Member Profile: Hardlines Shows There's No Place Like Home Improvement

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SIPA: I recall that Hardlines moved pretty early into the digital world?
Beverly Allen: Yes, we were online before anyone else (in our industry) and have always worked really hard at staying ahead of the curve. We've come a long way since faxing out a bi-weekly newsletter. Now we have daily news updates, breaking news, a weekly newsletter, a magazine, events, digital ads. It has all enabled us to stay relevant and keep our credibility strong. People recognize us. We're still very serious about gathering news.

Sounds like you're moving more towards a membership model?
When you become a subscriber, you get discounts on events and publications, and first crack on limited seating and breaking news. We feel like people join a family when they subscribe to Hardlines. It's always written with a very particular voice—and that comes from the leadership of [founder and editor] Michael [McLarney]. We pride ourselves on delivering impartial news, and our events always have a personality to them. Membership makes them feel part of the family. 

I was looking at your website and was impressed by all the events.
The events side has really grown for us. We have many home improvement events. Our Canada Night in Cologne, Germany, at their biennial international hardware fair has really developed its own personality and following. One year it took place during an important hockey game between the U.S. and Canada. I had to find a TV showing the game so our subscribers could watch. 

No wonder your subscribers like you.
It's important that they know you're listening to them. All of us with publications know that it's your subscribers who keep us going—what they care about and need to know. We're always looking for ways to get their feedback—quarterly business meetings, focus groups, evaluations. In April, we survey everyone to see the size of the home improvement industry. We then do a ton of reports and presentations. 

I'm sure all that content gives you a more known identity.
Yes, it also helps us with promoting our brand. When anything happens, the Business News Network or the Globe and Mail will call Michael to be interviewed. 

How big is your staff?
Six total, plus some freelancers. 

That's impressive. What is your connection to the National Retail Home Association that I see on your site?
They're based in Indianapolis. When the Canadian association went bankrupt, there became a void. The NRHA approached Hardlines to represent them and their brand in Canada. It has made us more grassroots, talking to frontline dealers. 

And I hadn't noticed your magazine before.
In 2011, a big competitor of ours went out of business, and we decided to launch a hard-copy magazine. It has been quite successful, building on our unique information. It has a nice, fresh look for a B2B publication. We're really proud of it. Focus groups have told us that it's not something you just cycle through at the store, but you save it on your shelves to refer back. When we started it, we felt there was a need for this type of information. The average hardware building store center needs so much information to stay relevant and competitive. 

Have you been able to attract young people to your content?
Yes. Fortunately, they recognize and appreciate us. We've been reaching them primarily through our events. At the Hardlines Executive Conference—we just had the 20th annual—one of the things we put together is a young leaders panel about the various issues: succession, moving around in the industry, where they see home improvement going, what they would like to see happen. 

Succession—that's a good idea.
Yes, it's good to get that dialogue going. There's value to listening to the young people in your niche. It helps us editorialize on what they're saying. We're finding that they enjoy our events, so we work to get them involved. 

It's interesting that our digital world has only made in-person events bigger.
Because competition is fierce, you would think people just talk within their own groups. But when we bring the marketplace together, they do talk to each other. We're neutral ground for them. Michael and I kid around that we're like Switzerland. People who might be in fierce competition are all there comparing notes and getting to know each other. We stress that we all do better by sharing ideas—nothing proprietary. 

Events have become big for many publishers.
People understand that need for personal contact. It has been good to see the groups of young people working together. All have similar challenges and problems, so they have to develop that network. Hardlines has been really good over the years bringing in people from outside the industry. 

You must do social media well then.
Twitter is the one of choice for our young people—not Facebook anymore. We've been approached by someone in the U.S. to produce the first e-retail summit, an exclusive small event dealing with e-retail issues. What they're looking for that's different. How you can break into e-retail and be a good supplier. 

It's great that you so actively reach out.
We go to almost every home improvement show and often we're the only publication there. For us, it's really all about building relationships—sponsors, partners, subscribers. We've been focused on that since the beginning which is why we've lasted so long. 

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Ronn Levine began his career as a reporter for The Washington Post and has won numerous writing and publications awards since. Most recently, he spent 12 years at the Newspaper Association of America covering a variety of topics before joining SIPA in 2009 and SIIA in 2013 as editorial director…