Which route for women’s mags?

Will it be Marie Claire or Cosmo, Glenda Bailey or Mandi Norwood sitting pretty when the next set of ABCs are published? The question of performance, in every sense of the word, is one that has the nation’s media columns in thrall where women’s magazines are concerned.

Behind the glitzy headlines and the Amazonian power struggle are other interesting performance statistics. For the past decade, circulations have grown steadily. Newspaper circulations and TV viewing figures, on the other hand, have tended to decline. Why this should be so is not at first sight apparent. After all, the sector is a mature one facing increasingly complex competition from other media. Moreover, the materialistic, go-getting ethos which served women’s magazines so well during the Thatcher years is now a less comfortable one.

What they have done is excel in maintaining an emotional rapport with their readers – a kind of customer relationship programme before its time, not so far surpassed in any other medium. In the words of Condé Nast managing director Nicholas Cole- ridge, women’s magazines “activate the shopping gland”.

This has not been achieved without pain. To keep abreast of changing demographics, magazines have had to become less concerned with age and more with positioning themselves around abiding attitudes and interests. The cake has also been sliced thinner, with more niche products appearing. Inherent dangers – cannibalised market share and swelling overheads – have only been partly addressed. More perilous still, the big magazine companies are flirting with contract publishing. It’s easy to see short-term commercial gain, but what of the consequences for existing brands?

The future holds other, even more significant dilemmas. Squeezed by higher paper costs and the gradual leakage of advertising revenue into television and radio, the magazine houses are dabbling with diversification into other media. EMAP has so far developed the most coherent strategy, combining its experience in youth and music markets with an aggressive appetite for local radio networks. Cable television programming is another area of obvious interest, though whether it will be cleverly exploited is another matter.

These are expensive options. On the other hand, the recent fate of various local newspaper interests implies that failure to perform will result in divestment. Certainly, Reed Elsevier has made it clear that the only reasons for holding on to IPC are its profitability and market dominance.

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