Opportunities & Threats: Customer Publishing

Mike Sewell's article in the Publishing Partners Guide 2019

By Mike Sewell

Opportunities & Threats: Customer Publishing

It’s not often that a customer magazine becomes front-page news.

But that’s what happened in October 2018 when Waitrose Food magazine (specifically its longstanding and multi-garlanded editor William Sitwell) was briefly at the centre of a media furore over an “ill-judged joke” about vegans.

Sitwell quickly stepped down from his role, as Waitrose and its publisher John Brown Media moved to safeguard the magazine’s reputation as one of the best in the business.

The event not only served as a reminder to stop and think before pressing ‘send’, it also inadvertently made the wider public aware of the remarkable success and influence of many customer magazines.

Waitrose Food, for example, boasts some 680,000 readers – and in December 2018, John Brown announced the app version had exceeded one million downloads.

So, 2019 offers plenty of opportunities for customer magazine publishers to build on their titles’ continuing impact.

And crucially, in this era of fake news, they can maximise the trust they have earned.

A 2018 study by MediaCom and Magnetic found that 70% of magazine readers trust magazines, but only 30% of social media users trust social media.

Influencer marketing is also starting to lose its influence, thanks to concerns over fake news and credibility challenges, and we can expect that trend to continue in 2019.

This means publishers have an excellent opportunity to convince their client budget-holders to invest more in customer magazines – a channel that is tried, tested and trusted.

In many cases, this will be done through membership models, which are proving to be robust both for consumer and business audiences. Among the winners at the 2018 International Content Marketing Awards were magazines that form a key part of a broader membership model (for clients including Waitrose, Pets at Home and the Chartered Institute of Public Relations).

A benefit of membership publishing strategies is that they help brands and organisations build a relationship with their customers and, crucially, gain plenty of data about them.

However, with this also comes risk. Marriott Hotels has been heralded for its effective use of content marketing, but November’s massive data breach affecting up to 500 million guests has damaged its reputation.

And here lies a significant threat for customer publishers in 2019. Will brands be so obsessed about gaining data on their customers that they lose sight of the need to create quality content to engage and retain those customers in the first place?

Alongside this is the continuing threat that, with the plethora of content channels out there, brands will spread their budgets too thinly and find their messages get lost amidst a maelstrom of online mediocrity.

The message for 2019? Better to invest in quality not ubiquity.

Oh, and make sure you think before you press ‘send’.