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Jan-Jun 2011 ABCs: a media buyer’s view

Despite a very slight increase in overall circulation, the trend for traditional print magazines is down. But, writes Jamie Higginson, publishers are compensating by successfully extending their brand reach and this gives hope for the future.

By Jamie Higginson

I have always loved magazine ABC day. The six-monthly release of magazine circulations has continued to be one of my favourite workday events since beginning as a fresh-faced press buyer in 2004. ‘Why?’ I hear you ask. Was it the significant changes to the press landscape that would challenge my best-laid campaign plans? Was it the chance to sink my teeth into tough new negotiations in light of significant sales swings? Perhaps it was the opportunity to give my take on consumer trends in written summaries such as the piece you are currently reading? Quite honestly, the answer is ‘no’. There was a much simpler and gluttonous reason for my excitement. Cake.

As a press buyer, my ABC day would be filled with cake sent in to the office by publishers, reminding us of how well their magazines had fared in the latest set of circulations. A deep-set chocolate fudge for a double-digit figure increase, a layered banana cake for becoming number one in their sector, some iced brownies for a fifth consecutive increase and perhaps a little something from Konditor & Cook for a first-time ABC figure. Hmmm. There was plenty of cake to go around too, indeed plenty for publishers to celebrate.

Unfortunately, recent magazine ABC releases have been accompanied by a distinct lack of cake. This will please nobody with the exception of my Levi’s – not buyers, not advertisers and certainly not publishers. With a few exceptions, there is little to celebrate in the world of printed magazines. The demise of traditional print media has been widely forecast. I could detail some statistics showing the still mammoth scale of readers consuming magazines (the total per issue circulation of all audited consumer magazines was a huge 46,200,127 which was up +0.4% year on year) or talk at length about how the physical nature of magazines and the deeply personal consumer relationship this generates, ensures magazines will be circulating on a mass scale for many, many decades yet (which I truly believe). I would prefer though to give an honest appraisal from someone who earns a living from advertising spend in magazines: in general, traditional print magazine circulations are falling, and yes, for certain publications they are falling fast.

The causes of long-term magazine circulation decline are both plentiful and well documented within the industry. The prevailing reason cited by most is the growth of digital technology and, in particular, consumers gaining relevant content (which they previously obtained through magazines) via the internet, social media, smartphones and tablets. This has supposedly left magazine brands redundant in the long-term. In fact and by contrast, it is the cause that may also be the cure as publishers embrace new technologies as a way to keep their established magazine brands relevant to an increasingly digital consumer. With the introduction of the tablet in particular, magazine brands have the opportunity to remain hugely important to consumers’ lives in the coming years, just in new formats. The King is dead. Long live the king.

Magazine Brands, Not Magazines

It is important to note there are a number of magazine brands and sectors where print circulation figures remain buoyant year on year, exclusive of total brand reach. The Home Interest sector increased overall sales by 3.5% as the stagnant housing market encouraged consumers to improve their existing homes. Likewise the TV Listings sector saw an overall 1% increase, which is particularly encouraging given the wide availability of listings information through EPGs and apps. Financial titles such as the Economist and MoneyWeek both experienced circulation uplifts of over 6%, which is no surprise given the importance of the global economy on consumers’ lives currently. Finally, Essentials posted a 10% sales uplift in a flat market showing if you get the product right and are able to resonate with your audience, growth is possible. To be clear though, these successes are unfortunately the exception rather than the rule.

The celeb and fashion weekly market was one of the hardest hit in the recent figures with a number of iconic brands dropping readers like Jordan drops boyfriends. Overall, the sector declined in sales by -6.2% year on year and the poor performance was typified by former market-leader Heat magazine, which posted a rather worrying -21.8% decrease (yoy). Although the traditional print circulation is falling fast, the reach of the overall brand remains strong with reach increases, particularly in social media. On top of the 312,063 actively-purchased copies each week and a 1,564,000 readership, has 265,000 unique users each month (+44% yoy), the Heat Facebook page is now liked by 77,025 people and on Twitter, the magazine brand now has 179,577 followers. The Heat brand footprint remains strong.

Elsewhere in this market, publishers are implementing a number of initiatives to similarly increase overall brand reach in different formats. Look has pursued live events, as a more direct way to communicate with its audience. The Look Fashion Show will run its fourth event from the newly constructed Westfield Stratford during its opening weekend in September. On a personal level, I tend to instinctively dislike anything that will keep my fiancée (and therefore me) in a shopping centre longer than needed, but I appreciate for the Look audience, this creates real brand relevance. Perhaps more predictably, Northern & Shell are increasingly sharing content from Channel 5, which is now also owned by Richard Desmond. OK! Magazine has a new section fronted by OK! TV girls Lizzy and Nicola, exclusive Big Brother content (again from C5) is also being shared, including contestant Amy Childs as a New! columnist and the full magazine portfolio is receiving network TV support during peak programming.

Likewise in Men’s Magazines, total brand reach is becoming increasingly important as print-only products struggle to connect with their audiences. In my youth, I would religiously pick up my weekly copy of the NME to tell me which Brit-Pop band I should be listening to and buying tickets for. Today, the NME will play you the latest cool bands via their digital radio station and you can buy tickets for NME’s own tour and club nights. Although the print sales have decreased from consistently over 100,000 during the 90s to a now minimal 26,053, with their numerous extensions across different platforms (magazine,, online video channel, digital radio station, digital TV channel, mobile offering, nationwide club nights, accounts across all social media, NME tours, festivals and the NME Awards) the total brand reach is nearer 1.2 million!

The Magic Pill?

The trend of extending brand footprints beyond the individual magazine product is happening across all sectors with varying degrees of success. Key to this in the coming years will be the progress of the tablet. While previous ‘pre-tablet’ e-magazines (such as Monkey, iGizmo, etc) gave a traditional magazine format digital functionality, the consumer experience was still essentially ‘lean forward’ (cursor controlled at the desk or on a laptop) and so lacked the reader relationship created by physical magazines.

By contrast, tablets (including the market leader, Apple’s iPad) are typified by ‘lean back’ consumption, magazine-like dimensions giving true portability and touch-screen movement no more difficult than flicking through actual paper pages. The tablet magazine consumer relationship is much more aligned with the traditional magazine experience, with additional digital benefits for both the reader (greater content functionality including video) and the advertiser (greater consumer data).

Although actual figures are rarely released, tablet penetration is estimated to sit at under two million devices in the UK with this number expected to rise sharply in the next two years. Likewise, download figures (where publishers have released them) for the majority of magazine apps are well under 50,000. Publishers though, continue to embrace the new format seeing tablets as a vehicle to keep their magazine brands relevant to consumers, particularly in future years. A word of caution though, tablets should not be seen as the magic pill (excuse the pun). Any magazine, irrespective of the format, will live and die by the strength of its editorial content.

A Sporting Chance

Aside from the more general magazine trends and with a nod to the Olympics next year, it is important we briefly look at sporting magazines. Within the dynamic world of Sport, magazine performances are heavily linked with the occurrence of major competitions in each field and on the relative success of national competitors or teams. The former point gives publishers a guaranteed sales boost with every World Cup or European Championship as casual observers are attracted to specialist content at a time of heightened interest, however the latter is unfortunately much less reliable … just ask the fans!

This trend is particularly evident in the performance of the leading football focused magazine - Four Four Two. The 2010 World Cup itself, the anticipation leading up to the event and the consumer debate around England’s dismal performance afterwards gave consumers a real interest point in football content. This year, with no World Cup, Capello’s lifeless England team and the extra-marital own goals of the England stars being the closest thing to sparking public interest, print sales figures for the publication have suffered significantly (-15% YoY). By contrast, the demise of bed-hopping Tiger Woods and subsequent success of British golfers, namely major wins and world number one spots for us Brits, have re-ignited a passion for the sport in the UK. This increase in consumer interest has been accompanied by strong circulation uplifts across the three core golfing magazines. With the London 2012 beckoning, numerous publications covering a plethora of sports (Cycling, Triathlon, Athletics, Boxing, Rowing, etc) will be hoping to drive circulations by capitalising on any British successes.

Future Editions

So perhaps things aren’t so bad in the world of magazines? Yes, overall circulations are falling but there are success stories and publishers are using a variety of ways to extend their brand footprint beyond that of the printed magazine. With magazines brands embracing iPad apps and tablet penetration expected to continue growing, there is a real opportunity for magazines to maintain their relevance to consumers, albeit in different formats. The future for magazines is very much in full brand influence (using total reach across multiple channels), rather than trading individual channel specific products and this future could be brighter than you might think. I’ll just be happy with a little more cake.