Happy Birthday BBC History Magazine

With its twentieth birthday celebrations somewhat spoiled by Covid-19, writes James Evelegh, the one silver lining perhaps was the realisation that they were experiencing first-hand a truly historic moment, which would provide rich content for years to come.

By James Evelegh

Happy Birthday BBC History Magazine
Evergreen content...

Launched in May 2000, in part to take advantage of a millennium inspired surge in interest in history and in part due to a senior BBC executive’s daughter complaining about the lack of history magazines on the newsstand, the title is a publishing success story.

Its debut ABC in 2000 was 50,082. Its latest (albeit pre-Covid) ABC was 93,931, and 100% actively purchased at that. Take out the digital editions and the print circulation has still grown by 59% since 2000. Overseas circulation is up over 1,300%. Usually when you see figures like these, you suspect some statistical sleight of hand, but there was none that I could see.

What is the secret of their success?

Rob Attar.

Having a subject matter with global appeal obviously helps. Explaining his own passion for the subject, editor Rob Attar says: “it's full of great stories that can shine a light on the world of today and it teaches you a lot about different cultures, people and languages; it is a real way of exploring humanity.”

The appeal cuts across age, gender and geography. Throw in deep rooted passion and expertise on the part of the editorial team – Rob has a first in History from Bristol University – and you have a strong foundation.

Evergreen content is a big factor too. An article on the Battle of Hastings written twenty years ago is unlikely to be any less interesting today than when it was first published. Previously published content is, therefore, a hugely valuable asset for the title, and its website designers are expert at surfacing it.

Everything on the site is cross referenced to the nth degree with loads of links to extra relevant content. An article entitled ‘Fighting for freedom: the story of the Bastille and the French Revolution’ by the historian David Andress, contained enticing links to ‘How the French won Waterloo (or think they did)’, ‘The French Revolution through 7 severed heads’, and to a 2018 podcast, ‘The failings of the French Revolution’. There were also links to articles on US presidents and Magna Carter, which some piece of logic in the site determined were worth serving up to me. As it happened, I’m interested in both those subjects, so it was nicely done.

Their pages per visit stats must be phenomenal.

Previously published content is a hugely valuable asset, and its website designers are expert at surfacing it.

From single to multi-platform

For a magazine that focuses on the past, what stands out is its thoroughly modern approach. One could almost have forgiven them a predisposition towards “old school” publishing. Nothing could be further from the truth – they are pressing all the digital buttons.

It has a mobile optimised digital edition, which renders superbly on mobile and tablet and is subscribed to by over 14,000 people. The HistoryExtra.com website, as described above, is a well-designed site deploying all the tricks in the book to increase engagement. Pageviews are currently running at four million per month. Their highly-regarded HistoryExtra podcast, launched in 2007, is downloaded approximately 100,000 times a day and successfully drives brand awareness, subscriptions and event attendance.

The launch issue.

Not forgetting social media: Facebook (500k followers), Twitter (342k) and Instagram (a relatively paltry 19k).

Now, the word ‘holistic’ is one of the most overused words in publishing, but accurately describes the BBC History approach. Themes and subjects, say the recent 75th anniversary of VE Day, are approached in the round, with editorial content being allocated between the different outputs, in a way that plays to the strength of each, while accentuating the impact of the whole.

Whilst print is holding up well and editor Rob Attar still expects print to be around for a long time to come (“it does give you something different”), it’s important to know which way the wind is blowing. Digital is where the focus is, and in common with other magazine publishers, the challenge ahead is to monetise the digital traffic.

Visitors to the HistoryExtra site hit a registration wall almost immediately, forcing them to cough up their email address and indicate whether or not they wish to receive emails. To read any article on the site, you need to be signed in, which means that they have started to build a profile of every one of their visitors and are collecting huge amounts of usage data. After some time on the site, I was expecting to hit a second barrier, a payment wall, but none materialised. The structure seems to be in place to harvest subs via a theoretically subs-only area (The Library), should they wish to use it, in much the same way sister title Gardeners’ World does with its Secret Garden.

A willingness to experiment has been a constant feature of the BBC History story. It seems that most of what the team has touched over the years has turned to gold, although Rob insists that mistakes have been made. One false start was in the early days of the iPhone when they, along with practically everyone else, experimented with apps. These, as it turned out, got little traction, and were quickly dumped.

Making mistakes is good, Rob says, but spotting them early and learning from them is better. Over its twenty year history, I think it’s fair to say that BBC History Magazine has got many more things right than wrong.

You can hear Rob Attar being interviewed by Ciar Byrne on a recent episode of The InPublishing Podcast, which was sponsored by Atex, a provider of software solutions for the media industry.

This article was first published in InPublishing magazine. If you would like to be added to the free mailing list, please register here.