By Scott Aughtmon published July 10, 2015

How Rodale Inc. Evolved Its Content Strategy to Become the World’s Largest Health and Wellness Media Company

rodale-content-strategy-cover

J.I. Rodale, the founder of Rodale Inc., publisher of Prevention and several other magazines, was dead at the age of 72. What was even more shocking was where he died.

As a guest on The Dick Cavett Show, Rodale suffered a heart attack onstage as the host interviewed another guest. (Cavett and the guest were unaware until they commented to Rodale and he didn’t respond. The show never aired.)

The promoter of health in media was gone, but his legacy carried on. What does this have to do with content marketing? Everything. Not because of the interview, but because of the publishing company Rodale left behind.

You see, Rodale didn’t just create a magazine that “presented systematic ways people could try to prevent illness and disease.” He left behind an understanding of the magazine industry that would propel Prevention to become one of the world’s largest magazines (10 million monthly readers).

What I want to do today is reveal how Rodale Inc. did that, and help you apply it to your own content marketing strategy.

2 reasons why a magazine exists

In my e-book, 51 Content Marketing Hacks, I share the real reason that magazines exist with a quote included in The 1910s by David Blanke and attributed to ad executive James Collins in 1907:

There is still an illusion to the effect that a magazine is a periodical in which advertising is incidental. But we don’t look at it that way. A magazine is simply a device to induce people to read advertising. It is a large booklet with two departments – entertainment and business. The entertainment department finds stories, pictures, verse, etc. to interest the public. The business department makes the money.

These purposes are the same ones on which every effective content marketer must focus:

  1. Providing interesting content
  2. Making a profit

This simple concept is like most foundational concepts. The power isn’t in knowing, it’s in implementing the concepts.

Rodale (and those at Rodale Inc. after him) implemented these concepts so well that it became a science. In 2014, Rodale publications reached an all-time high gross readership of 37.7 million readers.

But how did they do it?

Rodale Inc.’s 5-step content marketing strategy

I accidentally discovered Rodale Inc.’s strategy. It all began when my wife started receiving Prevention magazine and Rodale began to send her promotional magazines (magalogs). The next thing I knew she ordered some of those books and products promoted in those magalogs.

You need to understand something. Unlike me, my wife doesn’t like (or even care about) marketing. For her to read these marketing materials, like them, and respond to them meant Rodale was doing something right. That led me to pay attention to its efforts and research its current and past practices. The results are revealed in the five-step strategy.

1. The only purpose of content creation is to gather a specific audience

Rodale Inc. never creates content for the sake of creating content. It always has a specific audience in mind. All of the content is designed to appeal, attract, and help that audience.

Rodale has created different content verticals for many markets, including:

  • Bicycling
  • Children’s Health
  • Men’s Health
  • Rodale’s Organic Life
  • Prevention
  • Runner’s World
  • Women’s Health

Each of these verticals attracts and benefits a unique group of people. Let me use one of its most recent verticals to show how Rodale does it. In March, Rodale created a website called Eat Clean. You can see the detailed vertical audience it plans to attract as described in the site’s press release:

With an often irreverent, always authoritative tone, EatClean.com will be the gathering place for clean-food insiders and experimenters, uncovering the latest trends, innovations, opinions, products, and recipes.

eatclean-website

Rodale’s mindset on creating content is different from that of many marketers. Others usually focus on a generic audience. They create content for “urgent” reasons such as a blog post is scheduled; it’s a topic we’ve wanted to discuss; it’s something everybody else is talking about right now.

But they first should answer the questions important to their content marketing strategies:

  • Who is the specific audience we are trying to attract?
  • What do they want to know?
  • What do they want to share?

Rodale always creates content with purpose and on purpose.

2. Focus on subscribers, not readers

I once heard author and podcaster Paul Colligan say, “I am not focused on listeners. I am focused on subscribers.” This should be true for content creators of all kinds. Why? Readers are great, but subscribers are what really matters.

Why is focusing on subscribers so important? It allows you to use what Seth Godin calls “permission marketing” and what old-school marketers thought of as “two-step marketing.”

It enables you to do five powerful things:

  1. Uncover a specific audience that wants to hear from you by letting them raise their hands and identify themselves.
  1. Gain permission to contact them.
  1. Create content that is expected and anticipated by your audience.
  1. Build a deep relationship with your audience.
  1. Contact your audience for free (or be paid as the magazine subscription model provides).

Email marketing has shown to be much more powerful than any social media tool. And physical mailing lists always have been an asset that every business should grow.

Of course, Rodale appreciates it when people walk into a bookstore and buy one of its magazines. But Rodale isn’t focused on single-copy sales; it knows subscribers offer the most value.

Never forget that is true for you, no matter what type of content you are creating.

3. You effectively sell to audience members by channeling and directing their existing desires

Rodale Press once paid famed copywriter Eugene Schwartz $54,000 for four hours of work. His book, Breakthrough Advertising, is considered a mail-order classic. In it, Schwartz reveals something important that Rodale Inc. learned and implemented with precision:

This is the copy writer’s task: not to create this mass desire – but to channel and direct it. Actually, it would be impossible for any one advertiser to spend enough money to actually create this mass desire. He can only exploit it. And he dies when he tries to run against it. Let me repeat. This mass desire must already be there. It must already exist. You cannot create it and you cannot fight it. But you can – and must – direct it, channel it. Focus it onto your particular product.

Did you catch that?

You cannot create a desire for your product or service. It doesn’t matter if you love your product. All that matters is that your prospects desire it. That’s not only true for copywriters. It’s true of all successful content marketers.

You must know what your audiences’ desires are and how to appeal to them.

How can you do that? Think of your content marketing as a way to discover the desires of your audience.

Write for a specific audience and pay attention to how that content resonates with them. See what gets the most comments and shares. But that’s just the beginning. Talk to those subscribers on whom you’ve been focusing and ask what they want.

Rodale constantly studies the desires of its audiences. It looks at trends. It even conducts an annual survey to get consumers’ reactions to specific areas and types of information.

You can see how Rodale used its research to describe the desires of the Eat Clean audience by looking at this comment from Editor Sarah Toland in the press release:

People are more in tune than ever with the relationship between what they eat, how they look and feel, and how our food affects the planet. Everywhere you shop or eat now, you can find some food label – whether something is sustainably sourced, real, natural, pure, non-GMO, local, gluten-free – that raises more questions than it answers.

Eat Clean helps people negotiate this crazy landscape and figure out how to ‘eat clean’ in a way that makes the most sense for their own health, goals, and ethics.

Rodale understands that unless it knows what a specific audience wants, it can never create solutions that they will buy.

You must never forget this. It’s the key to success in sales conversions.

4. Create multiple ways to fulfill those desires

Once you know the audience’s desires, you can create the things that they want to buy or position what you already offer in ways that appeal to them.

(Rodale doesn’t reveal this anywhere that I’ve been able to find, but I bet that it uses the surveys to help identify the solutions that it sells to its specific audiences.)

The key to doing this effectively is to remember two important things:

  1. People have different content-consumption preferences.
  1. Some types of content have more perceived value than others.

With this in mind, Rodale created all kinds of different info-products, products, and services to appeal not only to the different desires of its audiences but to the different ways the audiences want to consume information.

In addition to magazines, Rodale offers books, products, an online university, and host-branded events. Now obviously, you don’t want to create all of these solutions at once. Start with one idea and build from there. How can you get ideas on where to start?

Look to the content you’ve created for format ideas.

In 51 Content Marketing Hacks, I express it like this:

All of the content you create must be designed to attract and help that hungry crowd with money. Your products and services must meet the needs and/or desires that a crowd of people with money has.

As I explained then, “… You probably have some content that you could repurpose and sell …” such as:

  • Blog posts into audio recordings
  • Audio files into videos
  • Videos into webinars

You are only limited by your creativity.

Rodale knows that to help your audience the most, and at the same time maximize your profits, you must create many types of solutions for your prospects to buy.

If you want to maximize your sales, then you must do the same.

5. You must use ‘content selling’ to see real results

The other thing Rodale does that many content marketers do not do is they rely on more than content marketing — they also rely on content selling.

Content marketing can take you far but without an offer or ask, it’s difficult to get a sale. At some point, you must focus on content that intentionally sells.

What’s the difference? I recently heard Todd Brown of MarketingFunnelAutomation.com give this powerful explanation on the difference between marketing and selling. I’ll paraphrase it: Marketing is when you talk about the prospects – the prospect’s situation, needs, wants, and what’s in the best interest of your prospect. In other words, what they should be doing to alleviate their problem … Selling is when you talk about you, your product, your product’s benefits, features, advantages, risk-reversal, bonuses – that’s selling.

In other words, content marketing is content focused on attracting members of an audience, educating them, and helping them. Content selling is content focused on why the audience members should buy what you are offering.

Rodale doesn’t just focus on content to attract its audiences (magazines = content marketing). It also is focused on content that offers a solution (magalogs and sales letters = content selling).

That is why Rodale is so successful. That’s why my wife has purchased things from the company. Its magazines alone would never have been able to accomplish this success.

Too many content marketers never ask for the sale. They waste much of their content marketing efforts.

Rodale never loses sight of the two purposes of a magazine – to gather an audience and to make a profit. This balanced focus and the powerful way it is implemented are the keys to Rodale’s amazing success.

If you want to see better results, then you must do the same.

5 questions to get started

This five-step strategy can act as a template to improve your content marketing strategy. Answer these questions to see which step you need to focus on. Once you can answer yes to a question, proceed to the next.

  • Have I determined the specific audience on which we are focused?
  • Have I focused sufficiently on subscribers?
  • Do I know the existing desires of this audience?
  • Have I created enough different types of solutions to sell to them?
  • Have I created content that encourages these audience members to purchase and explained why they should?

Following Rodale’s model, you can ask the right questions to develop the best answers to create a well-informed content marketing strategy.

Want some more assistance to enhance your content marketing strategy and structure your team for more effective content marketing. Read CMI’s e-book: Building the Perfect Content Marketing Mix.

Cover image by SplitShire via pixabay.com

Author: Scott Aughtmon

Scott Aughtmon is the author of the book 51 Content Marketing Hacks. He is a regular contributor to ContentMarketingInstitute.com and he is the person behind the popular infographic 21 Types of Content We Crave. He is a business strategist, consultant, content creation specialist, and speaker. He’s been studying effective marketing and business methods (both online and offline) since 1999. He has a unique perspective and ability to communicate ideas and concepts in a way that can help you climb to new heights. Read more of Scott's insights on his blog. Follow Scott on Twitter @rampbusinesses.

Other posts by Scott Aughtmon

  • rogercparker

    Scott:
    You have the an uncanny ability to continually find fresh, relevant, and up-to-date stories and lessons from the past.

    This is one of his best in your series. Just when I think that everything that needs to be said has to be said, you manage to come up with another historically-informed story with lessons for today.
    Roger

    • Scott Aughtmon

      Thanks so much, Roger. Your comment was so kind and made my day. I am glad you liked it. Take care!

  • Scott Aughtmon

    Thanks for the link to that episode, Paul. I really enjoy “The Podcast Report”, so I hope readers check out the link to that episode and the rest of the episodes. Take care, Paul.

  • Tom Alter

    Great article. What a simple way to establish a discipline in content marketing strategy. Thanks.

    • Scott Aughtmon

      Hi Tom. Thanks. I am glad you liked my article. I hope it proves to be helpful for you. Take care.

  • Leo Volz

    You left out Rodale’s key sixth precept: exploit content providers. I run a professional sports photography business, and for the second time this year someone from Rodale has contacted me, asking to use my photographs to illustrate their articles, with no payment involved.

    The way they worded their come-on was particularly smarmy. In exchange for them providing the opportunity to have my photos published, I was to grant them irrevocable global rights in perpetuity. That’s right. I was to pay them (with the value of my work product) for an “opportunity” that is practically worthless to a working professional.

    They may be mastering the content game, but their business practices should garner them a commensurate amount of negative publicity.

    • Scott Aughtmon

      Hi Leo, I am really sorry that you had that experience. I don’t have any experience with Rodale in that arena and have no connection with them beyond the observations I share in this post above. For that reason, I can’t make a comment on that one way or the other. I wish you well, Leo!