Some brand new story lines

The days of customer magazines being called the “ugly sister”â when placed next to their glossy consumer counterparts are long over. Having shed its image of “brochure producer”, contract publishing is seen to deliver editorial value in exchan

As brands experiment with the Web and podcasts in targeting previously untapped audiences, how well have contract publishers adapted to the multi-channel environment? Asks Sonoo Singh

The days of customer magazines being called the “ugly sister”â when placed next to their glossy consumer counterparts are long over. Having shed its image of “brochure producer”, contract publishing is seen to deliver editorial value in exchange for the user’s time, while driving sales and building brand propositions. Last year the sector increased in value by 10% to &£385m, making it the second-fastest growing medium after the internet, with customers reading these titles for an average of 25 minutes.

At a time when new technologies are taking over, the contract publishing industry has coped well to align itself with new media and discover new formats such as e-magazines and podcasts that complement the print media.

New rules of engagement

There is, however, little doubt that with the mushrooming of a diverse range of channels through which brands can deliver tailored content, customer magazines have had to keep up with the times in trying to produce creative and engaging customer titles.

For instance, Honda became the first brand recently to launch a customer magazine podcast. The Dream Podcast, with its 15 minutes of content, is an extension of Honda’s customer magazine entitled Dream that aims to increase traffic to Honda’s website. The podcast was produced in association with River Publishing and London radio station LBC.

This was by no means the first initiative of its kind. Contract publishers have hardly shied away from solutions that create a stronger brand experience for customers. They have always been pressed into action and therefore, the industry will argue, into innovation.

In the past, Nike – an advertiser known to experiment beyond the 30-second TV commercial – rolled out a free glossy Euro 2004 magazine titled Goodbye Hoof, Hello Nutmeg in conjunction with a website. The high production value of the website and the freebie distributed through its stores generated a buzz for the brand.

More recently, Nike launched Joga Bonita, which it describes as “a community for soccer players”, the place to meet football players and share experiences, photos and videos from around the world.

BT is another example, with a customer title Talking Business available in print and online. Train operator GNER also has an online magazine that provides lifestyle articles and town guides, but also allows users to source train information and book tickets. Customer magazine publishers explain that formats such as the Web offer them a chance to present their clients’ wares to a previously untapped audience, therefore opening fresh business opportunities. As well as offering the possibility of a more direct dialogue with customers, the medium has proved to be more cost-effective than revamping a magazine or increasing its frequency.

Open roads to profit

Online content provision is not the only new opportunity open to contract publishing. Further areas of development include e-mail marketing and the development of content for digital and interactive TV and mobile phones.

But while the printed editorial package that customer magazines provide has proven to be a successful phenomenon, will the introduction of new media to this mix be just as profitable? And more importantly, even if the contract publishers have realised the importance of taking risks with new formats, are they prepared to fully embrace the complexities of a multi-channel environment?

Publicis Blueprint managing director Jason Frost does not think this is an issue because customer publishing is about creating entertainment for brands, while engaging the customer it is being sold to. “As kings of branded content, it is very easy for contract publishers to translate the editorial content into print and onto the internet,” he says.

Publicis Blueprint, which counts Asda as one of its biggest clients, is already thought to be in talks with a creative digital agency to form a partnership that will offer clients a more holistic package by generating precisely targeted customer loyalty and direct mail initiatives.

“Some of our clients have already briefed us to extend their customer magazines to online, podcasts, the Web, digital TV and even radio. It is all about communicating our clients’ message to their audiences in an innovative way,” says Frost.

His sentiments are echoed by Wardour Publishing planning and business development director Mick Hurrell, who says that publishers are increasingly drawing on their editorial and design skills to produce well-crafted communications messages in print, on the Web and in downloadable formats such as editorial content on mobile phones.

A means to different ends

However, he cautions: “Something like e-magazine format, which will suit most B2B clients, might not be right for everyone. There will be some clients who do not seek out the use of new media or even integrated solutions. Also, what publishers need to understand is that every client will be driven by different needs when seeking out the use of these new channels of communication.”

For instance, he explains, retail clients may use new media to primarily drive sales, while a B2B client will use new technology as part of its wider communications mix because of the different sets of needs for its end-user.

Hurrell believes that a market for successful print publications will always exist, even though the challenges for contract publishing are huge, given the fast-changing media landscape.

Not everyone is convinced that customer magazines need to be innovative because they form only part of a solution to marketing needs and are not usually used as a marketing tool in isolation.

Starcom group head of press Rob Elms maintains that contract titles have gained credibility as a marketing vehicle but remain a small part of the brand’s marketing mix. He says: “Most customer magazines that drop through our letter-boxes do not need to innovate, because, as an unsolicited marketing tool, its value on the customer is lost.”

While not decrying the power of this medium, Elms bemoans the fact that there is still a dearth of “proper” NRS survey data to authenticate the real influence of customer publishing.

This will, of course, be contested by the industry’s trade body, the Association of Publishing Agencies. Under its auspices, research recently carried out by Millward Brown showed that customer magazines boosted sales by an average of 8%. The same study also revealed that customer magazine readers were 32% more loyal to the brands that own them, while 44% respond in some way to the content in them, such as coupon redemption.

Subtle brand vehicle

Another media buyer says: “These figures suggest that this tool represents a great opportunity if you know who your customers are. The challenge is in trying to find an editorial product, whether online or offline, that is more than just a hard-sell but behaves like a subtle brand vehicle.”

This is not an argument lost on publishers. There was a time when the only customer titles available were for the retail or the automotive sectors. But magazines are now available for different kinds of audience, as well as different segments of these audiences.

New sectors such as education and charity have also felt compelled to use this marketing device to reach its consumers. Examples include Luton University, accountancy firm BDO Stoy Hayward and NSPCC, which all regularly produce customer titles as the means to change or enhance perceptions about their activities.

What remains to be seen is whether new technologies and new media will provide enough fuel to power the customer publishing industry to significantly increase its market share.

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