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Doing Well by Doing GOOD
Q&A with GOOD magazine founder Ben Goldhirsh
"The world of good, not just for do-gooders anymore."GOOD magazine's inaugural issue in September opened with this statement to engage readers in content that matters. Ben Goldhirsh, the 26-year-old founder of the magazine, says that while "so much of today's media is taking up our space, dumbing us down, and impeding our productivity, GOOD exists to add value."
The content is fun, challenging, and visually compelling. Another thing that sets the magazine apart is its innovative business model. An annual subscription costs $20, but with a twist: Every dollar goes to a nonprofit that the subscriber chooses. The goal is to attract 50,000 subscribers and raise $1 million for these nonprofits by mid-2007.
Mark Miller of the Case Foundation talked with Goldhirsh about his business goals and his social mission, and how they relate.
CASE FOUNDATION: Where did the idea for GOOD come from?
BEN GOLDHIRSH: I think right now there is a real sensibility of moving things forward, and we wanted to celebrate that and that idea of just being engaged, being interested, enjoying the stimuli that kind of catalyzes the growth and what have you is what we think of as "good." And we chose the word "good" because that's what we feel about the sensibility, but also because we really wanted to help extricate that word from where it falls within the social landscape. We were very troubled with the fact that "good" is kind of mired in this kind of "soft," sacrificial space.
So we really wanted to elevate and redefine this word for a new generation and help give it some pop and some sex, the same way Wired magazine helped to elevate technology and take it from esoteric and nerdy, 25 years ago, to powerful and relevant today. The way we see "good," it is really becoming the center of a culture. So we are pretty excited about that, and we thought there was a great opportunity, and we thought we could also add value to our community, really create a platform to push cool people doing cool things, wherever it comes to life.
CF: And why a paper magazine?
GOLDHIRSH: In a day when everyone thinks you're nuts for going into paper? (Laughs.) We started with Reason Pictures, which is producing movies with a message. But I was concerned about the fact that you have no real relationship with the audience. No one goes to see a film because of the production company behind it, and I wanted that relationship; I wanted to create a brand that could represent intellectually and visually stimulating content. I grew up in the magazine industry. So I thought, man, there really is an open space for just valuable, relevant content for a younger demographic on the newsstand. I think the magazine is a very solid stake in the ground that provides legitimacy to all of our efforts. So I like that, and it helps elevate us above the noise of the virtual space. So, beyond the fact that I think there's a wide hole in the newsstand, I think there is a market for this.
The Gift of GOOD
When you buy a subscription to GOOD, everyone wins.
"For $20, you get six issues, and you're giving $20 to a great organization," Goldhirsh says. "And the organization that receives that $20 is going to do something cool with it."
Learn how to subscribe.
CF: How do you define your target audience?
GOLDHIRSH: You know, it's interesting. Advertisers demand that we provide some parameters -- you know, who is reading this. We say 18 to 35, and a lot of the subscribers do fit within that range; but this sensibility of, like, digging in, of, like, mining idealism with pragmatism or capitalism, is something that kind of transcends their parameters, and we find that we are getting a lot of interest from an older demographic and from a younger demographic. A lot of 14-year-old kids are calling up saying, "Hey, can we have a bunch of issues sent to our school debate team?" And it's exciting because I think this is the emerging sensibility of the day. I think the stakes are too high for people to be sitting on the sidelines. So a magazine that is helping people really engage with reality is exciting, especially if that reality is framed with an aesthetic and through a lens that actually caters to our tastes and our lives.
CF: As you promote action and engagement, how do you balance politics? Is there a fear of being seen as liberal because of some of the causes you are talking about?
GOLDHIRSH: You know, I think it would be pretty easy to push us into that space, and I am sure if you looked at the voting records of everyone who works here, it might skew to the Democratic side, but, really, this is not a partisan publication. Someone called us a "third party sensibility," which I loved. Frankly, we are pretty frustrated with both sides of the aisle right now. So we just want to present relevant reality, regardless of where it falls in the political spectrum. There's an effort to be balanced, but people will judge for themselves. There is no sort of political mission with us. The mission is to inform, and then people can decide what they want from that. Really, we are not trying to just cover good. We are trying to cover bad too, because both are relevant, and relevance is what we think is good.
That's why we had a piece covering the guy who started the Minutemen. Even within the office, there was a bit of a discussion about whether we should include that, and it was one of those things where, like, this is interesting, this is happening right now. This matters. Let's cover it. That's an attitude that we have with all of our efforts.
CF: The magazine itself is interesting, but we are also intrigued by your business model in terms of corporate giving. You're giving all your subscription fees to selected charities. A great idea, but how is it good for business? How will you make money?
GOLDHIRSH: All right. A lot of people see the "Choose GOOD" campaign and think it's just some immature throwaway. As far as I'm concerned, it's a pretty innovative and sound business approach, and a smart way to build our readership.
Basically, magazines lose money acquiring readers. They'll spend $40 getting someone to pay $20. So we are talking a $20 acquisition cost. So our feeling was, we can't compete with the marketing dollars of these other companies, and really, we don't think our audience is someone who would appreciate those tactics. When we asked knowledgeable people in this industry how we could build our subscriber base, everyone pointed toward direct mail, and that was very problematic for us -- because not one person in this company could say they ever responded to direct mail. It seemed like a waste of time, money, and a lot of paper.
So we asked if we could create a campaign that people would pull through, that would lower the cost of having to acquire subscribers. So, in this case, we don't have to spend as much money trying to bring people in. We also don't get any of the money, but I think our acquisition rate is less than, let's say, the $20 as the example I gave of other magazines. We are actually acquiring subscribers faster and for less money than our competitors, and we are giving all the money away.
There is a business logic to this, and what I am excited about is that this is a very true example of what this magazine is about, like doing well by doing good, and here is a way that we are going to serve our interest by serving a broader interest. And I think that is a really exciting trajectory that the market is on right now, where people are starting to account a value for good and expect some sort of positive externality that comes with their dollars. I love that because I think that is one of those pivot points that our society is going through right now, which I think is going to move us in the right direction.
CF: And is this model just for your initial push?
GOLDHIRSH: Originally, the goal of the "Choose GOOD" campaign was to acquire 50,000 subscribers and raise a million bucks. At this point, it has been so fun and it's been such a success, and people are really enjoying it, so it looks like we are going to keep the campaign going indefinitely.
Advertising is the true revenue of the magazine industry, and so subscribers are just the generating variable. Given the fact that most people are losing money, if we can create a way to not have to spend that much money marketing the "Choose GOOD" campaign, if people will actually start pulling it through, and we hope, you know, come the holiday season, people will really dig in as a gift, but I think there is a lot of business logic behind this. I think we are seeing more and more companies employing similar ideas.
CF: How did you pick the charities that subscribers can choose?
GOLDHIRSH: It wasn't easy. It was challenging because there are obviously so many organizations that we all like a lot and want to support, but I guess there were a few variables. One, did we feel that they fit with our ideas and values and that was the primary question; and then, two, did at least some of them have the marketing infrastructure that we were really excited about. So we needed to balance our choices between small organizations that we just thought were so tight with us -- you know, let's say City Year, not that it's a small organization, but it's certainly not a big one, or Millennium Promise -- and large organizations like UNICEF or World Wildlife Fund, who have millions in their aggregate lists. So that way, in a sense, if we can actually activate their constituencies, it's a big deal for us.
CF: How many employees do you have specifically for the magazine?
CF: And is it true that they're all under 30?
GOLDHIRSH: Yeah, all those 15 are under 30, but we do outsource responsibilities, you know, whether they're consultants or designers. In that sense, we have some more experienced people working with us. So, yeah, it's a very young team here.
CF: Will they get fired when they turn 30?
GOLDHIRSH: (Laughs). No. I think people will think that we are hiring based on age, and that's not the case. It just happens that I hired a lot of kids that I grew up with, a lot of friends. We've always shared this sensibility and have always been impressed by it. So I know more people who are my age, and I am so proud of the team here. You know, I think our magazine could compete with any magazine on the newsstand, and this was put together by kids who had no previous magazine experience.
And the educational curve here is so steep. We're onto something, and it is just going to get better and better, and we're just going to keep pushing it harder and harder.
CF: You use the line "What Matters" to describe your content.
GOLDHIRSH: Yeah. There's a lot of junk in the media. I get tired of having to filter through all of this content to find the stuff that I want, to engage or stimulate me, and for us, we just don't want to add to that junk. We don't want to waste anyone's time. We want to provide only content that we think matters to our audience. It's a subjective but clear filter: Does this matter for our audience? Does this actually matter, or is this just throwing more junk out there? That's a standard we hold for all the content.
CF: Thanks for your time.
GOLDHIRSH: Thank you.