Publishing by numbers

For Peter Johns, managing director at WW Magazines – publishers of Waterways World and Self Build & Design magazines – numbers have always underpinned his approach to publishing, writes James Evelegh.

By James Evelegh

Publishing by numbers

With a PHD in Agricultural Economics from Aberdeen University, he is at home with spreadsheets and forecasting models, and understands the importance of digging deep into the numbers.

“I suppose it comes with my background training as an economist where that's what I did – I analysed numbers!”, says Peter; “Any organisation that doesn't continually question what it does, what its purpose is and where it fits in the market, is doomed. You’ve got to keep questioning everything you do, all the time.”

“The numbers and the analysis you do is the key starting point… working out what works best is the bottom line and my simple mantra is that everything you do in marketing, you test continually and measure everything. If it works, do it again; if it doesn't work, don't do it again. I'm always trying to work out where the best margins are and where I can pick up early signals about what's working and what’s not.”

I'm always trying to work out where the best margins are and where I can pick up early signals about what's working and what’s not.

Shifting focus

In Peter’s early days at WW Magazines, the focus of his analytical skills was the newsstand, because that is where the bulk of his magazines were sold. In 2004, he wrote a couple of excellent articles for InPublishing (‘Data is King’ and ‘Promoting Specialist Magazines’) on how, through an intelligent analysis of the data, one could optimise both sales and return on investment. The key variables were supply, sales and stockists and the key decisions revolved around how many copies to print, where to distribute them and which issues to promote.

Peter Johns: “Test continually and measure everything.”

When analysing data, it’s important not to view figures in isolation but to see them in context. In his ‘Promoting Specialist Magazines’ article, he gave an insightful example: “The May 2002 issue of Waterways World sold 13% less copies than the April issue. Which one had a cover-mount? May. Does that mean it didn’t work? Not necessarily. May 2002 outsold May 2001 and May 2003. The April issue was a 5-week on-sale period and it covered the Easter weekend when boaters return to the water.”

With newsstand steadily diminishing as a percentage of overall circulation for Waterways World, Peter’s analytical focus has switched to subscriptions, a route to market even more data-rich than newsstand. In 2000, subscriptions accounted for 27% of Waterways World’s circulation. Now it accounts for over 80%, which back in 2004, was something which even the economist in Peter didn’t see coming: “I can remember when I first started, the talk was all about how the US market is eighty percent subscriptions, twenty percent newstrade, and that this country was pretty much the reverse. I just thought we would always be different but here we are now with more than 80% of my magazine circulation is now by subscription.”

The drive towards subs was one of the main reasons for the redesign of the Waterways World website last year and the setting up of paywall. The paywall barrier will enable them to develop a premium subs offering and will also provide them with a mass of valuable first party data, allowing them to track user behaviour onsite and to personalise content and marketing messages.

Any organisation that doesn't continually question what it does, what its purpose is and where it fits in the market, is doomed.

Topsy turvy year

As was the case with many publishers, the trend towards subscriptions accelerated as a result of the Covid lockdowns.

Whilst the pandemic had a beneficial effect on one revenue stream, it decimated another – live events. If asked at the beginning of last year, he would have described his business is a “publishing and events” company, with events fast approaching 50% of revenues. That was stopped in its tracks by Covid. When interviewed for the InPublishing Podcast in October, Peter lamented that whilst he was confident that in-person events would return, it was not clear to anyone when that would be, and the revenue hit has been challenging, not least in the fact that there is less cash available to invest in developing alternative revenue streams.

In challenging times like these, it’s worth remembering first principles.

In Peter’s book, content will always be king. If you've got good content, a market of sufficient scale, a means to reach that market and the wherewithal to correctly interpret the key metrics, then publishing success is within your reach.

In all things, an intelligent assessment of what does and doesn’t work should inform every business decision. It’s all about the numbers.

You can hear Peter Johns being interviewed by Ciar Byrne on a recent episode of The InPublishing Podcast, which was sponsored by Acorn Web Offset, the Yorkshire-based specialist A5 and A4 magazine printer.

This article was first published in InPublishing magazine. If you would like to be added to the free mailing list, please register here.