Last Tuesday I spoke on a panel at Folio:’s ConnexLive conference. Tony Silber moderated, and steered the conversation with some urgency to simple questions about the future of the business we have all made our living from for a long while — magazines.

One of the panelists was Bernie Mann, a successful radio entrepreneur from North Carolina who publishes Our State, a high-quality glossy serving North Carolina. (Interestingly, some of the most practical and successful people I’ve met in local publishing have come out of the radio business.)

Tony kicked off the questions by asking when we might see a recovery in the ad market, and whether there will be a place for magazines when it happens. Bernie kicked off the dialogue by highlighting two basic themes: Advertising is about hope, and it’s hard to hope when things are hard; and, there’s a place for high quality, highly-focused magazines that offer things that people care about enough to pay for.

Advertising is about hope.

I struck this theme several times during conversations in the following through days as I travelled through Kansas and Missouri visiting with clients and our offices. Placing an ad is about the future. You’re betting that something good will happen AFTER you advertise. Experiencing a prolonged recession is about the past, about wondering when things will get better, about being wary about the future.

The theme resonated with the sales teams. It led to my sharing a bit of research I’d seen recently that concluded that the primary factor indicating whether people will live to an old age is their attitudes about age when they are young. The science is loose, but the conclusion makes sense: If, when you are young, you have negative perceptions about old people, you are less likely to live to be old.

The relevance to our business? You can’t have hope if you have negative perceptions about what you do, about the product that you represent, about the promise that you make in your business to your customers.

The challenge is proclaiming that hope even in the face of skepticism and negativity.

A good example is in our Real Estate Book Business. In the middle of the greatest housing crash on record, we offer a color catalog of homes that people peruse during the process of a home search. A common observation from many people is that the printed catalog is obsolete, given that 87% of consumers use the Internet during their home search. Hearing that observation over and over again, while watching real estate agents in their market struggle to stay in business quickly saps the confidence of the sales organization. In a meeting with our St. Louis TREB team, one woman asked candidly: When the real estate market comes back is their going to be a place for us? Will we have jobs?

The question is simple and honest.

I answered with some facts that we’ve accumulated over the past several months. In order to find out whether our magazine and print distribution works in achieving our primary goal of delivering business activity to our real estate agent customers, we did an extensive call tracking project with ads in multiple books. The results: An ad in the The Real Estate Book generates an average of 80 calls over three months, a $15 cost per lead at $400 per page.

We have to understand what our purpose is in the market, I explained. Our product exists to help agents with their marketing, and it takes advantage of people’s natural inquisitiveness when they are looking for homes. We distribute 8 million copies of The Real Estate Book with advertising from about 15,000 real estate agents. Our goal isn’t to provide a comprehensive listing of homes to the more than 30 million people who are searching for homes every month. The Internet is a great source for that. We’re distributing our listings to about 30% of that audience, when you include our TREB.com traffic. Our goal IS to make our agents stand out and to support their business activity: By showing home owners that their listing will get visibly marketed, by driving traffic to agent web sites (about three web visits for every phone call) and to drive phone calls.

In a market with ubiquitous information, that highly focused purpose is easily lost and market reps can easily get discouraged. When you look at our business, I told the team, you see that 75% of our customers have been with us a year or longer — they use our product because it helps them achieve basic goals that are important to their business.

Which brought me to Bernie Mann. I shared his comment with them. And suggested that until we can have hope, we can’t hope to inspire our customers.

You can find a video here with Bernie talking in simple and focused terms about what he has tried to accomplish with Our State. It’s compelling.