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Marketing specialist magazines

Niche publishers often bemoan the size of their marketing budgets. Yet, says MMC’s James Stringer, they have one big advantage over their mainstream rivals – a clearly identifiable audience. Armed with this, and an intelligently thought through promotional strategy, there is no reason why they can’t enjoy considerable circulation success.

By James Stringer

Specialist magazines are the overlooked engine room of UK publishing. UK specialist magazine publishers offer titles that have authority and an ever changing formula covering areas as diverse as railway modelling and knitting. Much of its dynamism is a result of intense competition. Independent publishers are able to compete with the large publishers on a level playing field without being significantly disadvantaged when it comes to promoting with major retailers or through Royal Mail. However the amount of money they have to spend marketing their brands, is often much less. For them, a strategy to promote specialist magazine brands has to be clearly thought through, accurately budgeted and monitored to reduce the risk of wasting money.

Identifiable audience

Specialist magazines have one significant advantage over mass market magazines: a readily identified and relatively easily reached audience. Readers of a game fishing magazine will have certain things in common: they either like the idea of, or actually do catch fish with a fly on the end of their line; they attend the same events each year and buy products from the same companies. This means that there are a number of channels to reach potential new purchasers of your magazines, and it can be done much more cheaply than the television adverts required if you are selling Zoo or Nuts. The disadvantage is that you will probably need to be creative to reach these people and from time to time it will be difficult to directly monitor the effectiveness of the strategy.

Having worked in magazine distribution for over ten years and having also been a publisher in that time, I have lost count of the number of times that clients and colleagues have looked exasperated and said that they are told all the time that potential readers have never seen a copy of their magazine. Probably what the majority of these punters are too polite to admit to the publisher is that they have never heard of the magazine before. So the challenge for specialist magazine publishers is to step out of the shadow of the market leader and build awareness of the brand amongst potential readers. A simple way to do this is to identify all the routes you could use to reach your potential readers. For instance:

* Purchasers of a rival title
* Purchasers of other publications that have sections that are read by your readers
* Clubs and societies that have memberships
* Events that your readership or advertisers attend
* Locations that your readership live in or visit
* PR opportunities

Inevitably some of these routes won’t be available to you; for example many market leaders guard their subscription lists jealously and won’t take advertising from rivals. But think creatively - if you are a motoring magazine publisher in a niche area, why not consider advertising in car listings and mart titles?

Membership lists

Clubs and societies are usually cash strapped and would welcome either a contra-advertising deal with your magazine in return for access to their membership list or inclusion of an advert in a mailing or within their club magazine. They are also keen to justify their membership costs and if you can offer a discounted subscription offer, "exclusive" to their membership, then from my experience at Wisden, you will gain a very valuable ally.


Events can be attended, and these can be great for selling subscriptions or back issues. Why not undertake a survey while you are there, to obtain the views of your current and potential readers. The survey could even make an interesting article. Readers always like the thought they will appear in an issue and be sure to tell them when you plan to publish the article. Also, why not pay someone to leave a leaflet on the cars in the car park!

Some magazines are location specific and marketing can be undertaken with leaflet drops, sampling of the magazine or through traditional above-the-line advertising.


Finally, PR can have an impact that advertising never could. A recent example is when a parenting magazine released details that very few mothers knew how to give basic first aid. The implication was clear and it was picked up by all national newspapers and the editor appeared on numerous television programmes. Could you imagine the cost of achieving this rise in awareness through advertising?

Some of these options might not be possible or appropriate for you, but in the war against the established big companies, with big budgets, you will need to think creatively to avoid spending unnecessary money.

Once you have identified a number of opportunities it is vital to plan how you are going to maximise the financial benefit to your company. Incidentally it is important to keep your advertising team aware of your activity. Your plans can give them a way to interest new advertisers and also defend the rates they are charging.

Traditionally there are two channels to sell copies, newsstand and subscriptions. The emphasis that you place on each channel is likely to vary according to your market place.

Newsstand marketing

* Defend and seek new opportunities. Identify, with your distributor, which are your key retailers and which are the key retailers for your rivals. Your key retailers will need to be defended. For example if WH Smith sells 70% of your newsstand copies you will need to identify a strategy to grow this sale wherever possible. This could include driving potential readers to their stores through a money-off coupon given away at an event or a link-save between two magazines in the same sector. Grow your sales and your listing should be safe. At the same time explore other opportunities by identifying the retailers that are key to your competitors. Finally be aware of what is happening in the retail marketplace. The rise of convenience stores has followed that of supermarkets and they are increasing their share of total magazine sales.
* Chase strengths not weaknesses. If you have peak sales times, ensure that you do everything you can to maximise sales during them. A lot of money can be spent, and extra copies distributed, trying to buck a seasonal trend. It rarely works. By all means try something new out of season to try and grow sales, but make sure that you don’t overextend and risk not being able to promote to maximum benefit at the best time.
* Remember how added-value is perceived by the readership. Traditionally sales are grown in competitive markets by offering readers added value items such as cover mounts, supplements or other gifts. However in some markets a cover mounted key-ring will be viewed very positively, in others it would be seen as worthless. If you want readers to value your added value efforts, research what the readership wants. They will also see through an overt advertising led vehicle, so you will need to take as much effort with your supplement as you would the magazine itself.

Subscriptions marketing

The first rule of subscriptions marketing is that renewing a subscriber is many times cheaper than finding a new one. On the magazine that I published it was 70 times more profitable to renew than to acquire. So make sure that your renewal efforts are powerful, effective and efficiently delivered. If your current renewal rates are less than 75% then ensure that you have explored all available methods to increase renewal rates. These can include:

* Improving customer service – make sure subscribers receive the magazine on time and have their queries answered promptly. Consider a bureau if you are doing fulfilment yourself badly!
* Mail them early and often – three or four renewal efforts is standard and also try renewing early in the life of the subscription.
* Try direct debit or continuous credit card payment – direct debit in particular can increase renewal rates to over 90%.

When looking to acquire new subscribers it is worth understanding modelling techniques such as life time value calculations. Modelling can remove the guesswork and ensure that your time is spent on the most successful acquisition methods. These methods will have different costs and response rates and it is important that you do lots of the things that work for your magazine and few of those that don’t. Most publishers use some of these methods already, but it is always worth testing new ones. Some low cost ways include:

* Direct mail – make sure that you collect all competition entrants’ details, people who have bought products from you, attended an event, are members of a club or lapsed subscribers and send them a direct mail effort. Response rates will be higher than for bought-in cold lists.
* Off the page efforts – current readers are usually more responsive if you offer them a gift rather than money off.
* Insert cards can be printed in large volumes and inserted throughout the year thus reducing set up costs.
* Try telemarketing your soon-to-lapse subscribers. This could save you the cost of four letters.

Finally, whatever you do, be it when renewing or acquiring, you must log the source through the use of coding. Without accurate records you will not know where the subscriber came from and therefore what is working and what isn’t.

When it comes to marketing specialist magazines, three elements are crucial. Firstly, think creatively about how you are going to tell more people about your magazine. Secondly, ensure that you have discussed your plans with your distributor to ensure that all these extra potential readers can find your magazine in key outlets. Thirdly, extract every last subscriber from your current readership and know where your new ones are coming from. Finally, remember that anyone can sell anything once. It is the quality of your magazine in its marketplace that dictates whether your new reader will return next issue.