There’s something almost nostalgic these days about going to the shops, buying a glossy magazine and flicking through its pages over a cup of coffee. Like vinyls, they’re a low volume, high premium product that occupy tight vertical niches. Unlike news that’s often utilitarian and consumed in high frequency, buying a magazine is a tactile experience, an opportunity to carve out a rare, distraction-free reading space - with no alerts, no unwanted texts popping up at the top of your screen. But as audiences increasingly go digital, can magazines survive in print-only form or is now the time to pivot?
The pandemic has changed things
Trapped at home during the pandemic, anxious readers’ priorities changed from luxuriating in a moment of calm with a magazine to thirstily consuming breaking news. Stores shut down, newsstands and bookshops disappeared. This resulted in an acceleration in digital for the newspaper industry. Many news websites actually benefited: those that had invested in digital content and distribution, or had already begun reader revenue endeavours, saw a huge surge in not only audience numbers but also subscriptions.
Magazines, however, are on the whole less equipped for web-driven reader revenue. We use an engagement score at the Financial Times called RVF (recency, frequency, volume) that measures the engagement of readers based on their visits and consumption patterns. This works because to create engagement in the first place, there needs to be a commensurate recency, frequency and volume of content - and the slower and less frequent cadence of magazine publishing mitigates against this demanding daily output.
The primarily physical nature of magazine publishing also resulted in a hit for the industry and in 2020, the year of Covid, the number of magazine closures outnumbered launches by almost 4:1, shrinking magazine brands by 16% year-on-year (Wessenden Marketing, ‘Good News & Bad News in 2020’s Magazine Launches’).
Though the magazine industry hasn’t been as quick to embrace digital as newspapers (perhaps because of the more stable print circulation over time), the decline in print revenue has nevertheless forced magazine publishers to diversify into subscriptions, affiliate experiments and even events. This has expanded our definition of the “magazine market,” away from only print to something more blurred, a multiple touchpoint model where the reader experience comes first.
We don’t have a print problem; we have a business problem
Print is here to stay but it’s changing, and what worked a decade ago will no longer apply now. After a decade of losses, print still brings in the biggest portion of revenue for magazines. However, the magazine companies that invest in their tech stacks and new revenue streams, putting the reader experience first, will be the ones that pull ahead.
An example of this is Conde Nast, which in 2021 posted its first profit in years thanks to investments in digitising and streamlining its current editorial operations. The company hired around 300 product and tech staff over the last year, securing a majority-digital ad revenue. By going digital it found it was able to expand its audience reach beyond the physical boundaries of paper distribution - with on average 40% of its brands’ traffic (including Vogue and GQ) coming from outside the country where it’s published.
In the UK, Future Plc is a great example of a media company that’s focusing on growing the reader economy, moving from predominantly print five years ago to digital subscriptions, digital advertising, print and ecommerce or affiliate revenue.
The winners will take business innovation seriously
Youtube, Instagram, Netflix, TikTok…readers can now get the information and entertainment they need from multiple sources, at the touch of a screen. Magazines that succeed will innovate to accommodate new departments, new revenue models like affiliate revenue and leadership teams that can manage and prioritise multiple revenue streams, in order to keep up with changing customer behaviour.
For example, they may choose to partner with affiliate partners or even buy their own ecommerce platforms, so that the magazine audience serves as a marketing funnel to other revenue sources like shopping or events. The lifestyle aspect of magazines lends itself particularly well to revenue of this nature - unlike news which provides no such commercial outlet. Magazines may choose to retain print but also create a bespoke, subscription-driven or membership online environment where they can track reader behaviour to tailor content towards what engages them most. This is of course beneficial for both readers and advertisers.
The power to create a relationship with the reader and predict their behaviour shouldn’t be underestimated. BBC Good Food had 40 million monthly visitors, 3% of which drove 20% of page views. Since the brand has turned its attention to registering and monetising these users, it estimates that in ARPU terms these users are worth up to 144x more than anonymous browsers (Enders Analysis, ‘Consumer magazines - no single playbook’).
How FT Strategies can help
FT Strategies is a consultancy that’s part of not just an international newspaper but a stable of luxury magazine titles and successful web businesses. We have first-hand experience helping clients worldwide deepen their relationships with their customers online, increasing engagement, creating alternative revenue models, assessing e-commerce capabilities and using data to better understand readers. We would be delighted to help you grow your magazine revenue - so do get in touch.
Google Digital Immersion Week, 26-30 September 2022, Virtual
Do you work in the magazine media industry and are looking for guidance on digital transformation with a focus on reader revenue? Register your interest in the Google Digital Immersion Week (DIW) - presented by Google in partnership with FT Strategies and FIPP.
The Google Digital Immersion Week is an exclusive, premium 5-day training programme for media professionals in the EMEA region (with others to follow) taking place virtually between 26-30 September 2022. It aims to support participants in the development of their own digital strategies, combining elements of one-on-one coaching, practical activities, and expert speaker sessions to deliver a modern approach to digital training. Find out more here.
About the author
Lisa is a Principal at FT Strategies. She has over 25 years of experience in print to digital transformation, most notably at the Financial Times where she led newsroom operations, was an Assistant Editor and Managing Editor, Associate Editor and Head of Operations for FT.com. She led group-wide digital transformation projects at both of South Africa’s biggest publishers, Tiso Blackstar (now Arena Holdings) and Naspers’s 24.com.
Lisa is former Vice President of the World Association of News Publishers, advisor and coach with Women in News, a board member of the World Editors Forum, Leader in Residence at the University of Lancashire and a mentor with the Journalism Innovation Leaders faculty.