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Reader’s Digest — the Doctor Who of publishing?

Reader’s Digest is a title which benefits from huge brand recognition but suffers from a widely held perception that it’s something “granny used to read”. A decade of rapidly falling ABC figures told their own story. In 2009, Gill Hudson was appointed editor-in-chief with a brief to reverse the decline. Gill takes up the story…

By Gill Hudson

It was never going to be easy: turn around a magazine that had lost more than 50% of its circulation over a 10-year period. In the most recent ABC periods, that drop had been nearly 25% a time.

But then I do love a challenge…

I’d been ten years at BBC Magazines, the last seven as editor of Radio Times. I loved the job but, no doubt about it, was getting restless and on the lookout for something a little less relentless and a lot more ideas-driven.

Enter Reader’s Digest, looking for someone to reinvent the magazine.

I hadn’t, in truth, seen it in years. Leafing through, I couldn’t see who it was aimed at. The 45-plus market, presumably? It all felt a bit unfocused, trying to appeal to everyone but somehow not really nailing it for anyone. And yet there was something about this pocket-sized institution, launched in the UK way back in 1938, that was enormously appealing: fantastic brand recognition and an obvious emotional connection with its readers - always the mark of a strong brand.

Digest reminded me - and stay with me on this - of my BBC days when I was closely involved in the rebirth of Doctor Who. This was another brand that had lost its way - some of those later episodes were dire and tackily produced - but still had huge emotional resonance for the fans who’d grown up with it. So the BBC decided to strip it right back to its core concept, and get some seriously talented people on board to rebuild it for a modern audience. Those people included the creative genius that is Russell T Davies, who pledged that he, personally, “would eliminate any wobbly sets”. And boy did he eliminate that wobble.

So I, too, determined to eliminate the equivalent of any wobbly sets on Digest. But where to start?

One of the upsides of working on a very well-known brand is that everyone has heard of it. But maybe not always in the way you’d want. “Oh, Reader’s Digest!”, people would say, affectionately, on hearing where I was now working (good); before adding “My grandmother used to read that!” (not good, especially as often the grandmother had since died).

We needed to change perceptions - and fast.

Kickstarting the brand

First: identify some new columnists to help redefine the brand. One of them was the original bad lad James Brown, launch editor of Loaded, a signing that stopped people in their tracks. But then even the lads usually turn into dads in the end, and now here was James, bang in our baby-boomer demographic. Perfect!

Second: get a new strapline. We went from “Life well shared” (too general for my liking) to “Small, but perfectly informed” (much sharper, and in four words highlighting two of our key qualities).

Third: launch an iPad app. We’d been seriously strapped for cash when the business went into administration last year over a wholly unexpected pension-fund crisis - nasty times indeed. But as soon as new investors Better Capital were on board, we launched our app. (Brilliantly, Digest’s small pages fit so perfectly onto the screen, we could have been made for tablet technology.)

It was not the most sophisticated or groundbreaking of apps but, as one of the very first magazines on the platform, it sent out a hugely positive statement of intent to the industry, and was a big boost for team morale, too.

That gave us some quick wins, but we needed a long-term strategy and a defined target audience to help us establish a clear remit and tone of voice.

Next steps

Again, Better Capital backed us wholeheartedly, which meant we could embark on the biggest insight study ever undertaken by the business.

We commissioned research company Cousins Davis, who I’d worked with on Radio Times, and who have a real talent for capturing the essence of a brand and helping redefine it.

The four stage in-depth research consisted of both qualitative and quantitative methods, and also explored what the brand meant to the team responsible for its ongoing development - especially important when many members of the team had been in place for a long time and often had conflicting ideas.

The research confirmed everything I’d hoped for and more (phew). The readers most likely to respond to this magazine were indeed the baby boomers - a growing demographic, with high levels of disposable income. And although, with a 50/50 split of male and female readers - very unusual in a consumer magazine - you might think they’d be hard to keep equally happy, it was clear they shared the same attitudes: a genuinely positive outlook on life (So much to do! So little time!), humour, and a love of and thirst for knowledge - this is a generation that wants, and expects, to keep on learning and trying new things for the rest of their lives. They are also much, much more techno-savvy than most people outside that demographic tend to believe (“Skype my grandchildren? Well of course I do!”).

Some people ask why, in a digital age, with so much material out there already on the web, anyone would still want to buy Reader’s Digest. But the answer kind of lies in the question. How do you know what you don’t know? This, from a man in one of our focus groups: “I would never normally have read a piece about the workings of Parliament. But it was only a short article and didn’t take long to read - and I’m so glad I did, because now I’ve got a real insight into something that had always been a bit of a closed door to me.”

All change

Sure of our ground, the next stage was to invest in a complete redesign, vastly improved paper stock, and to really deliver on the knowledge and positivity / humour front with some new regular features - 60-second stand-up (humour); Best of British (knowledge); The Reader’s Digest books section (more knowledge); and yet more new columnists (humour and knowledge). We now have a fabulous line-up, including technology guru Martha Lane Fox, consumer champion Donal MacIntyre, top chef Marco Pierre White, writer/DJ Stuart Maconie and Springwatch presenter Martin Hughes-Games, among many others - all in our core demographic, and all proving to be a massive hit with readers both new and long-standing.

Circulation-wise, we took a leaf out of ShortList’s book and invested in a medium-term sampling exercise at key transport hubs, giving out around 70,000 copies, late in our on-sale period, to a suspecting public. After all, with less than two per cent of our copies sold at newsstand, how would anyone ever know how much we’d changed?

And then we waited for the reaction…

It came within minutes of the first copies being handed out. A woman in her 20s emailed us to say that she had read the magazine cover to cover “to my surprise” and had since been telling all her friends about the magazine. An elderly couple who had become disenchanted with the magazine were so impressed by the new look they decided to re-subscribe on the spot. The deputy editor of another title (and no, I don’t know her) even emailed to say that it was now her favourite magazine, above her own!

And in just a few weeks, our Facebook following went from a big fat zero to over 12,000.

Ironically, by focusing our proposition and identifying our core reader, we’ve been more successful at attracting readers from outside that core demographic. Like I said, try to please everyone and you end up pleasing no one.


Having got the product right, we’re now benefiting from further investment in our call centre in Swindon - back in the UK having previously been outsourced to India, and with twice as many staff - and a concerted targeting of lapsed subscribers, which means we’re now getting over 300 new subscriptions a day. We’ve had the first ABC increase in 17 years, and first NRS increase since 2004. Crucially, our paid-for subscriptions will show real growth in the second half of the year, so we will start to scale back the sampling exercise. Ad yield is at its highest level for three years, as is share. And in June, I won the PPA consumer media editor of the year award (I’ve still got a hangover).

What next? We’ve just started migrating subscribers to direct debit - crucial for a largely subscription-based magazine - thanks to now having fit-for-purpose support systems (at last!). We’re experimenting with some clever new ways to drive subscriptions, and are about to test an exciting newsstand initiative. My next big task is to help develop our digital strategy in line with the rest of the brand.

But the most important thing for me is to keep the magazine on track. Clarity and focus is everything; drift is death. (My mantra: Why this, why now, why Reader’s Digest? Stick to that and you can’t go that far wrong.)

New readers can hardly believe that such a small-format title can pack such a lot in. “It’s bigger on the inside than it is on the outside!” they cry. OK, so maybe not in those exact words. But that Tardis-like quality brings me not-quite-seamlessly back to the successful regeneration of Doctor Who. Like them, we’ve taken Digest right back to the very principles on which it was first launched: in our case, positivity and knowledge. We’ve just updated it and made it relevant to a whole new generation, that’s all. And the good news is I haven’t seen any wobbly sets for quite a while now.