Off the shelves

As women’s magazines become increasingly ad-driven, women are turning to customer magazines, which don’t pretend to be anything but sales tools. And as they now attract top staff and writers, the future looks bright

The consumer publishing sector has only seen two really successful magazine launches in the past 18 months: they are EMAP’s Heat and Condé Nast’s Glamour.

The two titles have much in common: they are both aimed mainly at women and they both cover the increasingly popular celebrity and showbusiness merry-go-round. The editorial styles of the magazines are also similar – and this is what is seen as the key to their success. Articles are short; typefaces are larger than the usual; and there are plenty of pictures.

Redwood strategic planning director Steve Martucci says that, particularly in the case of Glamour, the magazines’ editorial strategy has “hit the right note”.

He says: “It’s all about ‘time-poverty’ and getting people in the right frame of mind. Glamour is the type of magazine that you can dip in and out of.”

He believes the mediocre circulation figures that have been a feature of women’s magazines for some time occur mainly because women no longer have the time to browse through weighty magazines, picking out the elements that they find interesting. Consumer publishers will increasingly imitate the Glamour formula to ensure their own success, he says.

Growing customer base

But how does this reflect on customer magazines which are aimed at women? Unlike many magazines in the consumer sector, customer magazines have continued to increase their readerships. According to the National Readership Survey (NRS) for January to June 2001, of the top ten magazines read by women, six are customer magazines. Of those six, all apart from Sky Customer Magazine specifically target women.

Customer magazines are increasingly finding their way onto media buying schedules. The best-produced customer magazines are indistinguishable from their consumer counterparts. A steady stream of senior designers and editors are moving from consumer magazines to contract titles, and the bylines of many well-known writers can be seen in customer magazines.

Most crucially to media buyers, what customer magazines possess is precise information about their readers, right down to their names and addresses – and in the case of M&S, their chargecard details. It is the ability of customer magazines to capitalise on this knowledge that, according to their proponents, gives them the edge over consumer titles. But apart from the obvious commercial advantage of being able to put names to readers, there are, according to contract publishers, other reasons why women’s customer magazines are doing so well.

Honest brokers

Typical of the new breed of customer magazine practitioner is Rachel Shattock, editorial and creative director at Citrus Publishing. She replaces Carey Sedgwick, who moved with fellow Citrus director Julian Downing to NatMags’ newly launched contract publishing division. Shattock’s background is entirely in consumer magazines and she has worked as deputy editor of Cosmopolitan and acting editor of She.

Her view is that women – particularly those over 35 – prefer what she calls the “honesty” of customer magazines.

She says: “Women don’t mind being marketed to – as long as you tell them you’re doing it. The one thing they hate is magazines which pretend not to be selling something to them. They really get annoyed when they discover, half way down the page, that they are reading an advertorial.”

Linked to this clear selling message is another characteristic of contract titles. Women know when they pick up – to take one example – a Tesco Clubcard magazine that they will not be getting information in any form from one of Tesco’s direct retail rivals. This fits into the time-poor nature of our lives. Contract publishers say that readers, particularly women, are relieved that they don’t have to trawl through the magazine, selecting only those elements they have the time and inclination to read. The selection has already been done, before they even pick up the magazine.

Anna O’Sullivan is senior account director for Marks & Spencer at contract publisher Redwood. She was also the launch publisher on She magazine. She says: “Time is the most valuable commodity we have. So if we pick up a magazine from a specific retailer, we do it because we know what we are going to get.

“The reader is already in a buying frame of mind – she is looking for specific information, which she knows she will get from that particular magazine.”

This view is supported by figures from the Quality Readership Survey (QRS), which show that 59 per cent of people who read M&S Magazine bought something as a result of reading it. This compares well with the figure of 32 per cent reported for Good Housekeeping.

But the irony here is that, in an increasingly competitive market, consumer magazines are succumbing to a creeping commercialism that is steadily influencing the editorial content. Ex-editor of Cosmopolitan Marcelle D’Argy Smith, has been quoted in a Marketing Week supplement (Grown-Up Women March 9, 2000) as saying that one of the most annoying features of the latter part of her tenure was that she was forced to meet and greet marketing directors and advertisers, rather than writers and contributors. The fact is that women’s magazines rarely carry editorial that will upset existing or potential advertisers. The result is that readers are not necessarily making informed choices – they may just as well be reading tailor-made customer magazines.

The grey pound

Another reason for the success of customer magazines – M&S magazine being a good example – is the appeal that they hold for older female readers, who often find it difficult to identify a women’s magazine that has any relevance to their lifestyle.

The median age of M&S Magazine readers is 49, and the latest NRS figures (July to December 2001) indicate that the magazine has a total readership of 4.1 million, 3 million of whom are women.

According to O’Sullivan, older women tend to have settled into a pattern of buying established brands and want to continue to buy into brands they already know. She says: “Consumer magazines try to develop brands and brand awareness. But when you read M&S Magazine or Boots Health & Beauty, you already know what those brands stand for, and that is why you are reading the magazine.”

The clearest indication that female-focused customer magazines are not only doing well but will do well in future is the recent entry into the contract publishing business of consumer publication stalwarts Condé Nast and NatMags. The accession of Condé Nast, which publishes Glamour, to the Association of Publishing Agencies (APA) is particularly gratifying to the association which, until relatively recently, had to bear the derision of some Condé Nast senior directors who believed that contract publishing was a poor relation.

NatMags Contract Publishing editorial and creative director Carey Sedgwick is quite open about the fact that the division will be targeting specifically the women’s market with new projects. She comments: “NatMags talks to 9 million women, with titles from Cosmo Girl to Good Housekeeping. We will be working closely with the editorial and commercial sides of the company to deliver the best of both worlds.”

A lot of opportunities

But launching new titles in the women’s market is a dangerous game. For every Heat and Glamour there are Novas, Auras and Women’s Journals. Are there any real opportunities in this sector?

According to Shattock, the answer is “yes”. She believes there are big gaps still to be plugged in the contract market, in fields including the arts, health and beauty (which in customer magazine terms is only covered by Boots) and fashion retail.

But Shattock also sees a gap between “pure” consumer and “pure” contract publishing. She says: “Commercially, there is still the huge untapped area of sponsorship, where one or two advertisers sponsor a publication. It has to be carefully done and it has not been done properly before.”

Editorially, Shattock believes that women’s consumer magazines will begin to imitate contract publications in the way they try to persuade their readers to buy products: “Many of the major consumer titles are still quite shy of strong ‘calls to action’ and of asking readers to react to the magazine by buying something. They still take a ‘softly softly’ approach. I think this will change.”

At the moment, there are just under 300 customer magazines in the market. But of the top 50 UK brands, just under half – 24 – have a customer magazine. This leaves plenty of room for growth. What remains to be seen is which elements from existing consumer and contract publications will be co-opted onto the pages of the new breed of customer magazines.

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