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July-Dec 2012 ABCs: a media buyer’s view

In general, the circulation of printed magazines is down. But the point is, says Jamie Higginson, it really doesn’t matter. Publishers shouldn’t be stressing particularly over the performance of one of their platforms, but should see it all as part of a broader brand offering.

By Jamie Higginson

Here is a curve ball. In an article discussing the latest set of magazine ABC results, I’m going to say something controversial… ‘ABC figures aren’t that important’. This is even more contentious when you consider I’ve made a career as a press buyer, using ABC results as leverage for thousands of negotiations. Despite this, I believe as an industry we are preoccupied with circulation fluctuations and this takes valuable focus away from the real world advertising benefits magazine brands offer.

While the circulation results themselves contain their usual mix of successes and declines, the inherent strengths of the medium itself remain constant. As we know, the unique way magazines are consumed and the associated trust that is evoked with the reader are key traits. To the consumer, reading a magazine is akin to talking with a friend, and advertisers can use that close relationship to enhance their own messaging. Magazines allow us to target consumers very specifically based on their magazine choice, yet combine to give scale and reach. Creative is regularly matched to relevant environments, which together with short lead times makes tactical and reactive campaigns possible. Importantly too, magazines provide an un-distracted consumption often digested during personal ‘me time’ moments where advertising is viewed as complementary to the experience.

Rather than get too caught up in individual circulation fluctuations, it is perhaps equally (if not more) important to make sure we are using magazines in the right ways – focusing on the inherent strengths that magazines deliver and their application in delivering business objectives as part of a wider media mix. This focus seems particularly sensible as, more than ever, print circulation is just one facet of a magazine brand’s engagement.

The multi-platform offer

While print circulations have seen declines across most sectors year on year, publishers continue to increase their multi-platform offering. The Men’s market suffered yet again with a 7% decline, the only circulation successes coming from GQ, Esquire and ShortList. Even so, ShortList has not rested on its print success – it has developed an optimised tablet edition, launched the Mr Hyde daily email newsletter, grown its social following on Twitter and Facebook by more than 14%, and utilised Blippar enabled content within its printed editions. Similarly, the Sport sector also dropped circulations by 7% despite a successful year for British athletes; in contrast, digital editions in this market were up 643%.

Women’s Monthlies experienced a decline of 6.9% suggesting consumers aren’t willing to pay the significant cover prices in this market, or certainly not every month. Again, brands here are growing reach across a range of other platforms: healthy website figures (Glamour, Cosmo and Red all over 400,000 unique users); 220% growth in digital editions; launches on tablets (Red and Glamour); and strong social followings (Glamour and Cosmo’s Twitter followers both now exceed 100,000). With a circulation drop of 10%, perhaps the Traditional and Real Life weeklies similarly need to begin finding new ways to reach their audience.

TV Listings holding up

With a full digital switchover now complete and the continued growth of video on demand services, it might be expected that TV Listings magazines would no longer be relevant to consumers. In reality, this market has fared well with a relatively small 4% decrease, total sales still in excess of 4.3 million per week and the launch of new title TV Pick from Northern & Shell. By contrast, the Celeb Weekly market suffered badly with a 17% drop in sales, the only solace coming from new audience touchpoints such as Heat TV which launched in July 2012 and receives 893,000 viewers per week.

Fashion and Luxury saw a fairly minimal 4.2% decline and subscription sales remained strong; on average one third of copies are purchased this way. This, together with an impressive 197% growth in digital editions and growing social presence (Vogue has over 1m twitter followers while Elle has reached over 400,000 Facebook likes) suggest consumers still look to these brands for authoritative fashion content. Likewise in a continuingly difficult economy, the Home Interest sector appears particularly resilient with only a 1% decline in print circulations while driving a 583% growth in digital editions, albeit from a small base.

Gaming moves to digital

Unsurprisingly, Gaming saw heavy decreases in print (-27%) as consumption in this area becomes increasingly digitalised. In fact, Future Publishing who monopolise this sector, now see over half of their advertising revenue delivered through digital. The Music sector also suffered heavily over the period, sadly culminating in Stool Pigeon recently announcing the closure of its magazine product. Again, robust brands continue to reach their audience through a range of platforms, notably NME has developed strong monthly unique user figures for both its website (821,000) and on mobile (129,673) before even considering its club nights and gig tours.

With the over-50 or ‘Grey’ sector, it would be an easy misconception to think this is where the print platform (above any digital footprint) would stand up well. Here though, the sector dropped by 8% and again publishers (such as Reader’s Digest and Saga) have begun extending their brand reach through tablet apps. At the other end of the age range, Moshi Monsters magazine is leading the way with a 40% increase across a Pre-Teen market up 20% overall.

Finally, the News and Business sector remained relatively static with a small 1% decrease over the period. Here, even brands with healthy ABC results such as the Week (which delivered a successful 3% circulation increase) still recognise the importance of growing multi-platform reach with recent Android tablet, iPhone and Kindle Fire app launches.

Initiatives in print

Beyond multi-platform reach, publishers continue to find ways to drive print circulations too. Vogue magazine will launch its ‘little sister’ brand Miss Vogue in May, as it attempts to gain the loyalty of a younger fashion audience hoping they will grow into Vogue-proper readers. Empire magazine’s December issue, in partnership with Warner Brothers, produced five separate holographic covers based on characters from the Hobbit. The near 30% sales uplift in this issue single-handedly kept circulations figures flat and not in line with heavy competitor declines. Emma’s Diary focused on improved distribution through both Boots and Argos stores to deliver a 2% circulation uplift, while the Fly used augmented reality to deliver the first ‘gig in a magazine’. Finally, Easy Living reduced their size to that of a tablet; ensuring retailers would have to position them at the front of the newsstand. This together with a cover price drop from £3.20 to £2.50 appears to have worked well, with sales up nearly 9% on the same period last year.

We must remember the latest magazine circulation figures show us exactly that – the number of physical copies distributed to consumers. While this remains an important indicator of publisher or sector health, to look solely at these figures is to only look at one side of the story.

Music lessons

Back in 2007, Rihanna released her biggest selling single, Umbrella, which sold over 860,000 singles of which 94% of sales were physical copies. In 2012, she released Diamonds which also went to number 1, selling over 770,000 single copies, however the change in consumption was so marked that 96% of the sales were now from digital downloads. To put this in context, if the digital download sales had not been counted she would have struggled to reach the top 40.

As Rihanna illustrates, today brands interact with consumers through many different touchpoints and magazines are no different. In the past, they communicated with their readers through printed editions however as their audiences’ media consumption has evolved, magazine brands have begun adapting to these new platforms. With this in mind, the print circulation (while useful), needs to be considered in the context of the multi-platform consumer world. This is difficult with reporting of Tablets still in its infancy (we are still largely reliant on publisher data) and no unified metric to analyse brand (rather than printed magazine) reach.

BBC Good Food is an excellent example of the importance of brand footprint. The print circulation remains erratic with a 12% decrease year-on-year but 3% growth this period. To focus on this without attention to the wider brand – 9,486 digital edition readers, 6m YouTube views, 430,793 mobile users, 104,538 Facebook likes, 78,053 Twitter followers, multiple annual events and over 3m unique users online – is too narrow a view.

Brand power

Likewise with a circulation decline of 16%, it could be said Top Gear is far from firing on all cylinders. Yet if we look at the wider brand, it is difficult to see anything but a strong brand communicating at scale with its audience across many platforms: Top Gear remains the largest circulating motoring magazine; it has more Facebook likes and Twitter followers than the rest of the market combined; its magazine app delivers the most downloads of its competition; its live event is attended by over 1m car enthusiasts; and, finally, there is the small matter of a TV show attracting over 5m viewers each week. To only focus on the 22,672 copy sales the magazine has lost in the last year is to only look at one facet of a complex, multi-platform brand.

This new world and, in particular, the increasing penetration of tablets, should be viewed as an exciting opportunity for magazine brands and advertisers alike. It allows both groups new ways to engage with a potentially larger audience. Ultimately, content will be the key to who is successful across these emerging platforms and magazines have proven they are great at delivering the right content for their audiences. This indicates that the future is bright for many magazine brands.

In this context, will we get most reward focusing on the latest circulation declines or concentrating on what magazine brands can deliver (even to a slightly smaller audience)? In my view, it will be those advertisers, agencies and publishers who are set up to activate magazines’ role in a wider media mix by utilising their inherent strengths and those delivering multi-media (rather than multiple media) activity that will gain the most moving forward.

* All figures Actively Purchased

* Figures analysed on a year-on-year basis rounded to the nearest percentage point