New media the old way

Marie Claire magazine 'native' cover - online term for advertorial

Marie Claire ‘native’ cover – online term for advertorial

It’s a familiar story: a new media entrepreneur comes up with a way to generate free content, markets the idea like billy-o, scales it up into a mass-market product and then sells advertising around it to earn a fortune.

Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, you may be thinking. But no, I’m talking 1880s Britain and the products are the world’s first mass market media in the shape of Tit-Bits and Answers to Correspondents on Every Subject Under the Sun. They found sources of cheap content from their readers (today’s term: user-generated content) or by summarising other published sources (aggregation). Like Google is doing now, the founders of these magazines, George Newnes and Alfred Harmsworth (later Lord Northcliffe), expanded into related areas, with daily newspapers, map books, novels, puzzles, part works and educational products among their output. Founder Alfred Harmsworth regarded Answers as ‘a sort of Universal Information Provider’ – today it would no doubt be shortened to a UIP.

These Victorian new media companies moved into the new century spreading their products across the globe. They became vertically integrated by owning forests, paper mills and print plants, and grew to dominate both Fleet Street – the world’s media hub – and the London stock market. They segmented their readerships – Newnes kept Tit-Bits for the mass market and launched the Strand and Review of Reviews for richer, more educated readers. Harmsworth launched the Daily Mail for a greatly expanding reading public that wanted a simpler, more entertaining presentation and the Daily Mirror for a new type of reader, women office workers, and then to exploit the potential for photographs.

Buying newspapers such as the Times brought press barons such as Harmsworth into the establishment, today’s media magnates sponsor oxbridge colleges or join government advisory committees.

Branding, social media, niche marketing – these modern-day terms would be immediately obvious to the Victorian pioneers. Are there lessons for today’s start-ups and entrepreneurs, as well as intriguing parallels in their work? Well, yes. The first is that readers/viewers/users – people – become more discerning. They want niche products more closely aimed at them: for Tit-Bits/Strand/Review of Reviews swap YouTube/Facebook and LinkedIn (and it won’t stop there); in terms of hardware, see Marshall with its ‘loudest mobile phone on earth‘ as a niche for those bored with iPhones. And, yes, these modern-day products will soon be commodities for many buyers.

Furthermore, social marketing was a vital tool for the Edwardians, in their case as postcards delivered locally on the day and real word-of-mouth. Entrants to competitions would have to have their postal entries signed by five friends; exhortations at the head or foot of magazine pages would encourage readers to tell their friends about articles. Today, they pass it along on Twitter and blogs.

Building the ‘brand‘ with imagery and colour was vital – Tit-Bits used green for a century, Answers yellow, and another weekly rival, Pearson’s Weekly, a pinkish red (the colour of the British empire on world maps – hence the pun on the masthead, ‘read wherever the world’s red’). That Answers yellow can be seen to this day on the Coffee Time Chat pastimes page in the Daily Mail.

Yellow colour and logo date back to a Victorian magazine from Alfred Harmsworth that was the foundation of the Daily Mail empire

Yellow colour and logo date back to Answers to Correspondents, a Victorian magazine from Alfred Harmsworth that was the foundation of the Daily Mail empire

‘Native advertising’ is a recent term used online for what was an advertorial a few years ago, as in Marie Claire‘s Luisa Via Roma cover. It’s part of a ‘cross platform initiative encompassing print, digital, social media and events. Compare the Marie Claire cover above with the Popular Flying cover below, under Biggles author WE Johns. The pilot illustration has been commissioned to work as a cover image and integrate with the ‘You Can be Sure of Shell’ advertising campaign.

This Popular Flying cover from 1934 integrates the Shell advertising

This Popular Flying magazine cover from 1934 integrates the Shell advertising

As the Roman writer Terence may have said: There’s nothing new under the sun.

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