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Jan-June 2016 ABCs: a media buyer’s view

With the latest magazine circulations showing their now-familiar declines, albeit with some notable exceptions, Jamie Higginson asks, how important are circulation figures to our media planning?

By Jamie Higginson

Recently, I mentioned to a friend in the industry that I would be writing a piece on the latest magazines ABCs, which provoked a sarcastic response: “Well you don’t have to be Einstein to write that one”. I decided to ignore the implied slur on my knowledge of theoretical physics and questioned the response further, to which my friend added: “Everyone knows the circulations will be down as usual; they only measure it to tell us how much it has gone down by.”

While delivered a little bluntly, my friend’s reaction was interesting on a number of levels. It showed that the perception of magazines as a medium in decline is so strong, it goes beyond the actual figures themselves. Even before the circulation data is released, many (including potential advertisers) have already pre-judged the results. It also shows that those publishers who do see success in the ABCs are unfortunately overshadowed by the general theme of decline. Headlines stick and positive circulation headlines are sadly a rarity now.

Let us take my friend’s comment more literally – what if Albert Einstein was writing this piece? He is largely regarded as one of the most advanced thinkers of all time, so what would his take be on the current situation facing publishers? What might he have said…

“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

It is well known that magazines have suffered in circulation terms since their glory days of the 80s and 90s, when a copy of the Radio Times was a household essential or the now-closed FHM reached over one million men each month. In more recent times, there has been a consistent theme for the bi-annual magazine ABC release: print circulation declines across the vast majority of publishers and sectors, which is minimalised slightly by digital editions but never reversed.

There is no real change in this disheartening pattern within the current ABC release: indeed for some sectors, the digital editions have had no effect in combating the decline year-on-year: Celebrity & Fashion Weeklies -12.8% print editions (-12.8% print and digital editions); Fashion & Luxury Monthlies -12.5% (-12.2%); Film & TV -6.6% (-6.6%); Home & Gardening -0.5% (-0.3%); Men’s Magazines -2.2% (-2.1%); Traditional & Real Life Weeklies -5.0% (-5.0%); and Women’s Lifestyle Monthlies -7.6% (-7.3%) even with the significant boost from Cosmopolitan.

As always, there are notable exceptions where print circulation has grown. The Food & Travel sector saw a marginal increase of +0.2% due to Foodism and Escapism both posting +100k ABC figures in the last year. Likewise, the launch of Coach and Balance, combined with NME’s move into the freemium magazine market, has meant a +53.9% growth for the freemium sector (the free distribution model has, perhaps unsurprisingly, always fared well in ABC performance). Finally, the News & Business sector produced marginal growth (+1.0%), as the EU referendum boosted interest in politics and business. Despite these successes, the latest figures bear out the consistent decline of magazine circulations.

The landscape has changed. Actually, the landscape is changing constantly. Even if we look at the basics, today, 71% of the population own a smartphone and 69.6% of the UK have a Facebook account which is accessed on average 15.3 times a day. By the time this article is printed, the landscape will have changed again with Moore’s Law in full swing and media opportunities following close behind technological advances. It is in this context that we have seen consumer demand for magazines decline, so to halt this decline, publishers need to do something different.

Yet despite this, we see very little genuine innovation from publishers. By this, I mean more than expanding an editorial section, adding more white space in a redesign, or increasing point of sale visibility. If we look at those reversing circulation decline, it is through publishers who dare to try something different.

Cosmopolitan is one such magazine. Being confronted with continuing circulation drops over recent years, publisher Hearst recognised that it was only through a departure from their traditional strategy that they could reverse this trend. Last autumn, three key changes were introduced to Cosmo’s circulation approach: firstly, a reduction in cover price to £1 (from a previous £3.80); secondly, distributing up to 100,000 copies free of charge via pop-ups at typical ‘Cosmo’ surroundings such as music gigs and shopping malls; and, finally, selling bulk copies to commercial partners to distribute free to their own customers.

This innovative ‘hybrid’ strategy has worked well with not only the overall, total circulation increasing by 60% (boosted by free copies) but also the actively purchased figure, which agencies will trade on, increasing by 51%. More than that though, it has created a much needed positive news story around print. As an agency, yes, we would question the value around the commercial partner bulk deals in particular, yet we would always rather be having that conversation than looking at further decline. More publishers must try such innovative new directions.

“Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

As we alluded to at the start of this piece, many have already decided that the ABC results show a decline before the results are even released, and many others only see negative headlines where individual circulation successes are eclipsed by the wider theme of decline. Yes, there are those who go over each magazine result individually but these are largely press specialists, who do not need convincing of the strengths of magazines.

In this context, are we as an industry pre-occupied with circulation as a barometer for investment into magazines? In my view, yes.

Circulation is another metric of reach or scale, which undoubtedly is very important for advertising success. Magazines though, have rarely (and certainly never exclusively) been included in multi-media plans due to scale. TV and OOH are most commonly used to drive reach and awareness within our communications systems, not magazines. As such, declining circulations should be a consideration but not the decisive factor of investment into magazines.

Furthermore, not all reach is equal and nor is our current comparison of reach across media channels. Digital and social revenue has been driven in recent times by online video, where one viewer is defined as 50% of the ad in view for three seconds. Currently, we compare this directly to one reader of, let’s say Cosmopolitan again, where the average consumer spends 43 minutes with the product. I appreciate the print figure includes time spent with editorial (not just the ads), nonetheless, the comparison remains imbalanced and furthermore, magazine readers welcome advertising (Magnetic research shows that 59% of readers welcome / enjoy ads) unlike the digital world with its rising ad-blockers.

If not circulation, what should we focus our attention on? A more important factor in our planning is engagement. This is where the strength of magazines has always resided and it is such engagement metrics that the press industry must move towards. There are other benefits too: inferred credibility; glossy and premium environments; relevant editorial; trust; tactical opportunities; strong targeting; and a unique consumer receptiveness to advertising. Nonetheless, it is the engagement delivered by that ‘Magazine Moment’ (as industry body Magnetic would put it), that sits at the heart of the consumer experience and differentiates magazines from other channels. Understanding this and the role / influence that magazine media can have on the wider communication system should be our focus, not just the circulations of individual magazines.

“If you judge a fish on its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

This latest set of ABC results is further evidence that change is required. Firstly, from publishers who need to develop innovative new approaches if they wish to reverse the declining circulations which are now synonymous with the magazine ABCs. Einstein said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them”, yet there are too many publishers behaving the same way they always have.

The industry needs to change too. We are pre-occupied by circulation changes and we put too much emphasis on this in our investment decisions. Circulation is just one metric of scale, one which does not offer an accurate comparison with scale metrics of digital media and unfairly disadvantages magazines (and all heritage media channels) when we do so. There is a pattern of decline but we have jumped ahead of that curve (indeed despite channel ROI learnings) and reduced spend in print by too much, too soon.

We need to spend more time looking beyond the ABC headline to see the whole benefit of magazine advertising (which cannot be seen purely in circulation) when making investment decisions. Far from defining you as a neo-Luddite, this has always been what makes a good media planner or marketer. Magazines have lots to offer advertisers but we must think differently and judge them on the right metrics.

All figures are UK Actively Purchased and analysis is based on a year-on-year comparison. Sources: ABC; NRS Jul’15-Jun’16; Ofcom; Socialbakers UK; ComScore (July 2016).