtuous circle where the magazine can drive people to the app and vice versa,” Bean continued. “There’s often talk of cannibalization of print by putting content in a digital format. I don’t see it that way. I think that if someone wants to use digital, they will—and if we don’t provide it to them, somebody else will. You can’t ignore it.
“But we can be consistent in trying to create that virtuous circle. For instance, we’re going to try to use QR codes and other means for newsstand buyers to access digital functionality, like our workout apps. And everywhere we go or we’re interviewed, we’re brandishing the magazine. We shouldn’t forget that the reason we appear on television or radio is to sell magazines.”