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July-Dec 2009 ABCs: a media buyer’s view

It’s all about managing expectations! Expect freefall and be pleasantly surprised by a slight dip. Because, in the midst of a recession and with new media continuing to dominate headlines, a very small fall in total sales is testament to the continuing appeal of consumer print magazines. MediaCom’s Richard Isaac looks at the underlying trends.

By Richard Isaac

Considering we have been through arguably the most prolonged and damaging recession in recent times, one might have expected the latest magazine ABC circulation figures to have been worse than they actually were. The doomsayers, madly waving their “Print is Dead” banners, predicted multiple title closures, an exodus of journalistic talent (all off to blog and podcast to their hearts’ content), and readers deserting their once-trusted magazine brands in their droves. However this has simply not been the case. While, clearly, there are areas of concern, the recession did not have a negative impact on all magazine sectors.

Let’s eat in

Take the Cookery sector for instance. With more pressure on family finances, eating out will have been deemed an unnecessary and disposable luxury for many. Dining in has become the new eating out, and would-be chefs had to brush up on their culinary skills and make like Gordon Ramsay in the kitchen on a Friday night. Magazines within this sector offer approachable and valuable advice and tips and will have been a fixture in many a kitchen, albeit craftily hidden under Antony Worrall Thompson’s latest Cordon Bleu recipe book in some. Both Sainsbury’s Magazine and BBC Olive have enjoyed circulation increases, whilst new entrants Jamie Magazine and Eat In have driven sector growth with the latter clearly taking direct advantage of consumer trends.

Food was not the only interest area in which consumers felt the need to be informed through 2009. The recession, the struggles of the Labour party and the rise of Cameron, the prospect of a general election, and wider global topics such as Obama and the Middle East, all dominated the news agenda. The news weekly magazines offer the depth of analysis and commentary that digital, and arguably even newspapers, do not provide. Sector performance was polarised with the positive performance of Private Eye and the Week contrasting with declines for the Economist, Spectator and Prospect. The Week is building well on its long-term strategy of growing subscriptions, while the Economist may well be suffering from employment cuts in the financial sector. Overall, the sector as a whole stood its ground and did well to stay flat.

Baby mags suffering

While ‘flat’ is the new ‘up’ as far as circulations go, ‘down’ is, well, it’s still ‘down’. Against the backdrop of an increasing UK birth-rate, the Pregnancy sector’s paid-for titles cannot blame a decline in the demand for pregnancy and childcare advice for their woes. Instead it appears that digital is simply catering for consumer interest in this area more effectively. You can’t beat the internet for fast and efficient research, and if you need to find out, right here right now, what to do about your hyperemesis, well you are hardly going to wait for the next issue of Pregnancy & Birth to hit the shelves before you find out! Plus the site forums offer a virtual antenatal class, the perfect way for soon-to-be mums to meet and share information and advice over what they are going through. Pregnancy sites and forums have got a solid user base and have enjoyed impressive growth over the last twelve months. iVillage’s Pregnancy channel attracted 3.26m unique users in January 2010, an increase of +42% year-on-year. Babycentre’s uniques doubled to hit 1.1m, and Mumsnet pulls in 269,000. These figures dwarf those of the magazines, and this sector seems to be the first to have been ‘beaten’ by digital into second-tier status. Other sectors should take note of this.


In the face of the recession, the threat of the internet, and other pressures on copy sales and circulation, we are seeing an increasingly inventive range of tactics being adopted. One is to focus efforts and resources on marketing.

A marketing weapon which has been heavily reported on recently is multi-packing. Here, readers are able to purchase multiple titles from their portfolio in a handy pack and at a discounted price. The sale of that pack then counts towards both titles’ circulations. Most publishers adopted this approach over the auditing period, though it has been utilised with the most impressive circulation-boosting effect in the celebrity weeklies sector. Northern & Shell have aggressively multi-packed both New and Star magazines with OK! Their circulations increased by a whopping 35% and 84% respectively, and half of the issues within the six monthly period gave readers the option to buy a multi-pack over a single magazine. Bauer have multi-packed Heat and Closer together though not to the same extent, and NatMag have used this technique with She, Esquire and Harpers Bazaar. Conde Nast did not multi-pack over this period, though they have done so in the past.

As media buyers and guardians of our clients’ advertising expenditure, it is our job to ensure every pound spent is as effective as it can be. As a result, marketing routes that put too much emphasis on attracting purchasers for the wrong reasons, who may be disengaged from the magazine product and therefore our clients’ advertisements, are a real concern for us. From our perspective, the validity of multi-packing is not black and white, but rather occurs over many shades of grey. The factors that we examine include how heavily is the pack discounted? Is it moderate enough to offer the reader real value and incentive for purchase, without being so discounted as to be effectively buying the reader in cheaply. Secondly, do the magazines have a similar enough audience for an advertiser appearing in the secondary title to be happy with that having been purchased as an add-on to the primary title? Finally, are the production values of the secondary magazine, as well as the pagination and editorial content, up to the same standards of the single-purchase version of that magazine? If they are sub-standard, it could be considered essentially a ‘sampler’ of the magazine and therefore not deserving of counting towards its ABC figure. These factors are sure to be major discussion points within the ABC council. Efforts to market titles and drive circulation growth get our support, however we do seek full transparency behind the methodologies.

Mixed results for redesigns

Increasing marketing investment behind a tired, dated product is like pouring water into a leaky bucket. Improving and upgrading that product to give it an edge over the competition should be a no-brainer. This tactic has been applied across various sectors and publishers, with varying success. The effects of Full House’s April re-launch were clear, with the title registering a 44% increase against a market decline of 5.5%. However despite Marie Claire’s autumn redesign, it still lost 15% of its circulation even with four out of the six issues being cover-mounted. Past redesigns that have not delivered circulation success also include Bella and She. This suggests that revamping is a high risk route, as the danger is that you can get it badly wrong and alienate more readers than you attract.

Mixmag bounces back

Developing and evolving the product with one eye on the digital ‘menace’ is something that publishers would be wise to consider, though few have attempted. Hats off to Development Hell’s Mixmag magazine then. After flourishing off the back of the burgeoning 90s club scene, it then floundered in recent years as dance music went back underground and the masses rediscovered their love of guitar bands. Instead of closing, as many pundits would have expected, the magazine held its niche and Development Hell did a good job of restoring the title’s editorial credibility with real dance music and clubbing enthusiasts. The success of online dance music communities and forums did not escape the vision of the publisher, who bought last year and merged the site with the magazine. Sharing content and branding across both platforms Mixmag has managed to stay relevant to the digital-savvy younger clubbing audience, and enjoyed double-digit circulation growth as a result.

The advance of the eReader

Considering digital on a more industry-wide level, it is unlikely to have escaped your notice that there has been much development in mid-size hand-held reading device technology. The Kindle and eReader have been joined by the iPad and Skiff reader. Skiff, who are backed by Hearst, are also developing a digital content and store-front platform through which consumers will be able to purchase and download content onto their readers. Investing in a company which will allow consumers to bypass Amazon’s Kindle store and other similar selling points may prove to be a very astute move for Hearst indeed.

The presence of these devices will accelerate publishers’ activity in the digital arena, though the rate of consumer take-up and usage of this technology is debatable. I feel that they are unlikely to disrupt the magazine world immediately, however the industry as well as magazines’ editorial propositions will be sure to evolve in the mid- to long-term. Magazines’ digital properties which were once only viewable from a home computer (I deliberately exclude mobile which is a somewhat stripped down experience), are going to become much more portable. Not only that, but with the hand-held magazine-sized readers, there will be scope to deliver a magazine-like experience via wi-fi, but digitally enriched and multi-media. From this, I believe that convergence between the print and digital platforms will be considered, which will impact on editorial and publishing team structures. Then there is the question of how to monetize it, which in itself is no easy task, and of course how bodies such as the ABC will adapt their measurement models. A coalition of five leading US publishers – Hearst, Conde Nast, Time Inc, News Corp, and Meredith – has already been formed to combine their efforts in addressing all of the above, and I for one look forward to see what they come up with.

It has been great to see the magazine industry weather the recession so admirably. Publishers have been resourceful in how they have battled not only this, but ever increasing digital usage. We have seen the use of aggressive and innovative marketing techniques, continuing investment in editorial, and progressive attitudes towards evolution in a digital world. I feel absolutely confident that the industry will continue to develop and protect its standing within the rapidly evolving technological and media landscape.