Audience Engagement Top Stories
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Magazines: How to optimise audience engagement

Cultivating a sustainable audience requires maximum brand reach. Mary Hogarth explores potential strategies from geographical expansion to brand extensions.

Sustainability and audiences are inter-dependent and, as every publisher knows, readerships continually evolve along with the title. So how do you cultivate a sustainable audience with maximum engagement?

Firstly, it’s about extending a brand’s reach either nationally or worldwide. For print titles, this can be achieved by widening the distribution parameters. Yet overseas distribution is expensive with very little return, so is it worth the investment?

“Yes,” says Keiron Jefferies, assistant circulation manager at Warners Group Publications. “Other benefits – brand awareness, subscriptions/digital sales, tend to be a secondary consideration when initially establishing an export sale.”

That said, Keiron advises caution as although it’s cheaper to sell copies overseas than in the UK there must be a clear rationale and strategy which enables a definitive ROI.

As with many things, this is not a one-size fits all because while an overseas distribution strategy may benefit specialist or B2B publications it is likely to have less impact with consumer titles. For example, back in the early noughties while deputy editor of Writer’s Forum magazine I saw the impact of overseas sales had on widening the magazine’s reach.

Surprising though it may seem our small, independent magazine proved to be popular overseas, particularly with American readers. This was partly due to our publisher, John Jenkins, who understood the importance of widening audience participation. He would lecture at various writing conferences around the world including the renowned Santa Barbara Writers Conference in California.

It was a strategic move that boosted both the title’s reputation and brand reach.

Furthermore, we also used our back issues as a promotional tool. Working in partnership with those trusted advertisers who ran these events we would supply back issues free of charge for their events or courses.

Frequently, one of the WF team would be also speaking at the event resulting in a boost in subscriptions particularly if participants were expats.

While some of the above-mentioned strategies employed were effective it is important to remember that distribution costs – be it digital or print – are expensive and therefore should be carefully costed before any commitment is made. As in the UK, worldwide magazines are distributed to retailers on a sale or return basis, so publishers take back unsold and retail outlets only pay for copies they have sold.

Building subscriptions

Building a solid subscription base is a valuable commodity as it encourages reader loyalty, facilitates positive cash-flow and can lower distribution costs.

Yet investing in developing a strong subscription base needs to be a long-term strategy. Most subscriptions tend to be sold at a loss in the first year because the cost for acquiring a subscriber may be as much as 8-10% of the subscription price, particularly when factoring in marketing and incentive costs. For overseas subscriptions those costs are substantially higher due to rising air/freight charges.

But this strategy does not work for all sectors. For example, while the lifestyle market subscriptions are at an all-time low in others sectors, such as B2B or specialist, a partial or subscription-only model can work well, especially for new start-ups.

Whether it’s financial, writing, sport or hobbies, readers like to belong therefore they are more likely to pay for quality titles that give them specialist knowledge. However, they do expect value for money – and that means quality editorial.

The question is how can subscription become a more profitable option that will facilitate cash-flow and contribute towards increasing sustainability?

While there is no simple, quick-fix answer a few initiatives are likely to go a long way towards those goals. These include forming strategic partnerships to offer more benefits, focus not just on getting subscribers but also on retaining them.

It is as important to reward long-term subscribers as it is to offer incentives to readers to take out subscriptions.

Membership opportunities

The term subscriber is gradually being replaced with membership-style packages. Such packages, which are tiered are being implemented by a few savvy publishers as demonstrated by my earlier article, When should a publisher adopt a membership model?

A membership package sounds more attractive – particularly to readers of specialist or business titles as it has connotations of club status.

Any publisher planning to adopt this model should consider a range of options. For example, packages could be tiered in levels such as gold, silver and bronze with the gold package featuring the most benefits and the bronze offering a more affordable basic alternative.

This is a clever tactic which works across four premises:

1 – Offering perceived value: membership suggests added value in terms of benefits offered as opposed to a simple subscription model
2 – Enhancing packages: developing a tiered value system tactic increases the range of options, which can infer an exclusivity with the top package
3 – Facilitating affordability: the lowest tier may appeal to those readers on a budget or less inclined to commit themselves long-term
4 – Defines the reader as a member: reinforcing the idea the reader is part of a club and therefore more invested in the magazine.

A case study on widening participation

Award-winning Editor of BBC History Magazine, Rob Attar has become something of an expert in widening audience participation – doubling the magazine’s circulation from 50,000 to 100,000 at a time when many titles were struggling to survive. Among his secret weapons was podcasting.

“We’ve grown a loyal podcast audience of tens of thousands and as they’ve become more acquainted with what we do, many have decided to start buying the magazine as well,” said Rob, adding that podcasting has been “a brilliant shop window for our print and digital products”.

He also revealed that like many titles the team has extended the brand to widen audience reach and participation.

“Perhaps one of the most successful, albeit demanding, extensions has been our History Weekend events. These have been a major departure for us and taken up a fair amount of time and resources. We’re working on the fifth iteration of these now and they’ve become a fantastic way of interacting with both readers and contributors in a live setting.

“Aside from podcasting, our most successful innovation has probably been the History Extra website. We have had a website for the past 15 years or so, but it was only around three or four years ago that we decided to invest in a full-time website editor and make it into a genuine content platform rather than just an accompaniment to the magazine. Since then our traffic has rocketed, accompanied by a huge growth in social media and a much more impressive digital brand more generally.”

However, Rob’s main priority is his readers. “In the end what matters is what is best for the readers and if I, as the editor, don’t think that something is going to work for them, there’s no point agonizing over it.”

The last word . . .

From a consultancy perspective, Rob’s reader-first strategy is at the core of why BBC History Magazine is so successful. With working on audience engagement strategies key questions to ask are what do readers need from the magazine? And, how might your team fulfil that need?

A reader-first focus should be the starting point from which to evolve – whether that’s developing brand extensions or shifting the editorial focus.


This article is based on the second chapter of my latest book, Business Strategies for Magazine Publishing published by Routledge and available from Amazon. My next article in this series focusing on building a successful business model will be published later this month.

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