Why Your Chamber Magazine Might Suck

As our business development team traverses the country meeting with executives at chambers of commerce large and small, they often bring back samples of local publications that we archive for future reference.  

I could see patterns in many of the publications that explained their weaknesses.  So one day,  to better prepare our team to point out the differences between a magazine that is well-designed and one that is not,  I started this little diatribe
and called it:

Why Does This Magazine Suck? Let Me Count the Ways.

1) Clearly unappealing photography.

You really wouldn’t believe what’s out there. So many photos are grainy or out of focus. Others containing too many people or people with odd, unappealing expressions.  Some of these were cover photos. Often landscape shots were cluttered with distracting objects or dominated by dark skies. The evidence is clear in the pile of magazines we have accumulated.

As one of our founders told me many years ago
(his Pulitzer was for photography):  
“If something in a photograph isn’t working for you,
it’s working against you.”


2) Cluttered, reader-unfriendly page designs.

Let’s use this analogy:  What’s the difference between a home that’s had an interior designer’s touch and one inhabited by a hoarder?  You know it when you see it.  
A well-designed and decorated home “flows.”  Colors coordinate. Fabrics are complementary.  Accessories add small but pleasing touches. It’s the same with good magazine design.

Well designed pages “flow.”  Photos, type and even advertising work together to create a pleasing reader experience. A poorly designed page or entire publication repels a reader the way a hoarder’s living room creeps out a visitor.   In both cases, you just want to leave.

3) Advertising overload or confusing juxtaposition of advertising sizes.

Except for Vanity Fair and a few other titles in which the advertising is as much a part of the reader experience as the editorial content,  if the publication starts out with page after page of cluttered advertising, it’s a problem for the reader.

It’s also a problem when too many ads of too many sizes are packaged together like a jig-saw puzzle. The reader solves the problem by leaving the page immediately, which is bad news for the advertiser (who is typically also a chamber member).

4) Nonstandard choices of type styles and sizes.

There’s a reason most highly-regarded consumer magazines, from business title such as Forbes and Inc. to lifestyle leaders such as Garden & Gun, use similar typefaces for their primary editorial content. It’s called serif type (has little flourishes at the beginning and end of each letter.) And it’s easy to read.      

Especially for Baby Boomers, type that is too small or improperly spaced is uncomfortable and, for some, unreadable. But type that’s too big can be equally unappealing and is often used just to take up space. In the publishing biz, that’s called “airing it out,” typically as a time or cost-cutting measure.  

5) Background color treatments that reduce contrast and make type difficult to read.

Extreme examples are the thoughtless use of reverse type (usually white letters on a black background), which is difficult to read in long passages.  

6) Random use of boldface or italic type.  

The reader’s eye doesn’t enjoy rapid changes in type style or size any more than you enjoy riding in a car on a washboard road surface. Used skillfully, type enhances design and readability. Used clumsily, it’s a disaster.

7) No headlines or verbless headlines.

This is a pet peeve and usually indicative of a publisher trying to save the time and cost of actually writing good headlines. Headlines are important. Imagine a newspaper or news site without them. A companion flaw is no captions under photographs. That’s like having no name tags  at a mixer.

8) Random selection of content, or selection of content that is not interesting to the target audience or simply not interesting period.

Our company owns and operates Livability.com. We know a lot about what people are looking for when they are considering relocation or travel.   Yet though most chamber magazines exist to present the community as a desirable place to live, the dominant editorial content often has nothing to do with livability or the community’s natural assets.  

Typical reasons for all of the above:  

  1. The publisher opts for the cheapest methods of photo and editorial production. Creating or acquiring pleasing photography takes time and money. And expertise. Likewise for writing good headlines and captions and packaging it all in an attractive design.  
  2. The publisher doesn’t know the fundamentals of modern magazine design. Or doesn’t care.

The consequences of poorly produced publications?

  • They are basically unreadable.
  • Worse, they portray the community as backward and unappealing.
  • Advertisers get little value because readers spend no time with bad magazines or the advertising in bad magazines.

Why change is difficult:  

  1. The incumbent publisher is a local business and a member.  Sometimes that overrides the choice of a publishing partner based on objective criteria – to the benefit of one member and the detriment of the overall membership and the community at large.
  2. Leadership apathy toward marketing the community effectively.
  3. The lure of non-dues revenue. A symptom of apathy, often used to justify the use of substandard marketing tools.

In the end, does it matter? Is good enough really good enough? Well, this is 2017. Barraged by Tweetstorms, Instagrams,  Facebook posts and 24/7 news coverage, we struggle to consume and process all the information we’re confronted with daily.   Publications have to be really good to command our attention.Bad ones don’t have a chance.

What’s more, our reading habits have changed. Readers who spend a great deal of time on the web, especially millennials, are capable of taking in a lot of visual information at once, way more than other generations, provided it is presented in an attractive and easily digestible way.

Which makes good design as important as good writing. We haven’t even touched on how your magazine and its contents look online or, more importantly, on a smartphone.

— Bob Schwartzman, President and Publisher

Full disclosure:

Since 1988 our company has been creating relocation/quality of life magazines (now in print and digital form) sponsored by chambers of commerce.

Our standards are high.

Two of our founders were Pulitzer Prize-winners. Our first sales presentation included this line:

“We don’t want your publication to look or read like a chamber of commerce magazine.”

This article is not intended to be a slam on any individual or organization.

Think of it as the publishing equivalent of telling a friend she has a bit of spinach in her teeth.

Work with Livability Media

We'd love to work with you to upgrade your publishing program and take you with us into the world of effective print and digital content marketing. But even if you don’t work with us, demand more of your publishing partner, whoever it may be.

Your readers and your advertisers, who are largely your members, deserve it.

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