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July-Dec 2014 ABCs: a media buyer’s view

Despite further falls in print circulation, magazine brands’ growing cross-platform presence and their continuing strong bonds with readers, give grounds for optimism. But, writes Jamie Higginson, the industry must accelerate its search for new and credible metrics.

By Jamie Higginson

As publishers are busy assessing the latest ABC results, they may have missed that the release coincided with Media Week’s 30th birthday. Ironically, the industry trade brand (that started life as a weekly printed magazine) is celebrating this milestone with a return to print, following its move to digital-only publishing five years ago. By contrast, few publishers will be feeling in celebratory mood about their print editions and most will be longing to set the clock back 30 years to the simpler publishing days of the mid-80s.

Yes, there were some bad hairstyles, even worse fashion, truly great movies and really awful / excellent* music but publishers had the benefit of only having to focus on one product, their magazine. Fast forward to today where content needs to be produced and optimised constantly across a plethora of different platforms, for consumers to devour on numerous devices – the challenges are easy to see (as are the 80s references in this feature).

The Only Way Is Up

Let’s start with the positives. The results that show magazines are alive and kicking. An impressive 51 publications enjoyed year-on-year print circulation growth from a diverse range of sectors. Older titles generally saw better results such as the increases for Good Housekeeping, Prima and Woman’s Weekly and more male titles Mojo, Classic Rock and Classic Cars. Likewise, Home Interest experienced circulation uplifts in a number of publications (House Beautiful, Style At Home, World Of Interiors, Grand Designs); our house is clearly still important. Food & Travel delivered marginal growth, while the Health & Wellbeing sector increased 1.6% in total, driven by good performances from Slimming World and Women’s Health.

Some publications have capitalised on the closure of rival publications to achieve growth, notably What’s On TV benefiting from TV Easy’s departure while Zoo picked up readers following Nuts’ last issue. Although it is not pretty for one magazine to grow as another one bites the dust, in a tough market we can expect more of this natural selection. There is always room for the right product though, for example, new monthly paid-for magazine launch Forever Sports delivered a healthy ABC of over 80k, an impressive debut.

At first glance, the News & Business sector appears to be in decline with printed circulations down -2.7% year-on-year, however once combined with digital editions, the sector is moved into overall growth (+4.0%). This is a perfect example of how digital disruption can be used to drive overall growth. While investment in digital platforms is a risky business, it remains a real opportunity for magazine brands.

Every Loser Wins

While the successes are encouraging, they are relatively limited. Overall, yes, printed circulations are falling. The latest ABC release bears this out and you do not need a copy of Grays Sports Almanac to predict that the future will see this trend continue. It is also not a unique issue. Linear TV viewing is declining and the big ITV shows now reach smaller audiences than in previous years. Meanwhile, analogue radio listening is at its lowest level, falling below 50% in London. The natural by-product of increasing digital consumption across all traditional media is a decline in the conventional ways to read, watch and listen.

Of course, we cannot only consider the orthodox methods of consumption. In the mid-eighties, Wham! made it to No.1 with the awful / excellent* I’m Your Man purely through physical sales. Today, we naturally include digital forms in our measure of chart success and digital consumption of traditional media is equally valid. We cannot consider TV without online video; radio without digital listenership; nor magazines without their digital offerings (be that web, tablet, mobile or social).

With the data available in this release, we see familiar patterns, in most sectors, falling print circulations with the decline lessened when considering print and digital editions combined: Celeb & Fashion Weeklies -12.9% print (-12.6% combined); Film -9.7% (-6.8%); Home & Gardening -1.4% (-1.2%); Mens Magazines -4.3% (-4.0%); Motoring -4.9 (-3.5%); Traditional & Real Life Weeklies -6.2% (-6.1%); Grey -11.8% (-11.7%); Gaming -44.8% (-44.6%). While in some cases, the digital editions did nothing to halt the decline: Women’s Monthlies -1.4% (-1.4%); TV Weeklies -7.8% (-7.8%); Teen & Pre-Teens -12.9% (12.9%); Fashion & Luxury -3.5% (-3.6%); and Music -8.3% (-9.4%).

It is encouraging that this release sees an unprecedented 200 digital editions audited, however these only represent one facet of a magazine’s brand beyond print. We cannot dismiss the large numbers engaging with brands through a range of other platforms: Radio Times’ monthly web unique users of over one million; Time Out’s monthly mobile unique users of nearly 900k; Glamour and Marie Claire’s Facebook likes of over two million; Stylist’s 455,000 Twitter followers; or Grazia’s 103,000 Instagram followers to give but a few examples. These are all valid engagements with consumers that need consideration, ideally in one currency.

Increasingly, brands are utilising other extensions that are even more difficult to quantify: visitors to Good Housekeeping Institute’s newly built facility through their cookery school; or those attending the NME Awards UK Tour. Indeed, when the labyrinth of touchpoints is considered, the landscape is a great deal more positive, and more often than not in growth, though measuring this is difficult.

Weird Science

As traditional media expand the scope of platforms they utilise, a challenge presents itself on measurement. Across AV, audio and publishing, the industry is making all the right moves to produce the best measurement of an increasingly fragmented consumption caused by digital disruption. BARB are looking to measure device viewing through their ‘Project Dovetail’, while RAJAR embrace digital measurement through their MIDAS survey. Similarly, an agreed currency to measure brands rather than channel silos, which is embraced by all publishers, is a necessity.

For this to happen, like any good 80s duet, it takes two. Firstly, publishers must opt-in to the existing measurement metrics. Reporting bodies, such as ABC, are there to help the industry yet many of the available audits are not taken up. The PAV (Publication Active View) is an example of this optional reporting which is still under-used by magazine brands (interestingly this is a compulsory metric for news brands). This leaves advertisers and agencies with an incomplete view; we see the crescent and only the publishers themselves see the whole of the moon.

Secondly, agencies need a de-duplicated mutli-platform reach and frequency planning tool. The latest NRS PADD data is hugely encouraging (eg. showing, on average, mobile adding 21% audience reach to individual magazine brands’ footprint) and is always well received by clients, however it isn’t enough. We need a bigger boat. We need to be able to plan against a range of audiences via a planning interface. We also, like most agency requests, need it yesterday. A new reach survey is not due until 2016 (by who and in what form still to be decided); can publishers wait that long? If proprietary tools can be delivered sooner, they should be seriously considered, as we have seen with Guardian and now Telegraph’s Audience Not Platforms tool.


While de-duplicated cross-platform reach data is a key requirement, it is important to keep in mind that, historically, reach has often not been the rationale for the inclusion of magazines on multi-media campaigns. Television and Out-Of-Home advertising continue to be the strongest awareness drivers, while even within print, if it’s a numbers game, newspapers are generally the top guns. For magazines, it has always been the unique relationship they have with their readers that seals their position on a schedule.

This relationship gives rise to the benefits advertisers can gain through magazines: strong targeting; deep engagement; inferred editorial recommendation; trust and credibility; relevant environments; complimentary rather than disruptive ad consumption; and high dwell times. If content is king as we are so often told, then context is queen and magazine brands should be feeling decidedly royal.

While a number of research projects demonstrate printed magazine trust, relatively few apply this to digital properties too. Importantly, the close relationship that magazines establish with their readers does transfer to digital touchpoints, creating trust above that of other digital publishers (such as the portals and networks often popular with agencies). The AOP used comScore to conduct The Value Of Trust (2012) - one of the few studies to investigate this, showing very beneficial consumer actions (better advocacy, engagement and conversion) in response to advertising based on that increased trust.

Publishers need to work together to put the trust levels of brand environments at the heart of agency planning, even exploring metrics to measure this at an individual brand level as with reach data. At present, there is still too much usage data (particularly around tablets) controlled by publishers; agencies need to fight for the right to 3rd party track / analysis so the advantages of magazine brands with original content (vs aggregators / social media) can be independently verified. Given the rise of programmatic and the potential environment issues that come with it, this is more pertinent than ever. Alongside reach, trust is an equally valid reason to invest however it doesn’t hold the same importance. This needs to change.

Back To The Future

Overall then, to get the most from traditional media, agencies have to be planning in the context of digital disruption – as AV, audio and publishing channels (not TV, radio and print). Understanding these channel complexes through appropriate measurement, embraced by all parties, is key. Particularly important within publishing are de-duplicated cross platform reach and trust comparison metrics.

Moving forward, the priority for publishers needs to be producing engaging content accessible on all relevant channels, while demonstrating the total net reach that can be delivered by their brands and the accompanying trust such environments afford advertisers. Magazine brands have a strong future if publishers keep alert to the rapidly increasing digital opportunities and can quickly develop accurate measurement for these new connections with their audiences. Simply put: life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around every once in a while, you could miss it.

* delete as appropriate

All figures are UK actively purchased