Customer magazines: hardy, perennial performers

September 4th, 2017

Hidden amongst a general decline in magazine sales, customer magazines continue to shine brightly. CMA consultant editor Dominic Mills looks at why the category performs for readers and brands.

The decline of print magazines is an ongoing story. With a few newsstand exceptions – notably current affairs – last month’s ABC figures showed most titles and sectors are down. There’s digital growth, sure, but it fails to match the slump in print.

Yet look carefully at the top 100 titles, and there’s one type of title that continues to outperform the market – those old faithfuls, the customer magazine. And many of them are produced by CMA members like Hearst, SevenC3, John Brown and Cedar.

Collectively, they defy the conventional wisdom that digitisation is eating into print.

There’s Asda’s Good Living, produced by Hearst, with a circulation of 1.79m; Vitality magazine, published by SevenC3, has a circulation of 570,000, and Sainsbury’s Magazine and Weight Watchers (both paid-for, too) recorded circulations of 166,158 and 100,297 respectively; Cedar’s Tesco Magazine has a circulation of 1.96m; and John Brown’s John Lewis Edition (JLE) and Waitrose Food, with circulations respectively of 487,075 and 690,058.

Of course, as Andrew Hirsch, chief executive of John Brown, is quick to note, customer titles are (mostly) free and pushed out through stores, and thus spared the pain of newsstand distribution and sales. Equally, however, he points out, they survive because they deliver for both readers and clients.

“They’re still there because readers pick them up and because they work. They don’t get a free ride. They deliver incremental sales and they keep customers coming back to buy,” he says. “If you take Waitrose Food, our job is to get customers to buy two or three items they wouldn’t otherwise have bought.”

As an example, he cites Tilda Brown Basmati and Quinoa (so Waitrose), which experienced an uplift of 189pc after featuring in the title.

Vitality, produced for the insurance company Vitality Health, represents a significant investment, says SevenC3 chief executive Sean King. “Their ROI from content marketing is in branding, customer engagement and retention. Vitality’s specific proposition is all around healthy living. We produce content across all channels for them, but the magazine brings it together in a way digital alone cannot.”

Reward, loyalty and inspiration

Driving extra sales is clearly the end game for customer magazines, particularly retailers, but to achieve that, they also need to do other things along the way.

Reward, loyalty and inspiration are key aims for any brand, and most have metrics to keep a handle on these softer measures. All three are built in to the DNA of customer magazines.

Reward and loyalty are essentially two sides of the same coin. “Making a magazine available to your customers – regardless of whether it is free like JLE or linked to the store card like Waitrose Food – clearly defines the magazine as a reward,” says Hirsch.

That in turn engenders loyalty, driving repeat visits or more purchases. According to a survey of readers, 36pc say the magazine alone makes them more likely to shop in the store. This works through to the shopping basket, says Hirsch. “Waitrose Food readers spend five times more money a year in the store than non-readers”.

One simple way to achieve this is by inspiring them, whether this is via fashion as with JLE, or food as with Waitrose Food.

The aim with Waitrose Food, says long-standing editor and TV personality William Sitwell, “is to position the store as the quality retailer. Every recipe – and we test them all in our own on-site kitchen – must inspire readers. They need to be useful enough for good cooks, but not impossible for novices either.”

Figures bear this out. Waitrose says 70pc of readers have cooked at least two recipes, and 44pc cook featured recipes once a month or more.

Sainsbury’s Magazine and Weight Watchers also aim to inspire but, as paid-for titles, start from a different place. “They are branded magazines, but operate on the newsstand model, relying on copy sales and advertising revenue to earn their keep,” says the titles’ publishing director Kirsten Price. The magazine acts like a home base for other branded activities, including awards and seasonal paid-for supplements such as the upcoming Bake, timed for the TV baking season.

Emotional ingredient

Some may be surprised that, in an age of digitisation, readers are more than happy to consume print magazines. Print’s appeal may vary by sector and demographic, but there’s no doubt that when it comes to food and fashion – and which may explain why online fashion retailers like ASOS and Pret a Porter are also print publishers – it can punch above its weight.

Hirsch’s theory is that print can also drive an emotional reaction in a way that online publishing cannot. When it comes to engaging the senses – touch, sight, smell – print connects.

And as Amazon threatens to steamroller over one retail sector after another, this will count. “I think a part of Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods – and don’t forget it’s a physical entity too – is about getting some emotional engagement,” he says.

It may be therefore that, to bulwark their defences against Amazon and other online plays, retailers will find that print that engages the readers’ emotions has a role to play. “If JLE can get readers to engage more with the store – whether buying fashion or home products – and make it as convenient to buy from John Lewis as an online retailer – then it is doing its job,” says Hirsch.

Price says that for brands that are looking to inspire and engage, then print is the medium. “If you think of food and recipes, a magazine can deliver something unexpected and make it look beautiful and inspiring.”

Matching quality

One lesson that shines through from customer magazines is that, if they are to compete with newsstand titles, they have to be just as good at grabbing and retaining the reader’s attention. Indeed, Sitwell starts from the point that Waitrose Food doesn’t just compete with other food magazines.

William Sitwell picking up Gold in Editor of the Year at the 2016 International Content Marketing Awards

“I’m naturally competitive,” he says, “I want to get exclusivity with big-name chefs. I want scoops that generate PR. But I’m always aware that we compete for our readers’ time with everything else – it could be the Sunday Times magazine, it could be others, it could be TV. The magazine has got to be worth picking up, and it’s got to reward readers for the time they give it. I want the title to be better than the competition, and the fact that it is a customer title is irrelevant as far as that is concerned.”

So, while customer magazine editors will look to use the same skills as their newsstand peers, they also use similar targeting or profiling techniques. “JLE represents the whole store,” says Hirsch, “but we have one type of target reader in mind – the fashion-interested 35-50-year-old woman – and that’s why 70pc of the title focuses on that area.”

In this, he says, JLE follows the targeting principles adopted by newsstand magazines. “If we didn’t, JLE would be a broad church, and the risk is it could become bland.”

And here’s an interesting twist in the tail, a theory advanced by King. “If there’s a decline in traditional newsstand titles covering areas like cars, food and fashion, then there are opportunities out there for brands to fill the gap with their own publishing efforts.”

But they certainly won’t succeed if they’re bland.

Dominic Mills, Consultant Editor, The CMA

  Share: Posted in CMA Industry News