01 Jun 2005

New Magazine Makes Its Mark

Getting the word out proves tougher than expected
by Roger Thompson


Three years after launching Bookmarks magazine, a bimonthly guide to new books, Allison Nelson and Jon Phillips (both MBA ’95) are still refining their marketing strategy. It’s been their biggest challenge — and their greatest opportunity.

Avid readers, it seems, can’t be defined and targeted with the same laser-like precision that aids purveyors of products like toothpaste or plasma TVs. “We are so much different from a traditional product where you can pinpoint a specific demographic,” explains Nelson. “We appeal to a 20-year-old college student just as well as a 70-year-old grandmother.” Adds Phillips: “That means we have to work harder to market our publication, but we stand to benefit in terms of building a large, diverse audience.”

Nelson and Phillips, who met and became friends at HBS, didn’t set out to be magazine publishers or, for that matter, to even work together. Each married a classmate and went their separate ways upon graduation. By 2001, they both were technology executives in the San Francisco Bay Area. Each had two children and a hankering for a career change that would allow more time with their young families. But what would they do?

The idea for Bookmarks grew out of a mutual passion for reading and a hunch — confirmed by friends and focus groups — that book lovers needed an easy-to-use buyer’s guide. The pair pooled personal resources and launched the magazine in the summer of 2002. Each issue provides brief excerpts of reviews from more than fifty publications and rates books on a one- to five-star system. In addition, the magazine features best books in a particular genre and profiles authors. An instant hit, Bookmarks garnered recognition by Library Journal as a “Best New Magazine of 2002.” Circulation today tops 40,000. And true to their original family-oriented goal, both work from home: Nelson from Mill Valley, California, and Phillips from Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Growing the magazine, however, has been more of a marketing challenge than the pair ever anticipated. “We thought we would figure out a clever way to handle marketing, and it has turned out that we needed a million different ways,” concedes Phillips.

The most successful so far has been a content licensing agreement with Amazon.com. Book shoppers can read review summaries from Bookmarks and click to subscribe online at www.bookmarksmagazine.com. For a week in March, Bookmarks was the best-selling magazine on Amazon.com. Word-of-mouth buzz generated by independent bookstores also has worked well. So have sales from magazine racks in Borders and Barnes & Noble.

Less successful to date has been the effort to sign up public libraries, with roughly 20 percent of the nation’s 9,000 libraries carrying Bookmarks. Still on the horizon is the tantalizing prospect of marketing directly to members of an estimated 750,000 book clubs and reading groups, for which no master list exists. But several efforts to compile such a list are under way, a development Nelson and Phillips eagerly await.

As circulation and ad revenue continue to grow, the publishing duo expect to achieve a milestone this year: They’ll finally take home a salary.

— Roger Thompson

Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 1995, Section F
Class of MBA 1995, Section F

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