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Porter – aiming high

When Net-a-Porter decided to launch a magazine, it assembled an experienced and talented publishing team with the express purpose of producing a great fashion magazine. As Porter celebrates its first birthday, Ciar Byrne talks to Tess Macleod Smith about the online retailer’s publishing strategy.

Ciar Byrne

Posted on: 25 March 2015


Tess Macleod Smith
When former fashion journalist Natalie Massenet launched Net-a-Porter fifteen years ago, no-one thought selling expensive clothes over the internet would work. She proved them wrong and the site went on to become one of the great digital success stories. Last year, Massenet and her team decided to tear up the rule book again and, counter-intuitively, launched a print fashion magazine.

In February, Porter celebrated its first birthday with a circulation figure of 152,500, a pleasing debut for the newest fashion title on the newsstand. Subscriptions have increased by 92% from the first issue to 32,000, and are expected to reach 50,000 within the next two years.

The move into print was far from a step in the dark for the digital first company, explains Porter’s publishing director Tess Macleod Smith. Unlike traditional glossies, which rely on small focus groups for their market research, Porter had unparalleled access to Net-a-Porter’s customer insight panel of 7,000 women across the world.

“They were a fashion-loving crowd with a high household income. They consumed lots of fashion content, emails and blogs, but 88% cited print as being their number one inspiration because of its authority and the emotional connection,” reveals Macleod Smith.

The other key trend which the Porter team identified was women who travelled frequently and were creating their own “global edit” of magazines. In response to this, Porter made the decision to publish just one English language edition across 60 countries and 220 cities. Macleod Smith says: “We have tried to create an Economist for fashion. Porter goes on sale simultaneously around the world. If you get on a plane in New York and get off in London, you will see the same magazine.” The title sells at the premium price of £5 in the UK, $9.99 in the US and €9.99 in Europe.

One of the secrets behind the success of Net-a-Porter is Massenet’s unstinting emphasis on customer service. When a customer orders an item from the site, it will arrive by courier, often within hours, beautifully wrapped in layers of pink tissue paper in a box tied with black grosgrain ribbon. “We approached the newsstand with that same DNA,” says Macleod Smith, “so we created these free-standing units where we could stack Porter and sent 200 of them to different parts of the world. It allowed us to have really good visibility. We knew our audience was going to be these women on the move, so we wrapped the whole of London Victoria Station and Grand Central in New York in Porters.” Sales figures show that it is in airports such as Heathrow Terminal 5, JFK, LAX and Chicago that Porter sells best. Other publishers have since copied the units, which Macleod Smith finds ‘flattering’; “The philosophy here is very much, lead not follow, always innovate, think global and don’t be afraid to take risks.”

“Porter is at the forefront of a new trend for e-commerce retailers to publish paid-for print titles that aspire to editorial integrity.”

Growing the market

Existing high fashion magazines such as Vogue might be relieved to know that Porter appeals to a new group of women. Fifty-six per cent of those who bought Porter had not purchased a fashion magazine for over a year. But it is a highly desirable group for luxury advertisers: the average Porter reader is aged 41, travels 11 times a year, has a household income of £155,000 and spends £22,800 a year on fashion.

One challenge for the magazine was that most of the major fashion houses have separate advertising budgets for different regions of the world. “I think we’ve been thought agents for them – how do you address that woman who is on the move?” says Macleod Smith. “We worked with them from a global point of view. In some cases this was easy, in other cases, more challenging. Many of them have now created a global budget.”

Porter is at the forefront of a new trend for e-commerce retailers to publish paid-for print titles that aspire to editorial integrity. It makes no secret of the fact that it is “powered by Net-a-Porter”, but its editorial team, led by former Harpers Bazaar editor Lucy Yeomans, hails from the traditional glossy arena. “We have been able to pick some of the best talent to work for us who have all come from Vogue, Harpers Bazaar and Elle. No-one has come here to produce a contract publishing magazine. We have come here to produce a great fashion magazine that has authority,” insists Macleod Smith, who herself joined from Harpers Bazaar publisher Hearst, where she worked alongside Yeomans (who in turn used to work with Massenet at Tatler). Comparisons have been drawn with the new men’s magazine Forever Sports, produced by Haymarket in partnership with e-retailer Sports Direct, which launched in March 2014. Meanwhile in February, it was announced that Time Inc’s Marie Claire magazine is launching a new beauty and well-being business in conjunction with the Ocado Group.

Quality editorial

Porter is a refreshing read. In its first seven issues, the magazine has boasted an impressive roster of cover stars including Gisele Bundchen, Lady Gaga and Cate Blanchett, but they are shot in a naturalistic style and barely airbrushed. On the front of the latest issue, it is even possible – shock, horror – to see lines on the face of Russian supermodel Natalia Vodianova. Inside, there is an interesting mix of articles by respected journalists including foreign correspondent Janine di Giovanni on facing her fears and legendary editor Tina Brown writing about the ballerina Michaela DePrince’s journey from war-torn Africa to the New York stage. Vivienne Westwood shares her reading list, Donna Karan reveals her rules for ‘heroine dressing’ and Marianne Faithfull remembers the artist Marlene Dumas. Sitting alongside these empowering tales of impressive women is the Fashion Memo, telling the reader what she needs to be wearing this season (T-bar heels and flares). It is rather like being invited to a well-dressed salon of artists, writers and fashionistas.
“Really good visibility.”

The magazine is only published six times a year. “Instead of taking twelve issues a year which is the traditional model – we felt that women still love print, but they’re really time poor.” It was important to the luxury feel of the magazine that the number of editorial pages be kept consistent at 200 pages per issue, which means the number of adverts is limited.

Porter, which has yet to turn a profit, but is expected to do so “much quicker than a normal magazine”, is not as reliant on advertising or circulation income as its more traditional rivals. A large part of its raison d’être is to consolidate and increase sales on Net-a-Porter. While only 50% of subscribers currently shop on Net-a-Porter, the company hopes that, thanks to Porter, the other half will soon discover the site. “Porter is a powerful acquisition tool,” admits Macleod Smith. “The profile of the subscribers who were not already Net-a-Porter customers fits the profile of who the customer should be.” Of those existing customers who have become subscribers, there has been a 25% increase in the frequency of their visits to the site and a 125% upturn in their spending.

Shoppability

Having established its fashion credentials, Porter is now turning its attention to shouting louder about its “shoppability”. Massenet’s original vision for Net-a-Porter was based on the fact that clothes featured in the pages of magazines often had not yet made it off the catwalk into store. “She realised there was a disconnect, that there were things that were shot beautifully but hadn’t gone into production.” Porter offers an app which readers can download onto their mobile phone, allowing them to scan items on every page of the print magazine and come up with options to “shop it, find it, concierge it”. It is central to the magazine’s vision to leave “no dead ends”. Not all of the garments and other products featured are stocked by Net-a-Porter. “We felt we needed to be a real fashion authority so we feature all brands. If we don’t stock that brand, you can still use your phone to scan it and it will take you through to their e-commerce site, or to a concierge.” The concierge service – offered around the clock in all of the territories where Porter is on sale – relies on Net-a-Porter’s customer service teams in 170 countries around the world to help readers find an item straight away.

Macleod Smith says: “We went back to the magazines of the 1950s and 1960s. We felt that fashion magazines then really helped women to get dressed and have their own personal style, and that today’s fashion magazines have lost that sense of their audience and become very industry. We’ve tried to reverse that.”

Global goals

The other big focus for the magazine over the next twelve months is to increase its profile in the US, in particular in New York, California, Florida and Texas. Other key markets are France, Italy, Germany, Hong Kong and Australia – “Australians love us, we sold out in Sydney”. Yeomans is extremely well-connected in the UK, but Macleod Smith hopes hirings such as Wall Street Journal beauty writer Celia Ellenberg as editor-at-large for beauty will help to boost Porter’s US credentials even further. She has also identified a need to connect further with brands in the US. “Estee Lauder in the UK knows us, but we also need to communicate with Estee Lauder in the US. To be truly global, you have to build those relationships all over the world.” Fortunately, Net-a-Porter has a New York office from which to base this campaign, as well as offices in London, Hong Kong and Shanghai. “We’re a very global company,” insists Macleod Smith, who has just got back from New York herself. All that travelling serves a purpose: “You become the audience and start to really understand them. When you’re on a long journey, it’s important to have a good read.”

“A large part of its raison d’être is to consolidate and increase sales on Net-a-Porter.”

About Ciar Byrne
(Details last updated: 22 May 2017)

Ciar Byrne is a freelance writer and editor specialising in media and arts journalism, with 20 years’ experience of writing for national UK publications including The Independent, The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, The Scotsman and Private Eye.

Tel: 07968 823 835

Email: Send a message to this author

Website: www.ciarbyrne.co.uk

Twitter: @ciarbyrne

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