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July-Dec 2011 ABCs: a media buyer’s view

This might not come as a complete surprise… but print circulations are shrinking. No ifs, no buts, they are. There are winners, of course, and the print market is still HUGE, but, writes Jamie Higginson, the downward trend is unmistakable.

By Jamie Higginson

ABC. Easy as 123. Simple as Do-Re-Mi. I think it is safe to assume the Jackson 5 never published a magazine, because if they did, the lyrics would probably have been written with less optimism. While publishers across the land may happily nod along to the 1970 foot-tapping hit on the office radio, they would not share the sentiment that ABCs are anything but difficult in current times. This is borne out by the latest set of figures, which if you were to summarise with any song from the Jackson clan it would unfortunately be Michael Jackson’s 90s No1 ‘Bad’ (look out for more Jackson song references later!).

Total print circulations have decreased -1.2% (total average issue net circulation) year-on-year, but perhaps more telling is that 71 out of 103 sectors are shrinking. The market is declining. This is not a new trend, but unfortunately it is not one that looks like changing over the next few years. For those of us working in the print industry, it is the headline we always see and the sound bite we always hear, however we must remember magazines are still operating on a mammoth scale. For all the challenges in attracting readers over the last six months, the combined average issue circulation was still well over 55 million.

Not all bad news

It is also important to note there are a number of success stories in the latest set of results. Hello! magazine was the only paid-for celebrity weekly to see a year-on-year circulation increase (+6%), showing not only did readers find the royal wedding in April a real thriller but also found interest in the Monaco royal nuptials and Zara Phillips’ wedding during this period. Similarly strong results were found in the 30+ Women’s Monthly sector where Good Housekeeping, Woman & Home, Essentials and particularly Prima all posted positive ABC results where many other female magazines struggled. These magazines were no doubt helped by the closure of She in August 2011, but have shown that, with the right content, growth in print sales is possible.

The home interest sector also delivered positive circulation results for key titles. The mass home interest publications (particularly Style At Home and Good Homes) took readers from the mid and premium magazines in this sector. A logical trend when you consider the current economic state of the UK leading to a more thrifty approach to home improvement. In addition, a cultural movement towards country living has translated into strong growth for Country Homes & Interiors and Homes & Antiques.

Over this period, publishers employed a range of methods to attract new readers. Parenting magazine Gurgle used increased distribution points to deliver a 16% period-on-period increase. Previously only available at Mothercare and the Early Learning Centre, the magazine is now also distributed at all leading supermarkets giving key exposure to a relevant audience. Harper’s Bazaar focused on incentivised subscriptions to drive a 5% circulation increase; indeed 35% of its UK actively purchased sales have come from subscription offers for under half of its cover price. Likewise, GQ also focused on subscribers, increasing this route to purchase by 31% over the last six months and driving a total circulation growth of 6% over the period.

Cover strategy

It was a change in cover star strategy that helped Men’s Health and Esquire move back into circulation growth following a poor result in August. The former moved away from models with washboard stomachs and focused on celebrity cover stars such as Hugh Jackman (who I believe has a washboard stomach!). The latter has focused on attractive female covers including Abbey Clancy and a host of other similarly pretty young things. Meanwhile Private Eye used positive PR around its 50th Birthday to deliver an 11% growth in copy sales over this period, an excellent result in any sector.

The success stories, although encouraging, are unfortunately in the minority with most sectors and publishers finding the period challenging. The TV (-4%), Classic (-8%) and Real Life (-11%) weekly sectors all lost significant sales year-on-year; in fact, across all three of these sectors Total TV Guide was the only publication able to post a figure of sales growth from the previous year. The food market experienced an 8% decline year-on-year, the motoring titles decreased 8%, film titles saw a 6% drop and the gaming publications were down 24%. These are all areas where quality content is available in a plethora of other channels and platforms, putting further pressure on traditional print products.

Cheap rates

With the influx of reality drama such as The Only Way Is Essex, there should be a new set of ‘stars’ creating demand in the celebrity weekly sector, however this has not translated into circulation growth. All publications, with the exception of Hello!, experienced significant year-on-year circulation declines, with the total market down 11%. The younger women’s monthlies also saw losses (-5%) with Glamour and Company losing sales despite a dangerous policy of having sold 21% and 54% of their respective copies at a lesser rate over the period. It seems even cheap copies couldn’t help the sales figures.

The Men’s market had an equally challenging period. Although overall this sector remained relatively flat versus the first half of 2011, the year-on-year figures show a heavy decline (-9%). This loss is mainly driven by the monthly publications and with the combined circulations of Loaded and FHM now standing at 130,988, the glory days of the early 90s are now certainly consigned to history. The weeklies have at least managed to maintain their circulations versus the previous period for the first time in many periods, perhaps showing that there is a point at which weekly print content is sustainable.

The Grey sector

With an ageing population delivering a larger over 50s audience than ever before, perhaps the Grey sector had the biggest opportunity to grow its circulations? Unfortunately, again in this sector, sales declined (-6% year-on-year). Here, with a new older generation thinking and acting younger than ever before, it is about the way you make them feel. The current publications with their traditional ‘older feel’ do not align themselves with the new younger mind-set of the consumer.

In recent years, it has been the free magazine market with its unique distribution model that has flourished and seen a number of circulation increases. With no cover price barrier for consumers, the simple strategy for circulation growth was very much ‘don’t stop ‘til you get enough’. It seems though, that even with no cover cost, there is finite audience as circulations begin evening out (ShortList, Sport and Stylist all posted near flat circulation figures).

Even the Week, which had bettered its previous period’s circulation for 26 consecutive releases could not beat it this time, experiencing a small -0.6% change. Perhaps if figures for its new tablet version had been included, the Week would have hit that 27th period increase? This type of reporting is hopefully not too far away.

Counting digital

On this note, the other positive step in the latest ABC release is the inclusion for the first time of digitally consumed magazine figures. The headline statistics still only report the circulations of printed editions however within each certificate the pure digital versions (pdf editions) of the magazines are now also reported. While the latest release is still far from the definitive report we require (particularly as key digital app versions with additional content and interactive functionality are still unreported), it does at least represent an acknowledgement from the ABC of the changing consumption patterns of magazines. The continued importance of magazine brands is reliant on their content footprint, be that on whatever platform the consumer chooses, and so, recognition of this multi-platform audience is vital.

Magazine brands have been leading the way in developing multi-platform propositions, allowing them to keep communicating with their audiences albeit via a multitude of more ‘off the wall’ channels. Although it is the beginning of this journey for most, there has been success already: the Economist has a direct print-replica app with 79,548 unique active users per issue in the UK, stronger than many stand-alone print circulations; More magazine has a following of 117,000 on Facebook, a three hour weekly radio spot on The Hits station and eight blogs on its online site; and Elle magazine boasts 130,000 Facebook fans with a further 280,000 followers on Twitter. These brands still remain extremely strong even if their dialogue with consumers is across a number of platforms.

Far from bringing about the demise of magazines, digital technology and the growth of social media is proving a way for magazine brands to stay relevant outside of their printed origins. With tablet penetration continuing to grow in the UK and the launch of new innovations (such as Apple’s Newsstand) making it even easier for audiences to consume content from their favourite magazine brands on other platforms, this is where the biggest opportunities lie for magazines. It will be those who adapt and embrace this new media landscape that survive and grow.

Commercial barriers to digital expansion

Expanding across these new platforms is by no means an easy task. Firstly, it is costly to develop brands on new platforms such as the tablet, not helped by the large ‘slice’ taken by Apple themselves and the full rate of VAT applied to digital magazines (compared with no VAT on printed editions). In addition, with still relatively small numbers, it is not easy to attract the advertising revenue required to break even, let alone deliver profits. It is still early in the journey though. As tablet numbers increase, Apple’s dominance declines and production becomes standardised (particularly through the release of HTML5), we can expect more and more publishers to find success on these new platforms.

With publishers expanding across platforms and these figures beginning to be recognised by the industry, perhaps the ABC release will become easier for publishers over the coming years, although I’m not sure it will ever be as ‘easy as 123’.