The fiercer the competition, the more you have to do to stand out. That’s an adage that’s as true in publishing as anywhere – and the competition is only becoming more ferocious.
Amidst falling readership figures and print ad spend across the consumer magazine industry, new launches and continued newsstand success are especially notable. A disproportionate amount of that success belongs to Bauer, which the Audit Bureau of Circulation’s latest consumer magazines report confirms is the UK’s biggest selling magazine publisher.
Over the past few years, Bauer has launched eight new print titles in five years and has seen titles like TV Choice outperforming the industry to increase its market share year on year in the latest six month ABCs, and is now the only magazine in the UK to sell over 1 million copies per week.
Bauer’s head of magazines Rob Munro-Hall believes that much of that success is due to the company recognising a quality inherent to print to which audiences respond:
“I think it’s been tried and tested. Perhaps we all took for granted what magazines and newspapers are able to do. Clearly now consumers have more choice, that content has to be absolutely outstanding in terms of quality, if you’re going to be able to first of all get people to spend time consuming that content.
“Now I think the bar is really high from the quality point of view, because obviously we’ve got a business model that is largely dependent on people actually paying for our content. If it’s not good enough, they won’t pay for it, so we’ve got to make sure it’s exceptional so that we can continue to get them to put their hands in their pockets.”
The print experience
Doubling down on quality has been the watchword for magazines for at least the last eighteen months, as the endemic issues facing print products really began to bite.
However, as the tumult over the old Time Inc. standbys like Time Magazine has demonstrated, it isn’t enough to coast on a well-known brand name and promises of delivering a premium product. Nor, as Condé’s recent decision to combine its US and UK editorial team demonstrates, is a rarefied position within a vertical a guarantee of long-term success.
Instead, the prevailing wisdom is that print titles now have to offer an experience that cannot be replicated on another medium and that commands audience attention. As Munro-Hall suggests, growing a magazine brand in 2018 demands that publishers acknowledge that since consumers now have many more alternatives for consuming content around their given interests and reappraise what purpose a print title might offer them, particularly when it appears on a newsstand:
“There’s no point creating endless products, because there aren’t enough advertising pounds to go across a portfolio of five products that aren’t differentiating. You need to be number one or number two in a marketplace in order to stand out from a consumer’s point of view and also to be able to convince advertisers to advertise with you too. You must have a really strong idea, it must be high-quality, and it’s got to be differentiated.”
Speaking of its Pilot TV experiment, for instance – a spinoff of Empire that discusses big budget cinematic television and which Bauer is positive about producing a new issue of – he notes that what might appear to be a counter-intuitive bet is actually the result of spotting a new niche:
“Talking about streamed broadcast content in a print magazine does obviously throw up a few interesting challenges, but we are a really good magazine specialist, so we know how to bring products to market in printed form… it’s an opportunity to talk and to dive into these subjects in a much more immersive way.
“Pilot TV, from our point of view, was a look at a new market in which we wanted to exploit the expertise and skills that we’ve already got in the business to bring that to life.”
While that’s impressive and indicative of a laudable experimental approach to publishing, it’s easy to make a splash when launching something new, which can attract audiences by dint of novelty. The business model of the print comics industry relies on it, for instance.
But the real measure of success for magazines is in long-term success, in outperforming the rest of a crowded market. In the latest six month ABCs release, it’s evident that Bauer is continuing to do that in the highly competitive True Life and Women’s Weekly markets.
Beyond the newsstand
That focus on where brands might fit into audiences’ increasingly crowded lifestyle extends to the adjunct products that get launched around them. Munro-Hall points out that before each new print title gets launched, Bauer considers which other digital products it might launch around those titles to support it.
That isn’t as simple as simply throwing up a website or an app, however. As much as networks like Google and Facebook dominate discussions around ad spend, they also present the challenge of monopolising audience’s attention:
“The question we’ve got to work out as a publishing company is how much of that content should we be bringing to life in print and on what frequency, and is there an opportunity to look at the way in which these audiences tend to consume content now, through screen products and through subscriptions, so are there other ways to bring Pilot TV alive?
“It is absolutely something that we think about at the same time. Most publishers have got digital extensions to their print brands in some shape or form, and some of those website and online services have proven to be quite successful and quite interesting businesses, but as we’re all seeing, an awful lot of the advertising money in the media market is being consumed by the tech platforms, and, increasingly, publishers are having to think slightly differently about the digital business they’re creating.”
Consequently Bauer, like the vast majority of its contemporaries, is seeking to diversify its portfolio to include products and services designed to attract direct reader revenue. Its Hobbies portfolio, for instance, saw YOY circulation increases from Country Walking, Trail, Steam Railway, Model Rail, Rail and Bird Watching, each of which has the potential for e-commerce revenue. Munro-Hall cites Motorcycle News as an area in which it is seeing growth from a more transactional relationship with audiences: Its MCN Compare insurance aggregator product, for instance, sits under the aegis of the 60 year old Motorcycle News brand but is delivering revenue from a new source. He explains:
“Our future strategies are going to be around direct-from-consumer revenues. Advertising businesses are going to be much more difficult to sustain as we go forward, so where we have those relationships it makes complete sense to try and bring some of our brands alive: we’re talking about areas and passion centres for these consumers, where they can’t really get enough, and at the heart of those there is a whole raft of different content and opportunities that get brought to life.”
None of that would be possible, however, without a stable of print products with which audiences identify and choose to spend time. As Bauer’s magazines continue to outperform the wider industry, Munro-Hall stresses that there is still a huge appetite among audiences for magazine brands, which remain the company’s focus. At a time when distributed publishing has contributed to some brand erasure, even at the most preeminent titles, that laser focus on core print brands is a philosophy that’s bearing fruit.