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July-Dec 2013 ABCs: a media buyer’s view

The latest ABCs show continued circulation declines, but the introduction of the new Combined Total Circulation Certificate has helped break the fall. Jamie Higginson tracks the trends and calls for better cross-platform metrics and closer collaboration between advertisers and publishers.

By Jamie Higginson

We apologise for the delay

“MIND THE GAP”. I don’t know how many publishers travel to work on the London Underground and I imagine those that do rarely pay much attention to this familiar advice that has been in place across the network since 1969. Today, this cautionary phrase is more applicable to their work lives than any daily commute. The perilous publishing gap being the lag between print circulations (and revenues) falling and new digital platforms (like tablets) not delivering sufficient numbers to take up the slack.

As we look over the latest release of magazine ABC data, familiar stories come to the fore. Many sectors and publications have seen a significant decline in circulation which they look to combat by developing wider multi-platform offerings, to grow overall brand reach. While it’s fair to say that most magazines have seen relative success in their evolution to a layered brand which engages with followers across numerous touchpoints, most publishers would agree they haven’t reached a tipping point yet.

Publishers, therefore, are left in danger of falling between two stools or into the ‘gap’. Their printed products, which still account for the vast bulk of revenue, are seeing circulations fall while they wait for new revenue streams (in particular tablets) to flourish. Our experience tells us that these new channels will see a continual growth rather than an immediate explosion (the long heralded ‘year of mobile’ has lasted for five years at least) and the speed by which these developing areas can be monetised will vary across sectors. Importantly, it is those brands that best manage this transition, those able to hurdle the gap, who will remain dominant players in years to come.

Leaves on the line

One challenge that remains is the absence of a multi-platform reporting standard, so the industry analysis reverts to individual channel metrics and when viewed in this narrow context, magazine circulations are experiencing tough times. This reporting void has been partially filled by the introduction of a Combined Total Circulation Certificate from the ABC, including print and digital editions as one (albeit not accounting for duplication). From the June 2014 ABC release, it will also be mandatory to report data on a monthly basis and the number of bundled print / digital subscriptions will be highlighted. Furthermore, the announcement that NRS PADD – which currently estimates brand reach across print and websites – will include mobile and tablet data in 2014, all adding to a more accurate view of magazine brand reach.

This ABC period saw a 43% increase in reported digital editions. There is no doubt this is an encouraging sign although there is still no requirement for publishers to report whether or how often their digital editions have been opened. This metric exists in the form of ABC’s Publication Active View (defined as a single copy of a publication actively opened by a device for viewing) but unlike their national newspaper counter-parts, it is not mandatory for magazine publishers to report this.

With the growth in digital editions mentioned and a growing tablet landscape, we need to reach trusted cross-platform reporting quickly. In the last six months, Apple, Samsung, LG and Kindle have all released at least one tablet product into the market, while Argos and Tesco have entered the fray with lower priced models. It is no surprise then that tablet penetration in the UK is now estimated at 33%, not including the newer generation of smartphones with over-sized screens known as ‘phablets’. As a buying agency, we have to be able to justify our media investment decisions and so without recognised multi-channel reporting, publishers will have real problems monetising their extended reach.

A good service on all lines?

The ‘gap’ is very much apparent in this latest ABC release. The vast majority of titles experienced significant print declines year-on-year. Although growth in digital editions is minimising losses in total combined circulations, it is generally not strong enough to put the brand in overall ABC growth. As such, the total combined print and digital edition marketplace experienced movement of -9%, although for most titles, the decline was not that severe as 50% of this total decrease was focused in just nineteen titles. It proved too much for Zest, Easy Living and Full House who closed their printed magazines.

This trend – print declines combated but not reversed by digital edition growth, is further evident if we look at the data by sector: Men’s Market -3.9% year-on-year print circulation (-2.3% year-on-year total combined print + digital editions); Motoring -6.2% (-2.4%); Sport -4.4% (-2.0%); Women’s Monthlies -7.4% (-6.4%); Celebrity & Fashion Weeklies -8.9% (-8.2%); Fashion & Luxury Monthlies -6.1% (-0.7%); Traditional & Real-Life Weeklies -5.4% (-3.4%); TV Weeklies -4.3% (-4.3%); Baby & Parenting -0.2% (-0.4%); Film -13.8% (-8.4%); Pre-Teen -7.2% (-7.2%); Teen -40.4% (-40.4%); Grey -12.6 (-12.6); and Music -46.9% (-40.2%).

Even the News & Business sector with a relatively strong print performance (-0.8%) and good progress in digital editions (+84%) could only remain flat rather than deliver combined growth (combined 0.0%). While Food & Travel, which saw an increase overall (-4.5% print circulation; +4.9% combined), would have been in overall decline if we excluded Waitrose Kitchen’s 303,188 growth. (The magazine is given free to Waitrose cardholders.) The notable exception was Health & Wellbeing where the overall combined figure increased (-6.4% print circulation; +9.0% combined), largely due to the launch of digital editions from Slimming World and Women’s Health adding 14,852 to the market.

If we look purely at printed circulations, there are still positive stories for individual titles. All the free distributed publications (such as Stylist, ShortList, TimeOut, etc) posted positive figures, showing that if you can make it easy for consumers, they will pick up magazines. Meanwhile TV Choice delivered a strong +11.8% increase, no doubt gaining readers from the closure of TV Pick and benefiting from an aggressive price cutting strategy which at one point saw the title on sale for as little as 20p. Indeed given that UK television went fully digital from July 2012, the fact TV Listings magazines still deliver a total printed circulation of over 4m each week is testament to the strength of magazines.

A +3.7% result for Star Magazine was strong given the declining celebrity market, however this was largely driven by multi-packing, a perennial bugbear for agency buyers. Prima Baby delivered +10.5% growth, capitalising on the fact that more babies were born in 2011-12 than in any year since 1972. Some older titles did well such as Classic Cars (+8.6%) and there were a couple of good performances in the Home Interest sector: Style At Home (+7.8%) and 25 Beautiful Homes (+3.2%). Within business magazines, Moneyweek (+22.7%) and Investors Chronicle (+8.9%) delivered fantastic circulation improvements. This is likely fallout of the retail distribution review which has led to more self-directed investors unwilling to pay for IFA services and so looking for other advice sources.

Despite the circulation declines, magazine schedules still offer huge reach not to mention the credible environments and uniquely deep relationship magazines have with their readers. Indeed, some of the most successful companies still acknowledge this unique form of consumption by launching new magazines.

“So, we've discovered this great media delivery system. We've been fine-tuning it, rebuilding it in-house. We are very excited about it. You can practically smell the ink! You can bend it! It has incredible resolution – on both sides! – and the battery life, well, it never runs out!” This is how Natalie Massenet, founder and executive chairman of Net-A-Porter described the company’s newly launched fashion magazine, Porter in a recent interview with the Daily Telegraph. No doubt, this newcomer will have the rest of the luxury market on alert, although in reality I would expect it to become an addition rather than a replacement on schedules. Either way, such a high-profile launch can only be good news for the magazine industry.

Alternative methods of travel

This article is framed around the ABC release and so is focused on print and digital editions of magazines, yet there is always more than one route to reach your destination. Magazines brands are everywhere, just like consumers. Yes, websites remain vital and in recent years, magazines have pushed themselves socially in our Facebook feeds, on Twitter, Google+, YouTube, Pinterest, LinkedIn and Instagram (no doubt Whatsapp is not far behind). Beyond that, we see magazine brands on TV, producing award ceremonies, at fashion shows, releasing clothing ranges and much more.

Given this, should publishers look to invest in their own robust multi-platform measurement tools? This is something we are starting to see with national newspaper brands, such as the Guardian’s ‘audience not platforms’ tool. With media agencies increasingly structuring themselves to deliver integrated cross-platform campaigns, the potential advertising reward for those who can demonstrate overall unduplicated brand reach may well outweigh the hard costs involved.

And in the meantime, how do publishers avoid that gap? I expect closer working relationships between agencies / advertisers and media owners, in particular deeper connected partnerships to be increasingly important in 2014. What do I mean by this type of partnership? Well, in general, these would be run across multiple and often non-traditional partners, while reaching consumers in ever-expanding ways. The focus would be on mutually beneficial outcomes (particularly as advertisers bring more than ad spend as leverage including large social followings and access to great content or ambassadors) and all areas of marketing (perhaps helping to secure better distribution as one example).

Magazines more than other media brands are well suited to take advantage of this as they have a strong tradition of collaboration across multiple partners including other media owners, non-media organisations, celebrities and, importantly, retailers. They have always been great at producing content that consumers want, irrespective of platform. In addition, magazines’ expanding channel presence allows consumers multiple entry points, including through a plethora of social media touchpoints.

It will be those publishers who embrace this close collaboration that become most attractive to agencies and advertisers, benefiting in revenue from a deeper collective relationship. This may allow them to ‘mind the publishing gap’ while waiting for newer content platforms to reach a tipping point and become monetised. It is certainly something to think about on the train journey home.

Note: All figures are UK Actively Purchased and increases / decreases based on year-on-year comparisons.