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Magazines: turning the page in the age of digital

How can print magazines stay relevant and profitable in a fragmented media marketplace?

Last updated: 27 Nov 2020 7 min read

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  • Magazine sales have fallen by 65% since 2011, with some print titles ceasing publishing and others going online only
  • More than half of UK adults say they still pick up a print magazine, although market analysts suggest niche and specialist titles are becoming more successful
  • Publishers need to balance content delivery over multiple platforms in order to sustain their readership

In a bygone age, a snapshot of the morning commute would see travellers engrossed in a newspaper, book or magazine. The same photo today would see commuters glued to their flashing smartphone screens.

According to Statista, annual print sales of UK consumer magazines have dropped from 820.1m copies in 2011 to 373.8m in 2018.

Some titles – including celebrity-focused magazines Now, Reveal and InStyle, and men’s weeklies Nuts and Zoo – have ceased publishing entirely as their readers prefer to get news and gossip from social-media outlets instead.

Others such as Glamour – which went from a peak monthly circulation of more than 620,000 in 2005 to 275,000 10 years later – have made the switch to online, with just two special editions printed each year.

But don’t write off print just yet.

Over half of us still read magazines

According to the National Readership Survey, 52% of British adults read a printed magazine. And Simon Redican, chief executive officer of PAMCo (Publishers Audience Measurement Company), says a “fairly healthy” 23m people consume a print magazine each month.

New launches continue, says Alice Pickthall, research analyst at Enders Analysis, and these are led by “indie, niche, aesthetic titles” – as well as a process called reverse publishing, with specialist print magazines created by digital brands such as fashion group ASOS.

“The sector is a series of micro markets with specialist and niche titles doing particularly well, with the main drops coming in mass-market weeklies,” observes Jim Bilton, MD of Wessenden Marketing. “Customers are still buying but less regularly. When they do, they are more engaged with the subject matter. Print magazines are still powerful.”

According to the Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC), however, there are winners and losers in each sector – specialist or not. For example, in the latest figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC), Cosmopolitan and Marie Claire saw circulation drops of 32% and 24% respectively year on year, while Hello!, Tatler and Vogue had modest increases. The Spectator was up 18%, while The Week dropped 25% and The Economist fell by 38%.

The need to monetise across platforms

So how are publishers and magazines responding to the challenging environment? It calls for a mixture of content, pleasing the reader across multiple channels. Print is not the sole route any more.

“Around 26m people a month look at content on their mobile phone and 7m on tablet,” says Redican. “The content has never been more popular. There is better imagery, photography and video. In the old days, those enormous audiences would have brought lots of reader and advertising revenue with them. Now the challenge is how to monetise the demand both in print and digital.”

Dundee-based publisher DC Thomson says its women’s and Scottish titles are outperforming the market and growing revenues.

“In recent years, all our titles have evolved to encompass digital editions, websites supported by social media, and newsletters,” says Sally Hampton, consumer magazines publisher at DC Thomson. “We also produce successful digital-only magazines, including Energy Voice, serving the oil industry.”

She agrees that niche magazines are the success story. “This can entail delivering to a niche audience. Our women’s magazines speak to a more mature consumer who doesn’t have as much choice in the market as younger consumers,” she says.

Neil Bellamy, head of technology, media, telecoms and services at the bank, points to the potential of targeting special-interest areas that are often accompanied by high purchasing activity, such as photography, golf or cycling.

“Enthusiasts will buy their specialist publication to research key purchases and buy high-end product,” he says. “They also tend to use local, independent specialist retailers so they’re a highly sought-after consumer group that’s often missed by hyperscalers like Amazon. If publishers can act skilfully as the trusted custodian of these high-value ‘tribes' with quality content, reviews, event and offers, they can secure a potentially valuable and influential part of this purchasing cycle for a group that the new breed of retailers cannot reach.”

“Publishers who thought print was a dodo rushed into digital and immediately created two cost centres. They had a print and digital team and still just the one source of revenue from the physical magazine”Gregor Rankin, publisher Food And Travel magazine

Hampton believes it’s important to recognise the different but complementary experiences of digital and print. “A reader will turn to the print product when they want relaxation or to lose themselves in a long read,” she explains. “However, when someone is looking for quick information or the chance to engage in a discussion, digital comes into its own. We also leverage digital and print – such as someone receiving a newsletter to prompt them to pick up a copy of the latest print issue of the magazine.”

Publishers can also highlight longer analysis-style pieces in their print versions to digital readers and construct digital and print subscription packages promising savings and free gifts.

Know your customer – and your channel

Food And Travel, a magazine founded in the late 1990s, has navigated its way through the digital minefield to grow revenues and circulation numbers. “Publishers who thought print was a dodo rushed into digital and immediately created two cost centres,” says Food And Travel publisher Gregor Rankin. “They had a print and digital team and still just the one source of revenue from the physical magazine.

“Another issue for those building up an online presence was that much of the information they were putting out could already be found on other websites. And they got caught up with digital effects rather than creating compelling content and found that it lost readers both online and print.”

Rankin believes Food And Travel’s combination of print and digital has “survived” because it has engaged closely with its readers and provided unique content.

“We ensure the content we make fits well with the specific channel,” he says. “There’s no point putting everything from the magazine online.

“You need to have a clearer understanding of who your readers are and what they want from the magazine and online. You need to develop closer relationships with them.”

Food And Travel has also developed new revenue streams such as exhibitions and an annual readers’ award. “It’s more of a B2B industry event because we charge for tickets and earn sponsorship revenue around it,” Rankin says. “It is an obvious extension of the magazine.”

It has also licensed the title to international markets and produces content for organisations such as tourist boards.

Other examples of this diversification include the Radio Times Television Festival and the Buyacar platform at Dennis Publishing.

“This is something trade magazines have been especially adept at, with events and shows,” says Bilton. “They’ve also built up unique digital information and databases as well as remaining in print.”

The power of brand heritage

Meanwhile, publishers are developing e-commerce and affiliate links directing readers through to retailer sites, with the publisher receiving a proportion of the sale. “They’re leveraging the trust in the brand, which has been built up by their print heritage,” says Pickthall.

Advertising remains crucial, with print ads accounting for almost two thirds of magazine advertising revenues. PwC says revenues are likely to drop 9% a year to 2022, but the industry sees positives.

“Advertisers are coming to us for a joined approach that can reach consumers across multiple platforms,” says Hampton. “Often the core element will be a print ad, but this will be supplemented by native advertising online and sponsored social media posts.”

Publishers are also squeezing printing costs to help their financials.

Rankin says it now only sells Food And Travel in upmarket supermarket retailers such as Waitrose. “We could probably double our circulation if we went everywhere but the wastage and costs would be enormous,” he states. “Paper prices have risen 40% recently, so you raise prices and put some pressure on suppliers. You could cut issue sizes and drop paper quality, but that would leak readers.”

And if publishers want to keep flourishing, that would be a bad move, says Pickthall. “They need to hold on to their core audience. In the next decade those publishers that can move online will do so but you need to take your readers with you,” she says.

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