A road map for consumer publishing

What direction is your magazine headed and is that direction influenced by an informed understanding of its readership? Only by building a complete picture of your readership can your title hope to evolve in sync with its audience, thereby maintaining and growing its market share. Matthew Bayfield, of customer insight consultancy Tree, explains more.

By Matthew Bayfield

Consumer publishing remains one of the most financially lucrative and dynamic industries in the UK. It is an industry driven by a constant battle for market share and a myriad of ever changing magazines, being created in response to what are perceived gaps in the market place. Where a new title appears the competition is never far behind vying for audience share.

This phenomenon is repeated time and time again and whilst launches are often very successful at the outset, as was the case with the launch of ‘lads mag’ Loaded, publishers need to constantly think ahead. Targeted at male readers between 30 and 40 years old, Loaded worked very well as there was no available alternative in the market at that time. However, as new magazines were introduced, Loaded, like many other magazines, began to see a decrease in its market share.

Loaded was guilty of the same lack of insight that is seen across the publishing world. It was created for a defined market and continued to plug away relentlessly at that market without really trying to understand its readership in any detail. Magazines are entities which are constantly evolving in order to retain market share and capture the imagination of their audiences, but these changes are often misplaced.

The key strength of any consumer magazine lies in the relationship that it has with its readers, from the active way readers choose a magazine through to how they interact with their ‘favourite read’. It is possible to find a magazine to match almost any interest and each magazine category fulfils a different need. In most instances magazines are well adapted to their readers’ requirements, but they must remain adaptable in order to survive.

Tough times for teen titles

If we look at teen magazines, we see that this market sector has been in the doldrums for some time with three titles, namely J17, 19 and Dare, all closing in 2004. Alternative attractions, such as mobile phones, have captured the attention of teenage girls in recent years, replacing the traditional desire for magazines as a source of entertainment.

However, it would seem that rather than trying to understand the nuances of this audience, publishers are turning to ground breaking moves, as was the case with the National Magazine Company, publishers of teen title CosmoGIRL! Early in 2005 it announced its intention to change its frequency to three weekly; believed to be the first title in the world to do so. The reason given for such a bold move was to improve profitability, but is this really the answer?

As an increasing number of free titles offering strong editorial, brand potency and powerful promotions enter the market, as demonstrated by the recently launched Metro Plus, there is an even greater need for magazine publishers to get to the core of their readership. It is no longer enough to simply pick a demographic and pursue it relentlessly; for example, did all men aged 30 to 40 years old purchase Loaded? Could IPC Media have increased its circulation by approaching different groups in a different way? Probably…

Understanding your readers

The most successful magazines, such as InStyle, develop a strong relationship with their readers. Magazines have the ability to touch their readers and reinforce a reader’s self-image, creating a powerful and trusting relationship, but first a magazine needs to truly understand its readers.

The research undertaken by magazines prior to launch has traditionally focused on an analysis of the market; an investigation into the size and shape of the target audience; interactive qualitative research with members of the target market; and finally the physical production of a concept issue, tested both qualitatively and quantitatively.

Should a magazine choose to conduct further market research, an analysis of its customers will normally reveal detail on transactions, purchasing, contacts made, and possibly ‘topline demographics’. This, by its very nature, is historic - a map of where its customers have been. It does not tell it where they are going and more importantly why they acted as they did.

A fuller picture

Our research has shown that customer behaviours cannot be fully understood simply by demographics or by previous behavioural patterns. Publishers need to get under the skin of their audiences and look at the emotional and psychological drivers that make them tick in order to establish the ‘why’. Using personality based questions to bridge the gap between the hard (transactional) and soft (attitudinal) data, combining the who and the why, they are able to develop a complete picture of their customers. These techniques will tell them who their customers are, what they look like, what else they read, where they live, how they spend their leisure time, what they spend their money on, and the motivations and values which drive their behaviour.

This will allow a magazine to profile its customers based on transactional data, demographics (age, gender etc), behaviour (newspaper readership, credit card ownership etc) and, crucially, attitudes, values, and motivations.

As a publisher you will understand, in greater depth, the range of personalities that make up your readership and the motivations behind their purchase of your magazine; something that will differ from individual to individual. By using these methods to understand your customers you will;

* Improve your ability to target the right people with the right message
* Develop the right look and feel for the magazine
* See an increase in the range of people purchasing the magazine
* Achieve an increase in readership and the ability to stave off the competition more effectively

Broaden your appeal

If we look at Top Gear magazine we can see that some readers buy it because they want factual information about individual cars, ranging from safety features through to fuel consumption. Others will purchase it because they desire or aspire to certain car brands or vehicle types and are driven by an aspiration towards the ‘flash-mobile’. Readers are buying the magazine for different reasons, but it is likely that Top Gear is focusing on only one of these audiences at the expense of the others.

If, however, it took steps to understand the likely adoption of the magazine by different reader groups it could widen its appeal and thus increase its circulation. By simply widening a single message targeted at one audience and increasing it to two or three messages it could broaden its appeal. In a competitive market it is no longer necessary or smart for it to be single minded in its approach.

Top Gear is well placed to take advantage of this simple technique as it carries multiple headlines on its front cover. It is therefore able to tailor its headlines with each issue in order to appeal to different reader groups - for example;

Headline One: Do you want to find out the latest engine spec?
* Headline Two: This is the fastest, loudest piece of metal on the road – we look at the most coveted car to hit the roads in 2005!
Headline Three: Bargain basement prices – Top Gear looks at the best deals available in the market today!

These headlines deliberately appeal to different audiences and demonstrate how a simple technique can be used to increase circulation. Using tried and tested segmentation techniques we can categorise individuals into three broad groups; Inner, Outer and Sustenance driven. Broadly speaking, the first headline appeals to individuals who are naturally ‘inner directed’. These readers will pursue knowledge for its own sake, are highly individualistic, adaptable, self aware and flexible.

Headline two will generally appeal to individuals who come under the umbrella of ‘outer directed’. This audience is aspirational and highly motivated. It seeks to impress and strives for status and approval. It loves exciting things and looks for new experiences to share with its peer groups.

Finally, headline three will capture the attention of ‘sustenance driven’ individuals who are generally price driven and often bargain hunters. They are careful, measured spenders who will only partake in the occasional extravagance.

The challenge

Given that there are more than 3,500 available consumer magazines and that consumers make their purchase decisions on the basis of their individual attitudes, interests and values, it is important that magazines truly understand their readers. In this way they are able to reflect the attitudes, values and interests of their readership base and adapt accordingly should these evolve or change. Likewise, by widening their core messages they are able to appeal to a wider market and drive increased circulation as necessary. It is only on achieving this that a magazine can enjoy an active relationship with its readers.

The role of research in gathering knowledge and information over time is central to the longevity and success of any magazine. It is essential that data is collected on a regular basis (a least bi-annually) as certain customer behaviours and attitudes will change and, more than any other media, magazines are expected to be relevant and evoke interest in their readers.

The nature of this medium is that it has a direct impact on consumer attitudes and expectations. This is a two-way relationship; consumers expect magazines to inspire and inform them and it is the publisher’s job to ensure that it understands its audience.