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Jan-June 2013 ABCs: a media buyer’s view

Print circulations continued their steady decline in the last ABC period, but, writes Jamie Higginson, the growing success publishers are enjoying across multiple platforms shows that the public still has a healthy appetite for magazine content.

Jamie Higginson

Posted on: 17 September 2013

As we look at another ABC release, it tells a familiar story of steady declines in print circulation across all sectors. No doubt these latest figures will be met with the inevitable and usual response by many commentators. Those who will tell us once again that print brands are dying, that publishers will fold and that revenue in print brands will soon be non-existent.

Of course, it is easy to understand why people would adopt that view. It is a challenging time for publishers, particularly in regards to physical copy sales with printing costs still exorbitant and tough competition from a range of content providers distributing across a plethora of platforms.

In the absence of a multi-platform reporting standard, most observers look at printed circulation in isolation, so leading them to an assumption that print brands will soon be extinct. Yet, like those predictions that TV would put an end to radio or that e-Readers would kill off printed books … they don’t always come true.

Print declines across most sectors

There was a similar pattern across nearly all sectors. A year-on-year decline in print circulation, with a significant increase in digital editions (up 79% in total) so slightly lessening the decline for a total combined figure: Fashion & Luxury: -9.3% year-on-year print circulation (+117% digital edition circulation, -8.2% total combined); Women’s Monthlies: -15.5% (+86%,-15.1%); Celebrity & Fashion Weeklies: -17.8% (+76%, -17.4%); Traditional & Real Life Weeklies: -14.6% (+777%, -14.5%); Men’s Magazines: -5.7% (+68%, -4.9%); TV Weeklies: -6.4% (+1053%, -6.3%); Sport: -13.9% (+167%, -13.5%); Motoring: -7.6% (+1264%, -6.4%); Health & Wellbeing: -7.3% (+0.5%, -5.3%); Food & Travel: -1.5% (+96%, -0.4%); and Film: -7.6% (+891, -6.5%). Alas, some did not have digital editions offsetting any of the declines: Grey -10.5%; Music -59.0%; Baby -4.1%; Teen -47%; and Pre-Teen -12.5%.

Interestingly, there were two sectors where the printed circulations declined but increases in digital editions led to overall growth: News & Business: -1.0% (+28%, +0.2%); Home & Garden: -0.9% (+153%, +3.2%). A definite positive sign, it is worth noting that both had relatively healthy periods for their print editions with only marginal decreases year-on-year. The news sector benefited from a series of complex issues that consumers wanted expert opinion on, such as the Middle East, the LIBOR scandal and the economic slowdown in China. Additionally, following the retail distribution review and low returns from high street banks, there is a new segment of self-directed investors hungry for information provided by the likes of Investors Chronicle and Money Week. Home is where the heart is and also where content is well suited to digital editions, including high-resolution images of interiors and the ability to click-to-buy the furnishings shown.

In a very competitive market for consumer’s attention, publishers have needed to employ inventive tactics to improve print circulations. Immediate Media’s Prima Baby opportunistically offered all existing subscribers of recently closed Practical Parenting a free subscription, producing a 3.4% circulation increase period-on-period and the hope of retaining these in the longer term. Waitrose Magazine included of-the-moment celebrity Pippa Middleton in their editorial team to produce a 17.4% increase. Bauer are focusing efforts on core brands, closing More! while maintaining investment in Heat and Closer, and closing Golf Illustrated to concentrate on Golf World and Today’s Golfer. Meanwhile TV Pick used low cover prices to attract readers, ultimately failing and quickly closing as more established, trusted brands (What’s On TV and TV Choice) won the TV Listings battle.

Life beyond print

The ‘free model’ continues to see success with Time Out posting a figure of 305,683 (up 487%) in its new distribution model. Likewise, ShortList, Sport and Stylist all saw increases while their sectors declined heavily. ShortList also expanded across platforms with a 47% increase in digital traffic over the period and Mr Hyde (their digital daily offering) now reaching over 40,000 consumers per day. This gives two clear indications. Firstly, it is not a lack of interest in magazine content but rather the traditional distribution and platform methods. Secondly, that even those doing well in the print publishing world are realising the need to expand brand beyond print.

Publishers are continuing to find new ways to engage with their audiences, extending their brand reach often through new platforms and technologies. This is why magazine brands will continue to flourish for many, many years to come. It will be those who can adapt quickest that will reap the benefits most or as Charles Darwin said: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.”

A multi-platform approach will only increase as publishers invest in management systems that allow them to ‘Create Once & Publish Everywhere’ (COPE). Indeed at their recent Publishing+ conference, the PPA pointed out that “in 2013, UK publishers reach more people across more platforms than ever before.” This includes embracing tablets, mobile, content, social, events, data and collaboration. Far from shrinking in face of increased digitalisation, publishers are utilising its attributes and adapting their business to encompass it, while maintaining the credibility and relationships with consumers established on previous platforms. The table shows the multi-platform strength (beyond the ABC report) of the Celebrity and Fashion Weekly sector.

The 3-fold multi-platform challenge

This multi-platform expansion poses three main problems. Firstly, the large cost implications of creating new editions ‘from scratch’ for each platform and device. Even across one platform such as tablets, there are many different devices that content needs to be developed and optimised for. As discussed, COPE technologies will help this, adapting and re-formatting the content to the correct device. This will allow publishers to seed content across a range of hosting partners, such as Google Currents or Flipboard.

Secondly, there is no recognised independent measurement of brand reach across these emerging platforms. While the latest ABC report is an important step forward with more digital edition declarations than in previous years, not one magazine brand published a separate digital publication figure due to limiting regulations on reporting methodologies. Yes, media agencies are able to track ads via third parties and so plan campaigns based on this data, however to attract increasing revenue in this area, industry recognised statistics are essential. The holy grail of a standard multi-platform reporting metric still seems some distance away.

Finally, there is the challenge of monetising these new consumer engagements, as for most multi-platform publishers, it is still through print that most revenue is secured. It is easy to envisage the conversation in many publishing offices … “Great news! We’ve reached over a million followers on Twitter!”, “Wonderful … and how do we make money from that?” Using such platforms to pull consumers back to the traditional product (ie. the printed magazine) has done little to stem declines and outside of all-encompassing creative solution partnerships, direct revenue from emerging platforms is still limited. As media agencies continue to structure themselves for multi-channel, connected planning and buying, this should improve but there is still a way to go.

Amongst the latest blitz of marketing buzz words, it would seem like print brands have a long road of change ahead of them but in many examples, magazine brands are leading the way. In recent months, native advertising has become the sought-after ad format approach, yet magazines have been experts for many years in delivering not-dissimilar advertorial pieces. Indeed IPC, one of the UK’s largest magazine publishers, is leading the way digitally in merging editorial content with creative copy via its new Amplify proposition. Likewise, strong branded content continues to be the (difficult to achieve) holy grail for many; here VICE with its magazine background and now large ADVICE network excels in connecting brands to consumers via content.

The social dimension

Likewise, most magazine brands now run very strong social media profiles (eg. Men’s Health has 1,423,595 Twitter followers) and due to their heritage, have vital credibility / trust in their constant social dialogue with consumers. Magazine brands are leading the way in a multi-platform connected approach (BBC Good Food is an excellent example of this), particularly on tablets and increasingly through mobile and events. Additionally, the big UK publishers hold a wealth of detailed data on their consumers and the larger population, accessible by advertisers and backed by vastly experienced research divisions. Finally, where conventional brand partnerships are being usurped by ultra-connected (mutually beneficial) solutions across multiple parties, magazine brands are extremely collaborative, holding great relationships with both entertainment personalities and retailers.

Let’s also not forget the print products themselves. Yes, as discussed, generally circulations are in a slow decline but with 2,471 consumer magazines in the UK (plus a further 4,395 B2B publications), magazines still very much deliver scale. Beyond that as a media channel, magazines provide us with deep engagement and comparatively long dwell times for those engagements. There is no mid-read pause to tweet about an article; magazine consumers are too engrossed in the content for that. It is this high engagement that is carried through to the advertising. The most apt description I have heard is that magazines are like the host at a party, personally introducing the latest arrival to the other guests (or advertisers). We must not forget these benefits.

Ultimately, printed pieces of paper are no longer everything to publishers and they do not guarantee commercial success; indeed Easy Living was closed despite seeing circulation growth in the last period. Yet printed products still play an important role to consumers - Net-A-Porter, who typify digital success over the past 13 years, will launch a printed publication early next year. The real trick is to realise it isn’t those pieces of paper that make magazine brands great, it is their quality content and deep relationships with consumers. Maintaining this across numerous platforms is an opportunity, not the death knell some might say it is.

All figures are UK Actively Purchased.

About Jamie Higginson
(Details last updated: 18 September 2012)

Jamie Higginson is an associate director, specialising in print media at MediaCom. Jamie has been with MediaCom (voted Media Agency of the Decade by Campaign) since 2004.

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