When Jonathan Goodman contacted me in late 2017, the job he described sounded too good to be true. He wanted to launch a print newsletter, available only by subscription. No ads. No fluffy stories to appeal to advertisers. No clickbait to trick people into looking at the fluffy stories for the benefit of advertisers.
Most of the content in Fitness Marketing Monthly would be written by trainers, and all of it would be for the benefit of trainers by helping them make more money.
Subscribers would pay a premium price — $60 a month after the launch — for the 28-page newsletter. I’d be responsible for planning, assigning, and editing more than 20,000 words a month, and writing at least a quarter of it.
“Daunting” doesn’t begin to describe what I was up against. Once we sent our July issue to the printer, after months of planning, there was no going back. Twenty-eight pages, plus bonus content, every four weeks.
But now we’re going to cease publication after 10 issues.
It’s hardly the first time I’ve launched and lost. When you spend a lifetime in publishing, you learn to let things go.
I worked for a daily newspaper that closed after seven months. I’ve been involved in magazines that shut down after a few issues. I’ve written books that few people read, and worked on projects that never got off the ground.
It was usually easy, in retrospect, to understand why they didn’t fly. The newspaper was financed with junk bonds. The magazines were mostly spinoffs that couldn’t stay spun. The books were published (or, in one case, self-published) with high hopes, good intentions, and target audiences who didn’t share our enthusiasm. As for the failed projects, at least the checks didn’t bounce.
FMM was different. Jon had a clear vision of our target readers: early- to mid-career fitness professionals looking to get beyond the trap of working long hours for modest wages. He not only knew countless trainers just like them, he used to be one. Since he launched the Personal Trainer Development Center in 2011, and the Online Trainer Academy in 2016, he’s helped thousands accomplish exactly what we knew our target readers wanted. More important, he has access to tens of thousands through his email lists and online communities.
Those readers trusted him. And that, it turns out, was the problem.
From the beginning, the subscribers I heard from weren’t anything like the ones we’d envisioned. The first cancellation I saw was from a reader who said he just wanted to get a few more clients. He was years away from being able to use the information we worked so hard to put together.
The second cancellation I saw was from someone at the other end of the career spectrum. He was way beyond our nuts-and-bolts content about copywriting, social media, and product development. In fact, to my surprise, two of the successful and well-known fitness business owners we interviewed for profiles told me they were charter FMM subscribers.
The one reader who fit our original profile was someone who told us he combined tips from several issues and multiple contributors to pull off a successful event at his gym. He was such a perfect encapsulation of how we envisioned our project that Jon wrote an article about him.
Alas, he wasn’t representative of our average subscriber. Not even close. That’s what we learned when Jon hired a research and consulting firm to tell us who was reading FMM, and why.
The readers, it turns out, were a lot like that first guy I mentioned: trainers who were just trying to survive. Why did they subscribe? Because they trusted Jon.
Imagine our dilemma:
The newsletter was exactly what we wanted to publish, and exactly what we’d promised our subscribers. Every single issue was profitable. Even after we learned our readers weren’t ideal consumers of our content, we could’ve pivoted and focused more on what they needed in the early stages of their careers.
But we didn’t, for two reasons.
First, we knew that information already existed — at the PTDC, in Jon’s books, and across the Internet. The readers knew it, too. They subscribed anyway.
Second, we knew a $60-a-month newsletter served our needs better than it served our readers. If we put the same effort into updating and upgrading our online content and writing our new line of books, we’d serve more readers, and serve them better. (And for the ones who need the information we published in FMM, they’ll be able to purchase the entire collection.)
That doesn’t mean it’s easy to let it go. It never is. There’s always a piece of me that goes down with the publication. But at least this one had a good life. And, I hope, an even better death.