"I would contend that 2018 has been the biggest year of change in wedding media in the last 10 years, bar none," says veteran wedding publicist Meghan Ely, founder of One Fine Day (OFD) Consulting.
In June, the Meredith-licensed Martha Stewart Weddings closed its quarterly print publication to focus efforts on both a two-pronged digital approach — marthastewartweddings.com for editorial and mywedding.com as an online planning tool — and its annual print-edition "Weddings Guide." In August, facing $120 million in losses, Condé Nast put Brides, along with Golf Digest and W, on the sales block. (Sister pubs, the high-end Elegant Bride and more mass Modern Bride, shuttered back in 2010.) In 2013, Brides magazine scaled back to a bimonthly schedule; earlier this year, the magazine unveiled a millennial-targeted redesign and new strategy with a stronger focus on digital (as well as a pivot to video, of course).
The consolidation isn't isolated to print, either. In late September, two behemoths in the digital wedding space, WeddingWire, Inc. and XO Group, which owns the pioneering The Knot, announced an impending merger. (A WeddingWire spokesperson confirmed the planned merger, projected to close in the first half of 2019, but declined an interview.) In more dramatic fashion, Style Me Pretty, which was bought by AOL (now Oath Inc., a subsidiary of Verizon) in 2012, shocked the industry with a shut down in April — another victim of corporate consolidation. The original owners, Abby and Tait Larson, who founded the popular blog in 2007, saved the day by buying it back for a revival.
"[The bridal space is] reinventing itself," says Rachel Leonard, editorial director of The Bridal Council, a nonprofit member organization of wedding-related fashion designers, retailers, media and industry experts. Leonard experienced the evolution firsthand during her three decades at Brides, with more than half of that time spent as fashion director. "There's less print, more dot-com. The magazines are more focused on [web] because that's where the girl is today." Ely, who's learned to be nimble in adapting her media strategies since founding OFD Consulting in 2009, says 90 percent of her PR placements for clients are in digital publications.
The rapid rise of Instagram and Pinterest as preferred wedding research tools also threw a curveball into the changing bridal media landscape. According to the 2016 Brides American Wedding Study, 70 percent of brides looked to social media to find wedding inspiration, while 82 percent connected with wedding-related brands and vendors over the platforms.
Social media also allows for direct dialogue with their fellow betrothed. People can find immediate information, inspiration and support on the ever growing communities of Facebook Groups, thereby skipping any sort of wedding-related editorial all together. Not wanting to bother her friends and family with constant wedding questions, Jennifer Lapolla started I'm Engaged! Now What on Facebook two years ago after her engagement to now-husband (and group administrator) Kevin Mardorf.
"I wanted to be able to have access to people who had a pulse on today's trends and could give me real-time answers," says Lapolla, who admits to never buying a single print magazine during the planning process (although she visited The Knot). According to the couple, members of the nearly 50,000 strong group — most of whom are women — tend to first reach out to fellow brides in the group for recommendations before visiting vendor and media sites.
"We've had people tell us that they can't wait to get on Facebook to check all the notifications,” says Mardoff. The group receives "literally hundreds upon hundreds of posts" a day, to discuss Pinterest boards and issues ranging from acne to in-laws. Real life friendships have formed via the group and members are encouraged to stay on post-nuptials — and, obviously, to post photos of their wedding. Currently, vendors aren't allowed to shill products and services to the group, but they can join (and lurk) and participate in a conversational manner. Brides also started its own Facebook Group called Brides to Brides (which boasts over 8,000 members) offering up its editors for Q&A sessions.
"I have been in digital media for the last 20 years and I would say the single biggest thing to change this industry has been Instagram, and that's the challenge for us," says Brides Executive Director Lisa Gooder, who started her editorial career at The Knot in 1998. Taking the reins after former Editor-in-Chief Keija Minor stepped down in 2017, she integrated the print and digital teams and and increased online content "dramatically" — often testing or teasing stories online before putting them in book.
She also expanded video content with features like an Instagram Stories-friendly series featuring Netflix's "Queer Eye" Fab Four advising on the perfect proposals and the multi-platform "Brides Live Wedding,” in which editors and viewers plan a real wedding. Across the board, content has shifted to focus on "real weddings" as opposed to editorially shot features of days past.
"Real weddings have become more important than editorial pictures," says Leonard of The Bridal Council. "People really love seeing what real other brides are doing and what ideas they have to offer." Instead of a fabricated, less accessible wedding moment starring a model — probably wearing a dress that won't be available for at least a year if at all — scenes from real nuptials offer ideas and inspiration that feel more authentic and attainable.
Not to mention real wedding coverage is more cost effective for budget-strapped titles. Instead of investing in costly photo shoots, print and digital outlets can repurpose submissions from professional wedding photographers, who receive credit and publicity in return.
Of course, the "real wedding" category includes celebrities and famous names, too, such as Brides post-redesign cover stars Serena Williams and Chanel Iman, who help attract readership not limited to the engaged. For instance, the wedding of former Obama speechwriter and Pod Save America host Jon Favreau to Times Up publicist Emily Black brought bonkers traffic, but via the political junkie's social media of choice (disclosure: I totally clicked). "His Twitter post blew that up and we don't have a ton of Twitter traffic," says Gooder.
Wedding-related brands need to be where their digital native audience is as well. WeddingWire's most recent Newlywed Report found, in 2017, 83 percent of wedding planning was done online; 47 percent of web traffic comes from mobile (with 53 percent from desktop) for the top 100 visited wedding-related sites, according to marketing data provider SEMrush.
"All of our marketing is digital first. We design from a mobile first mentality," says David's Bridal CMO Liz Crystal. This way, when a potential customer is searching for inspiration or dress ideas via her smartphone or tablet, her experience is visually appealing and easily navigable from the research stage to purchase, whether via the brand's e-commerce or in-store with a stylist. Even building a registry is a seamless process, with David's Bridal's recent acquisition of Blueprint Registry.
Additionally, real wedding content helps brands reach potential customers directly, especially when brands are working with influencers. After Lainy Hedaya tagged Danielle Frankel in a photo of her wedding gown, the Insta-cool girl bridal designer immediately received customer inquiries via DM. "Instagram is definitely another email address for us, for sure," Frankel says, about using the platform as a sales tool beyond marketing. Ines di Santo's Instagram feed is comprised of approximately 90 percent real brides, according to Dawn Bromander, President of the Toronto-based dress brand.
Small business owners, like wedding photographer Rhea Whitney, can take advertising and branding into their own hands by sharing not only wedding work, but also behind-the-scenes content. Whitney uses strategic hashtags that maximize her account in search, such as dress or shoe designers, wedding publications and venues. She also makes sure to geo-tag the location, as couples researching may look for photographers near their venue. She estimates that 65 to 70 percent of her clients found her via social media, as well as through client referrals via Instagram.
Newer vendors, especially direct-to-consumer ones, don't even consider print (or even digital) ad buys anymore. Customizable dress startup Floravere skips traditional media buys in order to invest funds in social media advertising that utilizes predictive algorithms. If brands are putting resources in photo shoots, they're creating enough photo and video content to distribute via their own social media and digital channels, per their marketing schedule, throughout the year.
Ines di Santo went so far as to create and distribute its own print editorial-level digital magazine. "We've got all of this original content that no one is producing on a magazine level. Is the responsibility now ours — as a creator, the brand — to put it out there, to talk about it and to inspire?" asks Bromander. The answer seems to be "yes."
Brands also promote referrals through word-of-mouth social media style, by encouraging couples to post, tag and hashtag their own real wedding content. Floravere even creates opportunities to for brides to create their own, hopefully viral content, like strategically placing very 'grammable pink bikes outside its Bay Area showroom. "We do little things in every interaction with our brides to encourage her to make these shareable moments,” says Founder and CEO Molly Kang.
The future of print, and maybe even digital bridal editorial, is looking very uncertain. "It's in a breakdown," says Leonard. As the shift to digital continues at a breakneck pace — and brands are taking editorial and the potential for advertising revenue into their own hands — media companies are going to have to get creative to keep their print editions relevant.
"I don't think [print] is going to go away, 100 percent," Leonard continues. "But there are going to be more special editions and the local ones are becoming more important." Couples planning their weddings may still buy regional print magazines featuring locally-based vendors from the newsstand. Because the rates are lower than that of a national publication, independently-owned businesses can still afford to buy advertising.
Similarly, niche wedding-related blogs, such as Rustic Wedding Chic, self-explanatory, remain influential. "They might not have the traffic and influence in the industry as some of these bigger sites, but they're just as impactful to the consumers that are looking at them," says wedding industry consultant Anne Chertoff.
As for Brides, the title is readying for a sale along with Brides U.K., which includes their combined social footprint, estimated at around seven million followers. "We've had a lot of inquiries," says Gooder. With Condé Nast's focus on the "Vogues and Vanity Fairs" of the legacy publishing house, the potential for Gooder and her team to fully exploit alternative revenue streams, such as paid consumer events, vendor partnerships and affiliate marketing, have been limited. But Gooder remains optimistic.
Like planning a wedding, the process may be filled with stress, uncertainty and financial headaches. However, if handled with good sense, smart negotiation and a willingness to take risks, legacy publications, digital upstarts and wedding brands alike will all hopefully get a seat at the head table.
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