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Jan-June 2008 ABCs: a media buyer’s view

The latest set of ABCs clearly shows the effect of the credit crunch. As house prices decline and gloom spreads, there has been an inevitable impact on magazine sales. However, says Lucy Brunning, the picture is far from universally dire and some sectors and titles are thriving.

By Lucy Brunning

Most people mark the passage of time with a birthday or special anniversary. Now don’t get me wrong, I like a slice of birthday cake as much as the next person, but the two events of the year that really mark the passage of time for me are the bi-annual releases of ABC figures every February and July. That said, cake is actually the one thing these events have in common. I guess I win either way!

We press buyers are lucky enough to be indulged with all sorts of confectionary delights when the audit figures are released, but it is the numbers themselves that we are really all waiting for (honestly!). With the release of a fresh new batch of numbers, I realise summer is well on its way out, although the weather has done its damnedest to convince me of that for the last few months. I can’t quite believe it’s been six months since I last examined the new batch of figures with a view to digging deeper, investigating what they have to tell us. So what sort of difference does half a year make?

A mixed bag

As ever, one thing is certain, the story isn’t cut and dry. Much as some of the trade press would like us to believe that you can wrap up the fortunes of an entire marketplace in one attention grabbing headline, it is just not possible. Not only do fortunes change sector by sector, but within each individual market, we can see very different results, making for a real mixed bag. That said, if you were to try and encapsulate everything into one easy to digest bite-sized chunk, it would taste a lot sweeter than some commentators have inferred. An uplift of 21% over the past six months is pretty darn sweet, and that’s what magazines have just delivered, thanks to an extra 71 million copies in circulation.

Success of the frees

The real development over the past year, which has had a marked effect on this particular period, is the increasing hold free titles are taking on the whole magazine marketplace. Whilst not actively purchased, these titles are actively consumed, and their ABC figures give us an indication of the scale of this consumption. We do have to maintain a degree of caution regarding the relationship between circulation and readership of these titles, particularly when we have so little audited data available to us. However, in what are still early days for the titles, the nature of their distribution does lend more legitimacy to their figures than some copies included in the audit.

Free to pick up from vendors on the street or free to be delivered to you through your email inbox, it is the men’s market which has been shaken up the most by both of these phenomena. This could be the point at which I make a comment about this demonstrating just how cheap men really are, but obviously I’d never stoop quite that low!

Men’s needs

Rather what this does demonstrate is that publishers have identified what it is that men are interested in reading about, and have been able to tailor their products accordingly. Fast facts, bite size updates and easy to digest information seem to be the order of the day. Marrying this content with when men want to consume it and we start to see the sense of publishers investing in ezines or free magazines to target this particular audience. The relationship men have with magazines has always been different from that which women have. A magazine is not necessarily the embodiment of indulgence for men that it is for women. To spare some time to read when they are on the move, or at their desk, suits them just fine and that’s when these free products are making themselves available to their male readers. What’s more, they don’t even have to spare the time to find some loose change in their pockets to make the transaction - even better.

With Sport and now Shortlist commandeering the streets we have quality editorial products that can reach a critical mass weekly, opening up opportunities for truly tactical campaigns as well as more traditional brand messages. Ezines like talkSPORT and iGIZMO take the very best of targeting that subscription based products offer and combine it with the technological wizardry that online facilitates to capture the right people’s attention at the right time.

The impact of these titles on the rest of the market is clear to see, with the monthlies taking the full force of the blow. Actively purchased men’s monthly copies are down 11% year-on-year with only three titles showing an improvement, namely Men’s Health, Men’s Fitness and Esquire. This speaks volumes not only about the state of the male population, but more importantly for us about the best way to deliver robust circulations.

Like a suit, a men’s magazine needs to be tailored bespoke to a particular customer. The more generalist a title becomes, the harder it is to cater for everyone. It would appear that, in this particular sector, readers are more discerning than we previously thought.

Niche success

This trend for specialising in a core proposition is worth examining in more detail. If we look at the fortunes of one publishing house, which have built their reputation on delivering niche titles for niche audiences, Future, we can see that at the moment this tactic is paying dividends. Across the portfolio of titles Future submits to be audited, they saw a total increase of 24% year-on-year, a figure their competitors would doubtless be proud to boast about.

This statistic reiterates the inherent strength of magazines as a medium wholeheartedly trusted to deliver quality editorial that people have real belief in. It is interesting, especially in this current ‘crunch’, to observe that people still need their magazines. What is up for scrutiny is which magazines they need the most.

Economic gloom

There can be no denying that what magazines readers want, and hence what publishers deliver, is affected by the economic climate. In the last period of economic downturn, we saw fewer magazines published. I have no doubt that few publishers will be taking the leap of faith that launching a magazine entails in the near future. More importantly though, we are witnessing a shift, although currently not seismic, in purchasing habits that will doubtless have a longer term impact on the future of various sectors.

The weeklies have in recent years ridden the wave that is the cult of celebrity. Celebrity in the loosest sense of the word, granted. The market flourished, care of the public’s need for constant news, gossip, fashion advice, beauty and diet tips that gave them an insight into the wonderful world of fame. This is the first period that we have seen considerable decline across the raft of titles that fall under the celebrity moniker. Out of eight titles, only two posted an increase in actively purchased copies, OK! and Star. Perhaps the most dramatic decline was that of Heat, down 16% year-on-year and 12% period-on-period. The new year brought change for the title, with the purchase of Emap by Bauer and the loss of its prolific editor, Mark Frith. But the fact that this downward trend permeates so many titles in this sector must mean it stems from more than internal changes alone. The fascination with fame is definitely on the wane. It’s not just magazine front covers that are testament to this; ratings for Big Brother prove that not just anyone can hold the nation’s attention for too long.

So, if we then compare the weeklies’ performance to that of another sector, we can begin to see a wider trend emerging. Targeting many of the same readers, the women’s monthly sector saw an increase, albeit of only 0.3%, in actively purchased copies year-on-year. Magazines are obviously still something people want to read; it’s just that when they are parting with their increasingly limited cash, readers are considering their investment more than they may have done previously. If you’re trying to escape and if the credit crunch means that it’s to your sofa with a cup of tea and a magazine instead of to a sun lounger and a piña colada, better it last a few hours than a few minutes. Monthlies prolong the pleasure that bit more, providing a longer distraction from the outside world. So, we’ll have to wait and see, but pounds per pages read rather than cost per thousand could end up being the press buyer’s new mantra as the market moves through difficult times ahead.

Moving home or staying put?

The final economic tracking device the ABCs provide for us can be found amidst the home interest sector. Again a mixed bag, the fortunes of the various titles indicate a trend away from the titles that are more lifestyle orientated. Three stalwarts of this genre (Ideal Home, House Beautiful and BBC Good Homes) all experienced losses and the market as a whole declined by 2.1% year-on-year. It is the success of one of the most practical titles in the sector, Your Home, which demonstrates the shift in consumer behaviour, most definitely linked to the current ‘crunch’. Rather than information on dressing homes, people are turning to magazines for DIY advice, stemming from a need to improve their current property rather than move to a new one.

So, perhaps before Alistair Darling reviews his next forecast and braces the nation for whatever lies ahead, he should take a look at the newsstand to see what the future holds in store. The ABCs this period have yet again presented us with a wealth of information, buried not so deeply beneath the mastheads, which we would all be wise to take note of. In all markets, whether they are media-centric or otherwise, we should tread with caution over the next six months, as there are certainly tougher times ahead. However with every cloud comes a silver lining; for every title that has a slip or a stumble, another will stand tall. The one thing you can bet your bottom dollar on is that we’ll all be keeping a close eye on what comes round in six months’ time, and no, it won’t just be for the cake!