Walking into the Cottage Life offices—located in a repurposed house in downtown Toronto—you are immediately greeted by two large Muskoka chairs. Sitting in these chairs encourages you to lounge back, relax and take in all of the products surrounding you. Everything from Cottage Life sweaters, towels and baseball hats to cottage-themed chess sets, decks of cards and beer bottle holders are sprinkled around the bookshelves and tables in the reception area. As you make your way up the stairs to Al Zikovitz’s office, the area around you transforms from rustic cottage to corporate office, complete with cubicles and computers. Zikovitz, president and chief executive officer of Cottage Life Inc., which will soon be launching a digital-TV specialty channel, is seated behind a large desk, with a small balcony behind him overlooking the backyard of the office. He laughs when he discovers that, once again, the office coffee machine has been left with less than a mug of hot coffee. It isn’t the first time he’s started his day off with the dregs from the carafe. The office is nice, far from any special cottage decor, but Zikovitz looks relaxed and ready to talk business about Cottage Life’s digital presence, and how the brand began with the magazine.
It’s 1985 and Zikovitz, his wife and three children have just bought a cottage in Haliburton, Ont. It’s an unfinished place that needs some work, but it has a great view of the lake, and the dream of resting and relaxing on the dock seems close at hand. The only issue: this family has never owned a cottage, and had rarely visited one. At around the same time, Zikovitz leaves his sales job at Telemedia (since gobbled up by TC Media) and realizes he has unexpectedly come across a golden opportunity. For years he had wanted to publish his own magazine, and now he had discovered an untapped market. “I come from a blue-collar family,” he says, thinking back. “My father was a carpenter, I used to work as a carpenter, and I look around and I see so many cottagers are white-collar people. They’re professionals. They don’t even know how to use a hammer and yet they want to do their own stuff around the cottage, and I thought, ‘I know more than them and I have a million questions.’”
So Zikovitz and his wife, Wendela Roberts, “sat at the cottage through all of 1987 coming up with an idea for a magazine. We came up with story ideas that would last us for five years. I wrote a business plan, went out and raised money and in 1988 we came out with our first two issues.” The concept was a magazine that would serve cottagers and those in the market to buy a cottage. Zikovitz knew he didn’t want, as he describes, “a fancy coffee table magazine full of pretty pictures.” He wanted something every cottager would need. It would be a resource for all things cottaging, from repair tips to how to decorate.
From the beginning, Zikovitz wanted Cottage Life to be more than just a print magazine—he wanted to own the cottage market. “I don’t look at us as being just publishers. I think we’re marketers of the cottage product,” he says. This is what sparked the company’s decision to enter media outside of print early on. Penny Caldwell, editor of Cottage Life, says: “Getting into other platforms was just sort of a normal part of the growth of this company. If there’s another way that we can serve cottagers and get them information in a way that they can absorb it, then that’s great for them and good for us.” The company expanded into various platforms—first to a consumer show and a radio show, then to books and a TV series, followed by halting steps into the digital era, when Zikovitz once again found himself with a million questions. And in the years since, like all publishers trying to build an online presence, he still has lots of questions but finally has a few answers.
Back in the mid-1990s, people were saying to Zikovitz, “You’ve got to go into digital. Everybody’s doing it.” But, as a businessman, he was concerned with how to make money if he did. “The easiest thing in the world is to give stuff away for free,” he says. “How do you pay for it? We have to remember that we pay writers. We pay photographers. We pay illustrators. And the reason we pay is because we can make money on it. We have advertisers who will give us money, we have subscribers who will give us money, and that money pays [writers like] you. If I give your information away free, I can’t pay you.”
Looking back at those early days, Terry Sellwood, chief operating offi cer of Cottage Life Inc., recalls that when the magazine finally launched a website in 1998, it was “pretty anemic; basically, it was a brand statement” featuring several cottage-esque images in the top-right corner, such as a loon, a bear, a Muskoka chair on a dock, all of which changed depending on the page being viewed. Tabs at the top included links to pages about the magazine, consumer show, books and videos, merchandise and advertising. Within these pages were small blurbs about the magazine and its various extensions, complete with what appears to be family photos scattered around the length of the page, plus, for the most digitally advanced feature, a loon that occasionally opened its mouth. However, Sellwood notes, the digital didn’t need to be any more complicated than that in the early days.
Cottage Life quickly discovered what every publisher expanding to the web learns: there is no one right way of developing a digital presence. A lot depends on what the brand’s target audience is looking for and what devices they want to use to connect with that content. As Sellwood explains, “We’re very sensitive to the way people feel about their cottage. It’s a deep connection. It’s a deep feeling. It’s about family, and so whatever we offer has to fit into that mentality.”
Between 2008 and 2009, Cottage Life decided it was time to give its digital presence a boost “because we could see the audience was growing,” Sellwood says. “Then it made more sense. It’s a chicken-and-the-egg thing—in order to get a bigger audience, then you need to produce more content…” The question then became how the publication could make digital work better for the brand. Nancy Parker, circulation manager for Cottage Life, says: “I think for publishers it’s almost like the blind leading the blind because everybody is just testing right now. Nobody really knows what kind of results to expect, no one really knows what kind of fees to charge.”
As the digital platform grew to include new extensions, such as social media and smartphone applications, Parker says the company asked itself: “Do we really need to be on all the platforms?” The answer is yes. “Whether you can justify it financially right now, probably not; but I think you have to be there and I think that things will change as they emerge and it will become financially viable for us.”
The expansion into online for Cottage Life has been slow, and this may be partially attributed to its audience, who are older—mostly 40 and up—and not as savvy online, says Sue Haas, digital director of Cottage Life. As well, Sellwood points out, “a great part of cottaging, traditionally, is getting away from it all… [There] is a whole group of people who just want to get away and leave that all behind—you know, like put their iPhone in a plastic bag at the bottom of the lake for the weekend.” Even so, when a user comes online, they’re not worth the same financial return annually as a print reader. “If you’re lucky, you’re getting $8 or $10 a year per user on a website… In traditional media, you’re looking at $100,” Sellwood explains.
It’s no secret that making online profitable is difficult and ever-changing, but Cottage Life has begun to explore ways to monetize its digital offerings. For instance, the magazine recently launched two Cottage Life e-books and is looking to launch four more before the end of 2012. The e-books are comprised of back-issue content, and titles include: Winter Cottages: How to enjoy your cottage all year round and Cottage Trees & Plants: Keeping your forest healthy. Each costs $2.99. “The concept is you take a bunch of your back-issue articles and bundle them into a book,” Haas says, “so maybe we do a book on cottage weddings. There’s limitless options because you have all of the back-issue content at your disposal.” The uptake and profit on the e-books has been slow to start, she adds, explaining that “part of it is we aren’t marketing it as well as we could be for various reasons, but I am hoping to do a marketing push around the holiday season.” Cottage Life has currently slated two e-books—Cottage Bugs: A practical problem solver and Green Cottaging: How to preserve the cottage environment—for release in December 2012.
With new devices come opportunities for special features and capabilities. Though Cottage Life currently has a digital edition that can be viewed on a variety of devices, it is not interactive. Like many Canadian magazines, the company originally opted to use a PDF replica of the print edition. No extra features, no extra content. These editions are available through Zinio via an app that allows users to purchase single copies and subscriptions. In an effort to attract more readers, Cottage Life is now available on the Apple newsstand and through Google Play. Other magazines, such as House & Home, have recently created media-rich interactive editions that allow users to tap, swipe and play. Interactive digital editions are attractive to Cottage Life, but this type of media-rich content requires more time and work by the staff, so the question becomes: How will this be cost effective? Cottage Life will most likely charge extra for this offering, says Parker, though a final price has not yet been determined. “I think if we’re going to be giving the consumer added video and even being able to archive different things within issues… If we can do stuff like that then I think it’s worth more to the consumer.”
For its first interactive digital edition, Cottage Life is creating a special interest publication because “it was a good way to have a first test run without a long-term commitment of doing every issue…it was less of a risk,” says Haas. If the edition doesn’t get enough attention or positive feedback, it wouldn’t need to be repeated; but if it is a major success, then it could be. The publication is slated to come out in late 2013.
Cottage Life’s online department has also been busily exploring the social media world. Twitter isn’t a great tool for the magazine because “it’s more of the real-time updates. It’s very newsy, it’s more opinionated… Facebook is more community-driven. It’s just a better fit with our demographic,” says Haas. Stuart Berman, online editor of The Grid, uses an analogy to explain Twitter: “In the old days, people would come to your newspaper box and take your magazine with them. Now you have to throw the paper at their front door…that’s what Twitter is.” This is exactly what Cottage Life doesn’t want to do. It’s more complicated because of the connection people have with their cottages and with the magazine, Sellwood explains. “It’s sensitive, and I think you have to have a light touch. This is not an approach where you can beat someone over the head and always be reminding them that you’re there.” However, Facebook has provided a forum for Cottage Life’s audience to connect with the magazine and other readers in a much more casual way. It has proven to be an amazing tool for running contests, which can drive traffic back to the Cottage Life website, though they’ve discovered it’s not a great tool for gaining subscriptions.
Another tool Cottage Life has been experimenting with is Pinterest, which allows users to “pin” images gathered from the web onto digital pinboards. Cottage Life has had some success with Pinterest because it is well-suited to its content. Photos and videos of cottages can be quite beautiful, as well as inspirational, to those looking to revamp their space or those who do not own cottages, but are still interested in looking at them. In fact, says Haas, the tool has “skyrocketed to one of our top 10 referrals [to the website] every month, so we’ve decided to put more effort into Pinterest than Twitter.”
In order to be able to keep up and continue to produce online content and new digital offerings, there needs to be a strong team in place. The Cottage Life digital team consists of four members—a major boost since the early days when the website was considered a part-time job for one person.
Growing this team was by no means easy. The first challenge: attracting talent “to a company that isn’t a digital-first company. It’s a problem for magazines and media in general… If you want to be in digital then you probably want to go work for Google. Who doesn’t want to work for Google? And Cottage Life has a certain attraction, but again there’s a print bias,” says Sellwood.
So if the digital talent isn’t attracted to Cottage Life, what are the options? The company has had some success in training traditional “print” people and finding new talent for the digital team. But this brings us to challenge No. 2: funding. Haas says it hasn’t been easy “for publishers such as ourselves to ramp up existing staff or bring people on—especially when the revenue isn’t there yet for digital. So how do you have the right team in place when you’re not having high expectations for revenue? So it’s a challenge.”
But what they have accomplished is a long way from that early Cottage Life website with its loon. Today, the only similarity is the row of tabs at the top linking to pages about the consumer show and the magazine, but even these have been updated. As soon as the website loads, you’ll see icons for all of the various social media platforms Cottage Life has expanded into, including Pinterest, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. A carousel of images runs on a loop in the middle of the page, with pictures such as a wood organization unit, a husky, dried fruit bars and mugs of hot chocolate with melting marshmallows. The website also encourages user interactivity with a special Q & A box and an option to leave your questions with an expert.
As you scroll down the page, your eye is drawn to several links to the most recent and popular stories of the day, such as “top apps for cottagers,” “creative ways to use a mason jar” and “how to make your woodstove more efficient.” But perhaps one of the most noticeable changes is the advertisements sprinkled around the website, including top and bottom banner ads.
All of which prompts Zikovitz to say, “Digital was always a challenge. I think we’ve figured it all out now… We spent a lot of money on our web site, advertising was increasing, but generally speaking, advertising in websites is not increasing. A lot of the money that has been pulled out of magazines and that advertisers have pulled out of magazines has gone to digital. But a lot of that has been absorbed by people like Google. So there’s less money for us, [but] we still need to produce a good quality product on less money,” he says.
Zikovitz explains that the company’s profit margins are now much smaller than they were before. “You have to try to get them back if you want to survive. I think the success to survive is to continue to give good quality, to deliver [a] good quality product to your readers, to cottagers; product that is credible, a product that your readers can trust in, that your readers will continue to go to for good, valuable information. I think it’s all going to come out in the wash as time goes on, and people will start to learn where to go for credible information rather than just any information.”
He adds, going back to his roots: “I think the magazine is still the heart and soul of it all.”