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Editor's Note:
The leaders, featured alphabetically, of five national agriculture magazines and media companies offer their viewpoint on the significance of print media in the marketing mix and the future of ag media brands in the changing landscape of agriculture.

What media channel is consistently the hands-down winner of every farmer preference study; is the most respected source of ag information; is thought of as becoming more important in the next three to four years by both older and younger farmers; and offers the greatest flexibility, virtually unlimited message targeting and the most information about your customers? If you answered farm magazines, then you are correct.

There has never been a better time to trust your advertising investment to farm magazines and their products than now, especially those that have built a trusted brand, proven performance and quantifiable reader franchises.

National ag media brands such as Successful Farming are still the most trusted, most preferred, most read and most used farm media. We have proven that it is possible to have a national brand while targeting demographically specific audiences. We have invested in and adopted technology that allows agrimarketers to reach farmers one-by-one with their sales messages using a national ag media brand. We have developed natural product extensions, such as @griculture OnLine, the Successful Farming Radio Network and special interest publishing that capitalize on our powerful brand to offer unique and effective marketing solutions for agrimarketers and provide new products for farmers.

This year, Successful Farming is celebrating 100 years of consistent, stable ownership, solving advertisers' marketing problems and building reader loyalty. We invest heavily in the "service journalism" approach that E.T. Meredith started 100 years ago. Today more than 442,000 farm families buy a subscription to Successful Farming when their mailboxes are stuffed with "free" publications. That says something very powerful about the Successful Farming brand and the customer relationship with that brand.

Looking ahead, Successful Farming will be even more aggressive in solving agrimarketers' challenges while continuing to serve our readers. Information about the farmer is just as important as the relationship with the farmer - and Successful Farming will bring new solutions to agrimarketers to help them better understand farmers and effectively communicate with them. We will continue to strive for balanced reporting and earning the highest respect from our readers. We feel strongly that if our product is right for readers, then it is right for advertisers.

Almost all of the things we do at Farm Progress are built around a business model of being able to provide access to farm and ranch audiences. We publish magazines, compile databases, produce farm shows and build Web sites to establish relationships with individual farmers and ranchers. These relationships are the key to our ongoing success in serving marketers.

We are fortunate to have well-recognized magazines and trade shows that attract a lot of attention across the rural market. Nebraska Farmer and Husker Harvest Days certainly have their advantages, but do not guarantee our future relevance or success in the state of Nebraska. We need to earn our stripes with the people we serve every day, and how we do that is changing.

In our case, providing local service has been our primary focus because farmers across a given area often have similar interests. Being local tends to make us more relevant than other farm magazines when it comes to addressing farming practices. However, being local is not always enough. Individual producers have unique interests and needs that vary tremendously. Being able to identify and serve those individual interests will help determine who the winners are over the next several years, especially as farmers adapt to serve increasingly specialized markets

A farmer who raises corn under center pivots and has beef cows on intensely managed pasture is going to find a magazine that addresses grazing and irrigation practices more useful than one that just talks about general farm topics. Serving those specific interests across a large audience is a big challenge, but that's our mission. Twenty years ago Farm Progress magazine had just one "special interest" feature section. Today we have more than 10, and several of those vary by region.

Almost the entire so-called "broad-based" farm media are putting more emphasis on the lifestyle aspects of farming and ranching these days because the agribusiness sector is consolidating. Our readers do enjoy reading about ways to enhance their rural lives, and there will likely be a growing number of advertisers who recognize the potential of an affluent rural market. That's all well and good as long as it does not take our focus too far away from the business aspects of agriculture.

There is no question in my mind that the U.S. farm audience depends heavily upon its media, but farmers and marketers alike are confused by too many choices, some of which do not have a well-defined role in a rapidly changing market. It's OK to suffer an identity crisis during short periods of turmoil, but magazines had better know where they fit in once the dust has settled.

All farmers are consumers of information. Research clearly shows that large farm operations, crops or livestock, have a bigger information appetite than small farmers. Our job as publishers and editors is a little like that of a chef in a fine restaurant. We must measure the tastes of readers, select the best ingredients and provide a menu of information choices that satisfies as many of their needs as possible.

Since Primedia Business Magazine's and Media's publications each cater to a specific large crop or livestock niche, we see this as a great opportunity to expand beyond our traditional role as providers of information through the printed page. The Internet is helping us deliver types of information that don't fit conventional publishing schedules.

In many cases, our subscribers can access "just-in-time" information that is available on one or more of our Web sites. They learn about the information through the pages of our magazines, which is an example of how print and electronic media can work together. For instance, our readers currently can go online and interactively view several different herbicide combinations to take care of difficult weed problems. On the BEEF Web site they can access approved feeding table information including NDF, TDN and ADF for up to 300 different animal feed by-products for livestock rations. In both instances, this information is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Publications' branded e-mail newsletters are another example of how brand loyalty can be transferred to another medium. BEEF magazine is launching an e-mail newsletter titled "Cow/Calf Weekly" in July. Many other publications have launched or are launching e-newsletters.

APA has done research projects with Gallop and other providers, including the just-released research study on branding, and one thing remains clear: farmers continue to rank agricultural publications far ahead of other options as places to obtain agricultural information. As a result, ag publications are the primary tool to build brand awareness and acceptance. We don't see this changing because of new technologies.

Agriculture is the mostregionally intensive industry in the world. Soil type, climate and local markets create farming, rather than the other way around. Farm media grew from the same stuff. Simply put, every magazine published in America has regional strengths and weaknesses.

But the biggest challenge today is understanding and managing the powerful influence of the advertiser. After all, the magazine business is all about the "reader." If this looks like a huge challenge to those of us in publishing, look at what an incredible, high-stakes battle it is for our advertisers. That kind of pressure distracts both parties from the real point of magazines, which is to serve the readers.

The farm magazine industry has been through a revolution. Lots of jobs have been lost and most were not salespeople; the jobs lost were in editorial/magazine production. And there's more of this coming, which degrades those magazines.

Keep in mind the biggest challenge in the magazine business - the extraordinary influence of advertisers - and couple that with fewer experienced, confident editors and you see the extent of the challenge. It's the kind of environment that leads to fewer "big" stories and stories that advertisers might find offensive. As part of our strategy to drive the magazine with big, cover stories that follow wherever the story leads, Progressive Farmer has not cut editors.

Many companies are buzzing about "one-on-one marketing," "customer relations management" and "relationship marketing," yet I've not met a farmer who wants a closer relationship with a chemical company or tractor company or any business that wants a "relationship" based on commerce.

Farmers want a closer relationship with their spouses, children, neighbors and communities. And we believe Progressive Farmer has a relationship with them, which is true of a handful of magazines in our business. Advertising works because advertisers borrow from the goodwill and relationships a magazine has with its best readers. It's like getting an introduction to someone from his or her friend rather than introducing yourself. That's what makes advertising work.

Research proves that farmers continue to use agricultural magazines as their chief information source and the use of magazines has slightly increased - not decreased - in recent years. As long as publishers continue to invest in their products and in the trusted bond they have with their readers, ag publications will remain a cornerstone of overall marketing communication programs.

That said, print advertising, as a tool, supports only certain stages of a marketer's sales process - it drives the early stages of the sales process and reinforces the sale afterwards. In a consolidating market, agrimarketers are looking for partners who can efficiently bring more tools to plug into that sales process, especially tools that are closer to the point of sale.

Farm Journal magazine is one of the legendary brands in business publishing history. The strength of that brand, its one-to-one capabilities and the ability to package information products around that brand strength, is what brought me back to the agricultural media market two years ago.

We've spent the last 18 months acutely focused on leveraging that brand equity in the market. Creating multi-media packages around the Farm Journal name is the single biggest reason for our growth in a tough ag media market. And it's because of this that we continue to over-invest in our editorial products, databases and in new products.

Today, Farm Journal Media derives only about one-third of its revenue from Farm Journal magazine and less than half from print advertising overall, but our magazines continue to be the center of our brand-leveraging activities.

Agricultural magazines will continue to be farmers' go-to media for information. But to survive in the new ag media paradigm, magazine publishers will need not only to keep up investment in their products, but also better leverage their brands and provide more tools for agrimarketers to use at the different stages of their sales cycles. Farm Journal Media continues to be committed to both. AM

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