Magazine publishers everywhere are campaigning for "magazine-media", the neatly-named vision for print brands fighting for the future. Ranged against the brutal competition for consumer time and advertising cash, the campaigns are positively affectionate : "There's something special about magazines as a content format. They're visual, easy to consume, and low-commitment. You can spend 20 minutes flipping through an issue in a waiting room, or lounge on your couch for a couple of hours reading articles."
There's nothing wrong with magazines, they're just getting smaller. But the campaigns underline the extent to which many magazine publishers are choosing to ignore three painful realities:
- There is no one thing called a 'magazine'. The production, marketing, economics and competitive landscape of celebrity weeklies, home interest and specialist-enthusiast monthlies, and women's lifestyle magazines could not be more diverse. All they have in common is print and even this has been colonised by retailers and service companies which are gifting content once available only in paid-for magazines.
- Print is now an ancillary medium for almost every audience. The primacy of magazines has been (mostly) supplanted by digital, broadcast and social media, especially among millennials. While many magazines can still thrive in print or digital, most will be smaller parts of the media-mix for readers and advertisers.
- Magazines continue to lose advertising. McKinsey estimates that the global advertising share of consumer magazines will have fallen from 6.7% to 2.7% during 2009-19. In an overall advertising market that is forecast to grow by an average of 5% annually, magazine print advertising is predicted to decline by 6% over the next four years. In the UK, magazine advertising fell by 9% in 2015 and is forecast to decline a further 4% this year. And there may be worse to come: influential US fund manager Mary Meeker asserts that print media as a whole still gets up to four times the revenue justified by its audience (on a time spent reading basis) - and, therefore, may have much further to fall.
It all reinforces the pressing need for change in the culture of magazine companies. More than anything else, they must become 'channel-agnostic' providers of media, information and entertainment rather than "magazine-first" publishers. Their competitors are, increasingly, those involved right across digital-only services, retail, video and audio - not traditional publishers. Magazines have always enjoyed strong, personal relationships with readers; and publishers must find new ways to monetise them, not least among estranged younger audiences. It's not going to be easy.
The UK industry's magazine marketing agency proclaims that "magazine-media provides the most welcoming advertising environments and broadest creative canvas for delivering productive marketing solutions." But the latest ABC circulation figures debunk the very idea of magazines as a single 'channel'. No fewer than 15 of the UK's 24 biggest magazines (those with circulations of 300k+) are free. Seven of these free brands, including the country's two largest monthlies, are published by retailers like Tesco and Waitrose. But, then, this is a country where magazines are going free in a big way.
London commuters are now offered no fewer than seven high-quality free magazines every week. Stylist, ShortList, Coach, Time Out, Sport, NME and ES each have an audited circulation of more than 300k. Their impact on paid-for magazines is tangible. Of the nine "paid for" magazines in the UK's top 24, three major women's monthlies (Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping and Glamour) each have 5-25% of free circulation. And the further you go down the list of magazines, the deeper are the holes in paid circulation. So-called "actively purchased" (i.e. paid-for) proportions of total circulation range as low as 48% for Harpers Bazaar, 59% for Tatler, 66% for House & Garden, and 71% for Vanity Fair. Right across the UK market, advertising sales platforms are being buttressed by free copies.
This is the shaky side of a magazine industry struggling to promote buoyancy to its advertisers. The recent ABCs showed a well-publicised 2% increase in total UK magazine circulations, but also a 5% decrease in "actively purchased" titles. There's nothing wrong with that, of course. Advertisers are not necessarily even being short-changed. Some free copies distributed in busy shops, clubs and transport may get disproportionately high levels of pass-on readership, and might even help to promote future sales. But the free copies are most likely to:
- Accelerate the erosion of copy sales
- Further reduce advertising yields
The hard part for publishers is to separate this drive for short-term profits from the search for long-term strategies. The companies must become start to view the needs of their audiences - and their own future profitability - more widely than just through the prism of magazines.
Leading publishers of specialist-enthusiast magazines have long been versatile enough to develop exhibitions and other events that have come to dominate their reader-user relationships and profits. And there has been some real start-from-nothing success in data-driven digital and e-commerce.
But many consumer magazine companies remain so stubbornly print-centric that even successful diversification into digital and events is regarded simply as "ancillary" to the print brand. In an online world where video, live streaming and podcasts are captivating mass audiences, too many magazines remain strongly hooked on text and pictures, even in digital.
It's like the daily newspapers whose loss-making digital operations are saddled with traditional costs and subtly constrained by the feared impact on print sales. Almost everything risks being subordinated to the perceived need to shore up print and reinforce existing brands rather than creating new ones. There will always be print brands that can successfully diversify, but publishers must concentrate on building profitable new businesses across the communities where their magazines once reigned supreme.
While many magazine brands are still significant media in any given sector, many more are further down the value chain than they once were. These companies must shift their centre of gravity away from magazines before these traditional brands become so weakened that they are unable to drive the change.
This requires the transformation of whole organisations which currently comprise lookalike magazine teams supported by shared services geared to the production, distribution, sales and marketing of printed publications. They may now need to adopt a "federal" structure of multi-media 'enterprise' groups each focused on specific audiences and able to accommodate the joint ventures and partnerships that can be catalysts for transformation. Magazines should be just part of the mix. They should also build skills in the events - both live and 'virtual' - that can be the profitable bridge between print and digital.
It really can be done. Look how - in less than a decade - many of the best business-to-business media groups have morphed from domestic "trade" magazines into global profits from high-value information, events and consulting services. And some specialist publishers have also become exciting multi-media role models for their larger magazine cousins.
Magazines are awash with the skills, creativity and relationships necessary to build new businesses - if they grasp the opportunity. Some of these famous brands retain huge market power. But, for the companies, it's time for reinvention, not for tweaks to the strategy. Before it's too late.
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