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An Interview With Dave Mammano, Founder of NextStepU

Dave Mammano, founder of Next Step magazine and NextStepU, talks about social media, traditional publishing, the iPad, branding and entrepreneurialism in a recent interview with Mike Gastin.

Dave and I sat down over a cup of coffee near his office in lovely Victor NY to talk about his business, publishing, marketing and social media. Dave's a great guy and has a lot of experience in publishing and advertising. Check out his thoughts on where traditional publishing is going and his experiences with social media.

Mike: You started the company 15 years ago and I’m curious how the idea for NextStep came about.

Dave: I decided I wanted to start a business before I started on the idea for NextStep. I ran the school newspaper in college and loved it. I mostly sold ads. I knew I wanted to stay in ad sales so I went to radio sales for three years and never fell in love with that business. I did OK with it and I liked my bosses, they were nice guys, but I hated having a boss. I hated taking direction, I hated being boxed in from a creativity perspective and I decided that I just needed to do my own thing. I was 25. I thought about all the friends I had that left college directionless. So I thought, wouldn’t it be neat if there was a magazine that could help students while in high school decide on the right, post-secondary choices?

I realized I could do this! I know print, I know how to sell ads, I know how to write a little bit. So I went and created a demo issue, a 12-page little dummy issue. I brought it around to potential advertisers in Rochester, mostly colleges, some local banks, bike shops, Record Archive, everything.

I ended up selling about $15,000 worth of ads, which was enough to print about 10,000 copies. I distributed them free to about 50 high schools around the 5-county area. We broke even on the first two issues and then by the third issue we made a little bit of profit so we expanded to Buffalo and Syracuse—about 30,000 copies in about 150 high schools. By the sixth issue we really developed a good model for cash flow and then just kept expanding. In ’97 we went to all of New York State, and then later expanded nationwide.

Mike: What were the big marketing challenges when you started the magazine?

Dave: Well, it’s a tough demographic to reach. I mean our audience is college-bound high school students so that could be inner city, Pittsford, African-American, Asian, white. It’s a big audience to try to market to. So to advertise traditionally was gonna be very tough so what we decided to do is a lot of guerilla marketing—be where they are physically. We would sponsor events, college fairs, career expos and go into the high schools and speak. We don’t have the budget to do TV and radio.

Mike: How have you leveraged social media? Did you have any early missteps, did you learn anything?

Dave: We did have a misstep. We tried to jump into the social media thing about two years ago. We did some stuff on Facebook, we started blogging, but we didn’t really do anything with it. We let it sit there and sure enough, we didn’t really get much momentum with it.

Then about four months ago we jumped back into it but this time we came up with a whole plan. We really started promoting the Facebook page, our fan page, and the magazine to our database of users. We promote our Facebook page in our newsletter that goes out to 300,000 students, on our web site and in our magazine. We promote the heck out of it and now in the past few months it’s gone up to almost 500 fans. Six months ago it had seven fans.

Also, Laura does a really great blog. So she’ll post,“Check out my blog” on our Facebook wall and she’ll promote the blog in our magazine.

In addition to that a couple times a week we’ll give away something for free from our advertisers. We promote it on Facebook and then we’ll promote that someone won. Hey! John Smith from Tulsa won a University of Buffalo sweatshirt!

Mike: I have to imagine your advertisers, when they hear what you’re doing with social media, feel more confident to say I’m gonna spend here.

Dave: Right. We get viewed more as an educational media company instead of a magazine.

Mike: I noticed you rebranded the company. You went from NextStep Magazine to NextStepU. What motivated that?

Dave: We were known as NextStep Magazine, our web site was NextStepMag.com, and we were losing buys, frankly, because people, buyers would pigeonhole us as print only. Advertisers wouldn’t give credence to anything else we were doing. We do a lot of custom publishing, we have some great online products, we do a lot of digital publishing, we do custom publishing digitally, we were going to be moving to the mobile world in the Fall and the iPad.

Mike: Oh, interesting! Are you developing an app?

Dave: We’re gonna have an electronic version of our magazine on the iPad in the Fall. And then we’ll look at developing some cool apps after that. But step one is just to be able to read the magazine on the eReaders.

We chose NextStepU is because it gives credence to repositioning the company. So now you see NextStepU and you’re like, what’s that? NextStep Mag you say, that’s a magazine. NextStepU, what is that? We position as an educational media company that offers many media platforms including print, online, digital, mobile, custom publishing, and we’re here to help you.

Mike: You started out as a print mag when the commercial internet was in its early stages. What struggles have you experienced making the transition from solely a print offering to print plus digital?

Dave: I’ve experienced that mass publications, mass circ publications, are hurting. Obviously Newsweek just went on the block two weeks ago.

Mike: I think I saw it on Craig’s List.

Dave: (laughter) That would be a good place to sell it, right?

I think that there’s so many other choices today to get your media. I mean there’s Google News, there’s the internet in general, 24/7 news stations. We used to get our news from the newspaper and Tom Brokaw and that was it. Now, by the time you get to work you’ve probably checked out MSNBC.com and then maybe you’ve watched a little CNN while working out, so you already know the news. You really don’t need to read that morning newspaper too much anymore. And really is there a need for Time, Newsweek, and US News & World Report now? People don’t have the time to read two-hour articles anymore, and so those mass magazines or newspapers, they’re probably gonna reinvent themselves to some extent to find their place of relevancy but I think there definitely will be some purging along the way.

But from a print perspective, what I think is going to make the cut better is the small niche-oriented magazines and newspapers. You might subscribe to your Messenger Post newspaper regionally because your son is playing soccer and you want to see his picture in the paper. Gatehouse Media’s strategy is good because they’re really focusing on local stuff that you can’t find on CNN or the internet. They’re finding their place of relevancy.

Magazines I think are going survive by being very niche oriented. Instead of a circ of 30 million or 20 million, it could be 200,000, but guess what? You’re super serving a very fine niche that people want to reach. Everybody has a hobby or two and a lot of times people will subscribe to magazines to support their hobby. If you look at niche-oriented magazines, most of them are actually doing very well.

Mike: Your magazine is a niche because it’s serving a very specific population and a very specific time in their life.

Dave: Well, you know the metaphor, and it’s kind of comical, but we’re like a bridal magazine. You read it for a year or two and then ideally you’re never gonna read it again, right? You know, same thing with NextStep. You’re gonna read it when you go to college and then you’re done with it. But the cool thing is you’ve always got people on deck coming up. There will always be brides, there will always be students.

Mike: Do you have data on readers of the magazine versus users of the web site, meaning, are they two different groups or are they the same people using both?

Dave: It’s like there’s two circles and there is some overlap. It’s like 30% overlap. But a lot of our readers will go for the print magazine and will also go to the web site. We show that about 74% of our traffic actually types in the URL.

Mike: OK, so it’s direct traffic.

Dave: Which means that they either dream it or they saw the magazine. What I have found is there’s people in general will read print to go deep. People don’t stay on the web and read for a half an hour. They just don’t. The average time spent on the web is like seven minutes, so they’re browsing, they’re getting the headlines, they’re getting their quick tidbits, that’s why blogs, successful blogs, are like 400 words. No one’s reading a six-page Newsweek article online most of the time. But if you’re on the airplane or you have some time to yourself at home, you could get cozy with your magazine. It’s tough to get cozy with your laptop and read a six-page article or in bed.

Mike: I think Apple is hoping that’s what the iPad’ll do.

Dave: Yeah, the iPad is definitely a game-changer. No doubt. I’ve seen Time Magazine on it and it’s great! It’s full of color, it’s beautiful, you know, get your little finger and turn the page and it’s great!

Mike: You talk to a lot of advertisers. Can you share a common mistake that you see?

Dave: The common mistake is people are judging too heavily based on ROI. They’re not giving any credence to traditional advertising. They divide the number of leads they receive by the dollars they spent. But you can’t track all this stuff. You can’t track it being part of a bigger marketing picture. You can’t track all the people that saw the ad, that went to your web site and then eventually enrolled. So a lot of CMOs are letting resources go that are very helpful in the overall picture.

Mike: Do you have advice for publishers?

Dave: Don’t get tricked into abandoning what made you successful by abandoning your core. Most of our revenue still comes from print. If we were just to say we gotta fold print, we’d be out of business. You know, we would have completely changed our business model so I would say find a way to preserve the core while slowly turning the ship towards all this new stuff and offer your advertisers the full surround sound of marketing opportunities. We say, hey, we could offer you branding and awareness all the way up to real-time lead generation and everything in between. The clients that do best with us do everything—they do some print, some online, some lead generation stuff. They do a good mix because the audience is always new and you need to do the branding and awareness advertising to make the introductions. Otherwise, no one’s going to click on you for a lead if they don’t know who you are. So it’s all full circle that needs to be included.

Mike: I asked you about advice for publishers, do you have any advice for marketing folks?

Dave: I think the advice for marketing folks is don’t be lured by just doing all the bright new shiny stuff. Don’t run a social media strategy without a traditional marketing campaign to back it up. If you use traditional media well, it’s gonna drive people to your social media stuff.

Mike: And vice versa.

Dave: And vice versa, exactly. So don’t forget the full surround sound of marketing opportunities out there.

Mike: That’s great advice. Dave, thanks for taking the time to share with us!

Mike Gastin's picture

Twitter, Journalism & Rochester Newspapers: The Wanting & The Savvy

Business people who have figured out Twitter’s power know that it’s an amazing tool for intelligence gathering, trend spotting, networking and business development. Its usefulness is easily under-realized and if you think Twitter is mainly for chatting, think again.

Let’s say you need to find an expert on solar energy for an article you’re working on. You can search people’s bios on Twitter using Google. You would construct a search string to look for bios that contain solar energy. Within a few seconds you’d have a list of people from all over the world that have something to do with solar energy. Then, it’s just a matter of following the ones that look promising and reaching out to them via Twitter. Within an hour you could be on the phone with an expert getting the info you need.

In addition, by searching for solar energy trends on Twitter you will find all kinds of discussions, news stories, articles and published research, which would be valuable to your article. You could use Google and search for relevant web sites, but Twitter provides you with real-time conversations—not just indexed content. That’s powerful.

Twitter & Journalism

This kind of power and time relevancy makes Twitter a must-use tool for journalists and publications. It’s like having your very own police scanner except you can tune-in to any topic you’re interested in.

Remember when a reporter had to move heaven and earth to ‘get the scoop’ on a story? Or how hard they had to work to find and cultivate sources? All these things can be done so easily using Twitter that it’s a no-brainer. Savvy journalists use it to follow important people, trendsetters and insiders, find experts, watch trending topics and get the jump on their competition.

The Local Scoop on Newspapers & Twitter

We have two papers in Rochester, one daily and one weekly. Our daily is the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle and is part of the Gannett family of publications. The weekly is our business paper, the Rochester Business Journal and it’s privately owned.

I was poking around over the weekend to find local journalists using Twitter because I wanted to start cultivating relationships with the local press, something every small business owner needs to do. What I found amazed me.

I started at the RBJ. There’s nothing on their web site about Twitter. I had to really dig around the net to find their main account which is a feed of stories. Okay, but I want to connect with reporters, not receive a feed of headlines.

I searched Twitter to find ‘rochester business journal’ or ‘rbj’ in users’ bios and found one relevant hit: editor and vice president Paul Ericson. Wow! A guy at the top, this is a good sign, I thought. When I clicked through to his Twitter page I found that he had only one tweet and it was from January of this year. He had two followers and followed two users, one being his employer. That’s it. One staffer with a four-month old tweet. Not savvy.

The Democrat & Chronicle has fully embraced Twitter. They’ve even got a page on their web site that lists everyone on their staff with a Twitter account. It’s quite impressive. After following some of their reporters and staff, it’s clear that they use it actively. I’m amazed at how well they engage the community. That has to pay dividends for a business that makes its living reporting local news.

I’m no print media expert. But, I’ve been involved in business development, networking and research for decades. It seems obvious that if your job involves connecting with people, finding information and developing content, like a newspaper must do every day, you need to be using tools like Twitter. If you’re not you can expect to be left behind. It’s that simple.

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