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Jan-June 2010 ABCs: a media buyer’s view

Unlike for newspapers, ABC results for magazines do not always appear to be heading south. Far from it; some up, some down, some static, with the sector as a whole, according to the PPA, slightly up. Given dire recent predictions, that’s got to be something of a triumph. Richard Isaac looks at the results in more detail.

By Richard Isaac

The magazine industry’s circulation results for the January – June 2010 period have proven to be a real mixed bag, with variation in circulation performance between the sectors and of course winners and losers within the sectors themselves.


We live in turbulent times with the economy continuing to play a significant part in the fortunes of publishers.

The ending of the government’s Car Scrappage Scheme on the 31 March has led to a marked fall in car sales, down 8.9% for the month of July. This has been mirrored by the Motoring sector’s circulations, with all but one delivering a negative performance; it is clear the two are interlinked. It is no coincidence that the title worst hit is the weekly buyers’ guide Autoexpress. The functional role that the title plays in the lives of would-be car purchasers is clear, and with fewer people in the market for a new car it was bound to suffer. Enthusiast title Classic Cars bucks the sector trend, its passion-centred content is not sensitive to the fluctuations of the new car market, instead offering its readers valuable escapism and enjoyment.


New cars have not been the only area to have suffered a fall in production. 2009 saw a dip in the UK birth rate, representing a reversal of the upward trend over the last ten years. Similar to the situation in the Motors sector, fewer babies equals a reduced need for the factual and supportive guidance that the Pregnancy magazine sector offers new mothers. This has been amplified by the range of online guides and forums available. The sheer breadth and depth of free content available online is hard to match in magazines; this combined with the discussion forums provide a compelling alternative to the more limited range of paid-for content in magazines.

Whilst the Motors and Pregnancy sectors have been in part weighed down by the last three years of economic suffering, green shoots have been sprouting elsewhere.


In February, we saw that the Cookery sector had benefited from consumers choosing to stay in and cook a nice meal as an alternative to a more expensive night out. All those nights in must have inspired these new-found homebodies to reappraise their home surroundings. The Homes titles are a perfect source of ideas well suited to this need; nearly all titles have enjoyed circulation growth as a result. It is interesting to note that this success has not been replicated within the Home Furnishings and Retail industries as one might expect. This indicates that the medium offers readers a degree of enjoyable escapism, without necessarily prompting them to purchase.


Bringing readers sharply back to reality, the News Weeklies have been buoyed more so by a particularly newsworthy first half to 2010 than a sudden recovery in our country’s economic fortunes. The much anticipated UK general election, the BP environmental disaster and ensuing diplomatic stand-off, and of course the continuing global economic chaos have given readers ample reason to come to these titles for news and much sought after commentary and insight into the current affairs of the day. This sector utilises the strengths of press very effectively in the face of the threats of digital. Anonymous bloggers and news aggregators are not a substitute for prolific columnists and considered analysis.

The above three sectors have seen relatively minor variation in the performances of the titles that populate them, bar the occasional anomaly. In the main, the constituent publications have swum with the currents that have taken their respective sectors. This has not been the case elsewhere.

Women’s Glossies

The tsunami that is the internet which has wreaked havoc in the teen market continues to lap at the shores of the Women’s Glossies, though its effects are at this point more moderate. Here those titles targeting a younger reader have suffered with one-time market leader Cosmo hit hardest. This is despite aggressive marketing tactics from NatMags, to be discussed in more depth later in this piece. In contrast, many of the older profiling monthly titles, including stalwart brands Good Housekeeping and Woman & Home, have grown circulation. The editorial propositions of these titles offer trusted and practical advice on all areas of women’s lives, and provide a welcome blanket of reassurance in today’s insecure times.

The curse of multi-packing

The Weeklies sector has also seen a marked divide in fortunes between its component publications. Titles such as New, Reveal, Best and Star have all outperformed their sectors some by a considerable margin, while brands that have historically held more dominant positions have all lost circulation. However what the headline figures do not show is increased use of the marketing tactic multi-packing that has become a key feature of the last twelve months. Those titles that have seen the most circulation growth have utilised this tactic extensively, with the majority of issues within the auditing period being multi-packed. The effect of this on circulation is not a simple increase in overall circulation. It leads to irregular circulation levels issue-by-issue, with significant peaks and troughs. This can be seen clearly on the individual ABC certificate of a given title, which highlights which issues have sold 20% more or less copies than the 6 month average.

Reveal, for instance, multi-packed 22 issues, with around 20% of a given issue’s circulation being a multi-packed copy. Three of Reveal’s issues exceeded the average circulation by more than 20%, while four issues were at least 20% less than the average. New was even more reliant on multi-packing for circulation growth, multi-packing more than two thirds of its issues with typically 50% of a given issue’s circulation having been multi-packed. As a result more than half the issues were at least 20% over or under the average circulation.

This serves to illustrate how fickle and deal-sensitive those titles’ purchasers are. It is a concern that multi-packing and the resultant swings in circulation happen to this extent. A key attribute of the magazine medium is the strength of the relationship between magazine and reader, which has been valuable in attracting advertisers to the magazine medium. Multi-packing clearly dilutes this; it is off-putting to advertisers and is something that media-buyers are increasingly on the look-out for. We have no issue with multi-packing in small doses and view it as a perfectly valid sampling route. However, when the average issue is multi-packed it (along with excessive product-based cover-mounting) it appears to be the publishing world’s crack cocaine – quick and extreme circulation ‘highs’ but ultimately unhealthy for the brand.


Other more creative marketing tactics have been in use over the last six months, ranging from the gimmicky to the genuinely inventive. Nuts’ 3D issue sits squarely in the former camp, and is yet another example of the trivialisation of the Men’s sector. Publishing an issue with a variety of front covers has been a popular route. Stylist’s three London Fashion Week covers, Shortlist’s two general election covers, and NME’s 10 (yes 10!) re-launch issue covers all seem quite on-brand in concept, but what is the value to the reader, the advertiser, indeed anyone? Condé Nast’s GQ has been altogether more innovative and groundbreaking in partnering with Citroen to produce a stylish and sporty concept car. It is ideas such as these that make a magazine a brand, separate GQ from the pack, and embed it in the cultural consciousness of consumers.

The Second Coming?

A landmark event earlier this year was of course the launch of the iPad. Migrating the browsing from the shackles of the laptop, keyboard and mouse to the altogether more sofa-friendly, ergonomic and portable experience of this platform must surely represent a glowing opportunity to take magazines into a new age. Given how the iPhone has revolutionised mobile web-access, all eyes will be on its new family-member and some publishers will be more ready than others.

Next Issue Media, a future-thinking coalition of publishers launched last year with the purpose of moving the industry forwards in the area of paid-for digital content, will have been well placed to plant a stake in the ground in this space. Hearst/NatMags have already launched apps for Men’s Health and Esquire, with one for Harpers in the pipeline for later this year. Condé Nast launched apps for GQ and Wired in the US earlier this year, with UK versions and a Vogue app in the pipeline.

These early attempts tend to offer PDF-style near replicas of the print product, which do not make use of the interactive and video capabilities anywhere near as much as they could. There is much debate about what reading / interaction experience consumers actually want from this platform, with some focus groups suggesting that they do not want a fully interactive bells ’n’ whistles experience after all. This does feel counter-intuitive however.

It is still very early days. Penetration of the technology amongst consumers as well as publishers’ experience in content development will increase, which can only lead to an increase in the sophistication and attraction of the content. It is good to see the industry working hard to develop magazine publishing from such a healthy base. This is sure to result in an organic and seamless evolution of the industry which will ensure it continues to play a major part in the digital world.