Following the reader

Are customer magazines feelgood, glossy products intended to reward loyal consumers, or are they just cynical vehicles for milking the public about their purchasing patterns? Martin Croft reports on how companies are treating their valued read

Customer magazines have become extremely sophisticated communication tools in the past couple of years. The best of them now offer their readers real value and, almost incidentally, leave consumers with a “feelgood” impression of the companies on whose behalf they are published.

Yet while they may no longer be the extended pieces of direct mail they once were, such magazines are still very much part of the direct communications package and, some marketers argue, can play an important role in collecting information about consumers, as well as providing them with data about the company.

Others rebut this, saying consumer magazines have their own distinct role to play in the direct communications mix, and that attempting to hijack them for crude data-collection purposes will make them less effective as tools for supporting loyalty.

Jim Addison is managing director of Specialist Publications, a consumer magazines publisher owned by Omnicom, which is responsible for titles such as Eagle Star magazine, Rendezvous with Raffles for Rothmans, and Rapport for Peugeot. He claims magazines can be useful for collecting data about customers.

But, he warns, you have to be careful about how you do it. “If you ask them to fill in a 53-page questionnaire la CMT or NDL International, you’ll to lose them,” he says. He believes a relatively simple survey form can work very well – so long as the magazine is open and honest about its purpose. “You can’t try to hoodwink customers. Say it’s so you can produce a better magazine for them.”

Addison also believes it helps to incentivise the survey form in some way although, he adds, this does not necessarily have to be anything as crude as offering cash or prizes. Donating 10p to charity for each form sent back can work very well among certain socio-economic groups, he says.

There is a limit to how many questions you can ask at any one time, so any attempts to collect large amounts of data need to be conducted in a controlled way, over time.

Neil Mendoza is chief executive of Forward Publishing, which publishes titles varying from the Tesco Recipe Collection to Nasdaq, the magazine of the Nasdaq Stock Market and Agenda, designed for the NatWest Group. Mendoza is not convinced customer magazines should be used as vehicles for collecting extensive data about consumer lifestyles, although he admits they are (or should be) very much driven by such data.

“They are not principally data-collection devices; they are a way of communicating with customers, a means of exploring the relationship in an editorial way. We certainly need databases to start off with, and we use companies such as NDL and CMT to come up with those databases in the first place.”

Customer magazines, he feels, should “give something back to customers”.

If many customer magazine publishers are uncertain about their value as data-collection devices, then so too are some data-collection experts. Hector Vass, technology director of “data-driven marketing” consultancy Lovell Vass Boddey, observes: “Magazines have not really been thought of as part of the data exercise in the past.

They have been PR exercises, loyalty vehicles. They are perfectly valid for research, however – certainly for supermarket chains, which can supplement the data they are collecting from their checkouts with qualitative data they collect from surveys in their magazines.”

He believes surveys or questionnaires in such magazines are not suitable methods for collecting socio-demographic information because you cannot be certain that a large enough, or representative enough, sample of the customer audience will respond. “It’s a matter of who has time to respond to these surveys – and who reads this kind of magazine.”

In addition, he says, research shows that people tend to be inaccurate when asked to recall their habits and purchasing patterns – more often than not, big brand names feature in their responses when till roll data indicates they may have chosen own-label products.

Vass concludes: “If you are trying to compete with what a lifestyle database company can give you, you will fail. Customer magazines have a long way to go before they can provide that sort of level of data. They are not a method of collecting mass data. But they can be used very effectively to enhance data you already have to add more qualitative information about what people actually think.”

Conversely, Mark Patron, joint managing director of lifestyle database company CMT, is an enthusiastic supporter of using magazines as a means of collecting data. In fact, CMT has recently mailed out its own “customer magazine” as part of its National Shoppers’ Survey, in which the company sends out millions of very large and complex questionnaires asking consumers for information about all aspects of their lives.

The company mailed 500,000 copies of its magazine to selected consumers who had responded in the past to CMT surveys – but had stopped doing so – as a way of increasing response. “The questionnaire was a very successful programme and we will be running it again in the future,” Patron says.

Patron dismisses the idea that customer magazines cannot or should not be used as data-collection devices, although he recognises they are not used for that purpose at the moment.

“Lots of people don’t do it but they should,” he says. The idea – which was advanced by a number of customer magazine specialists – that obvious data- collection devices could harm the image of a magazine is “rubbish”, he maintains, suggesting the

real problem is that magazine publishers are just not very knowledgeable about the business of collecting large volumes of information.

After a pause for reflection, though, he admits that customer magazine specialists would not necessarily see the CMT exercise as being on the same level as the Boots magazine, the Volvo magazine or a host of other loyalty titles. He adds: “But if I commented on publishing, I’d probably be talking complete guff.”

Duncan Grant, managing director of Beyond Communications, was formerly managing director of HHL. He supports Vass’ view that customer magazines can be used as research tools, not to collect vast amounts of socio-economic data, but to gain valuable qualitative data about readers attitudes.

Grant says: “Some clients use magazines to act as catalysts to provide information about a potential new service and gauge attitudes to it. Usually, it’s clients in financial services who do this sort of thing. Magazines can also be used to get people to consider and provide their opinions on certain issues – the Chartered Institute of Marketing used its magazine to canvass opinions on the future role of marketing in this country.

“It’s a question of how many people are going to respond to whatever you do in the magazine. If it’s a small number, it will be qualitative research material, not database enhancement material.”

Christopher Ward, editorial director of Redwood Publishing, which produces the AA, Boots and Volvo magazines among others, does not entirely agree that customer magazines can be used to air issues in the same way independent newsstand publications can. Customer magazines, he believes, “are there to entertain and inform. It’s not in the remit of the Boots magazine to mount an award-winning investigation into the state of the National Health Service”.

But they can certainly be used to collect information, he says. “In the last issue of the AA magazine, we ran a survey asking for information about car crime. About 35,000 AA members filled it in and sent it back, out of the 3.75 million magazines mailed.”

He feels the most obvious example of a customer magazine, driven by data-collection priorities is the Heinz magazine, which he describes as “a bit obvious”. He says: “The trouble with producing that sort of direct marketing magazine is that they have all the appearance of a sales promotion coupon book. It’s not journalism. At the moment, the Heinz magazine has all the appearance of being produced by a company which isn’t an editorial company. Customer magazines have to add value to the customers’ lives. The Heinz magazine doesn’t do that.”

Contrasting what customer magazine specialists are saying about the use of magazines to collect information with what database marketing experts say, it becomes obvious that there is a division between the two about mass accumulation of data. On the other hand, there seems to be considerable agreement over the issue of collecting more qualitative, opinion-based information.

Most contract publishing houses, while extremely good at interpreting lifestyle data about the consumers their clients want to reach and creating magazines to suit each of those audiences, are not themselves experts at the most effective ways of collecting that sort of data. Conversely, database marketing experts would happily admit they know very little about the business of creating and running successful editorial-driven magazines.

Perhaps it’s time the two sides sat down together and explored exactly what it is the other does, and how they could help one other. If marketing is moving towards a “one-to-one” future, which the latest batch of gurus are predicting, customer magazines will be increasingly important communications tools for marketers – but only if they are flexible and responsive to changing customer needs. For that to happen, they will need to be able to collect, interpret and act on data quickly.

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