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The choices we all face

All publishers, large and small, face a bewildering array of choices, and plotting a coherent path forward is not easy. Sophia Dempsey, publishing director of Motor Sport magazine, says that the answer is to go back to basics.

By Sophia Dempsey

As a magazine publisher, the way I spend my time has changed dramatically over the last 10 years. Where once I had a single focus on the print product - analysing print sales, managing production costs, building partnerships to raise the print magazine’s profile and revenue – now, I am pulled in every direction.

Constructing a strong, forward-thinking strategy to build the magazine brand in 2013 means having a finger in every pie. Growing circulation is still key to survival, but on which platform? The strategic choices can be baffling with the web, digital magazines, events and other brand extensions battling for attention.

Looking around the market, it would seem that big publishers and small independents are all facing the same demands on money and resources to service an ever more widely dispersed audience. Digital magazines, for example, are a major focus for big and small publishers alike and yet the return on investment for this revenue line is still tiny. In the second half of 2012, close to 8 million digital magazines were sold, which was a huge leap from the nearly 3 million digital magazines sold in total in 2011. Yet the number of digital subscriptions is still estimated to be only between 1 and 6 percent of total circulation. In today’s market, it would seem that every publisher will need to take some sort of leap into the unknown in order to stay ahead and potentially grow revenue.

What publishers really need to do is go back to basics and do a full audit of their business:

1. Don’t make too many strategies

It can be hard to define what direction to take. However, it’s important to focus, as strategy, above all, is about making choices in terms of what you do and do not do. Factory Media, for example, has chosen to concentrate on specialist magazines for the male audience. Their strategy contains some very clear choices. For example, publishing a magazine for younger women might potentially be very profitable; but they have chosen to focus on a clear set of consolidated consumers and products without distraction. It is important to resist the urge to diversify too much and end up with sometimes opposing strategic directions that appear equally attractive but don’t manage to turn into profitable propositions. Lack of focus will not bring the right results in the long term. This problem does not only affect the big players. At a small independent publisher like Motor Sport, the temptation is still there to diversify too quickly and too widely. It is important to take stock regularly and keep to the overriding strategic choices made at the beginning of any planning process.

2. Keep asking why

With so many options out there, it makes sense to constantly keep asking yourself why you are making business decisions, both in the short and long term. Defining the overriding objective for your brand is the starting point. If reducing the print and production costs on a B2B title is the main challenge, then looking at different distribution channels, such as online access and digital versions which still enable you to qualify the audience, may be the way to move forward. Similarly, with the market contracting for newsstand sales but circulation still key, then expanding readership in other areas such as digital subscriptions and website visitors may be the right direction. In an increasingly complex industry, it’s important to have strength of conviction when making a key strategic decision. A case in point is the FT. Leaping into the deep end with its pioneering metered paywall, the FT is a rare success story in a newspaper industry that has struggled to adapt to the digital age. In 2012, subscriptions to, at more than 300,000, surpassed print circulation for the first time.

3. Analyse your audience

Audience is the key to any successful product and the first question to ask is whether your product is still relevant to your audience. Relevance isn’t just about content (although this is still crucial), it is also about the delivery of the product and how it is consumed. Most publishers will have seen a change in consumption of their titles with even the most technophobic readers utilising the internet to find information and email to stay in contact. Website analytics are revealing in terms of devices used to access your magazine website. For example, now has 30% of visitors accessing the site from mobile devices, demonstrating the speedy adoption of smartphones and tablets. This kind of knowledge allows publishers to build a picture of where to invest in future, and opens up new opportunities.

Equally important is assessing your readers’ locations. Advertising revenue might predominantly be from the UK now, but readers may be tapping into your content from around the globe. Indeed, Motor Sport magazine and website have seen international circulation as a growing revenue stream in the past three years and a strategy has been put in place to react to, service and grow this audience accordingly through print, web and events. The question we have had to answer is how to deliver that content with the greatest return on investment.

4. Analyse your product

This should be an easy question to answer, but one of the strategic choices all publishers face is how far to move from the core print brand and broaden the remit. Most publishers in today’s market have found that they can no longer trade on even the strongest brand name and have to sell more than just the print magazine to survive. The print magazine business has been replaced by the multi-platform content provider. Combined with the audience and distribution changes described above, this raises many questions about how to move forward. What makes sense for each company is very much on a case-by-case basis. After looking at your own audience, what can we also learn from clients and competitors?

While there are some big decisions to take on expansion and diversification, it isn’t always necessary to take the plunge with a large investment. Ambitions for conferences and exhibitions could start with forums or even webinars. Podcasts are much more cost effective than video interviews. And digital magazines don’t have to start with a fully interactive version. There are many cost effective ways to launch your magazine as a replica version without breaking the bank.

5. Where does the revenue come from?

With UK paid magazine circulation dropping by 13% in 2012 and print advertising migrating to the web, it is a given that strategic choices have to be made around identifying and growing other revenue strands.

Publishers (and editors) need to think differently about all the assets of their brands including editorial content. Publishers in specialist markets can capitalise on an enthusiastic engaged community to become the bespoke content providers in their sector across a variety of platforms from print and digital to events.

Publishers now must review all of their assets beyond just the print brand. This brings us back to the baffling array of expensive-looking choices but taking a real look at what is already available might unearth some gems. For example, many magazines such as Commercial Motor and NME, have taken their archive online as a way of increasing content to attract more readers and advertising revenue. And it doesn’t have to be just words: an unpublished catalogue of photos could be turned into inspiring digital content, or even a successful photo library as utilised by Country Life magazine.

Looking at advertisers as partners and collaborators, to create bespoke solutions around content on all platforms, is also a choice which publishers must consider to avoid reducing yields and losing pages.

Data is a significant part of this mix. With all budgets stretched, knowing your audience and being able to target them in print, online and face-to-face will pay back the effort to collect and manage the data. Gathering and understanding data must surely be a lynchpin in today’s publishing model.

6. Be ready to commit in the long term

Before leaping in, it is more important than ever to factor in the ongoing costs of resource and investment into any business plan. Launches and development in a new sector such as exhibitions or digital magazines need to have the right knowledge behind them which might mean bringing in new recruits or consultants to the publishing team. And continuous digital development means continuous investment in order not to be left behind. Its right to be bold whilst making sure that decisions are part of a longer term strategy.

In the end, the choices that the publisher faces today have not changed. They are all underpinned by the need to truly understand your product and your audience. From there, it is a question of staying true to the brand’s core values and finding ways to make assets work harder on a variety of platforms. There is a dazzling array of paths to take but this does translate into exciting opportunities. Now is the time to be brave.