Style and substance

Having proved their worth as marketing tools, customer magazines are flourishing and competition is hotting up. The result is a rising quality of content, with a softer focus on selling. By Sonoo Singh

magazine1The contract publishing market continues on a growth curve as it increasingly proves to be a key way to promote brands. Major new titles and relaunches underline marketers’ confidence that customer magazines not only connect with readers, but also retain brand loyalty. The problem is finding new ways to create appealing and creative products that also succeed in meeting business objectives.

As a result, customer magazines are re-evaluating both editorial and commercial needs. Sky customer magazine, for instance, the UK’s biggest circulation title, is relaunching as a glossy, targeting women. Somerfield is also relaunching its magazine with additional content. Butlins is rolling out its first customer magazine and Weight Watchers Magazine is increasing its frequency to monthly next year.

Readers within reach
According to recent research from Key Note, as consumers’ reactions to advertising become more sophisticated, and as they face such a proliferation of media, marketers face increasing difficulty in reaching mass audiences. This puts more pressure on their customer publications to communicate with target markets. As a result, many of the industry’s biggest clients are becoming more demanding in their requirements regarding creativity and value for money.

This is reflected in the creation of the new Association of Publishing Agencies (APA) Olive awards, which showcase the best in customer magazine creativity and design, and recognise effectiveness in customer magazines. APA chief operating officer Julia Hutchison says the surge in creative content in customer publishing triggered the new awards to reward innovative thinking. The balancing of commercial and creative interests, though tricky, is now very important as the market becomes more competitive, she says.

“It is a positive step that more creativity is being employed, because first and foremost customer magazines must be interesting to the reader if they are to work effectively. However, publishers have to be careful not to negate the reason that the magazine exists in the first place – to further a product or brand. The trick is to move away from the hard sell, but to make people aware of the products at the same time,” adds Hutchison.

The marriage of content with commercial interests is obviously not an easy one. “Designing a corporate magazine is invariably an exercise in balance – keeping within brand guidelines, yet creating a look and feel that will captivate readers,” says Phil Ellis, creative director, at Mosaique.

A strategy, say media experts, that is well understood by the likes of Waitrose Food Illustrated and the Sainsbury’s magazine. Unfortunately, the high quality content of these two magazines is not replicated by most customer magazines, according to Vizeum press director Alex Randall. “If a customer magazine is free, with no cover price, sometimes it is difficult to invest in content, because these door-drop titles have a high degree of wastage. Content in such titles tends to be of lower quality, and therefore brands do not like to advertise in them either”.

Paying the price
“But paid-for standalone customer magazines, such as Sainsbury’s and Waitrose, are of a quality quite like consumer magazines, because they need to convince readers to spend money on them,” adds Randall.

Key Note’s research reveals some encouraging findings for the contract publishing industry. It says that nearly two-thirds of respondents said they usually read the customer magazines provided for travellers on aeroplanes, ferries and other forms of transport. Free customer magazines produced by retailers also had a fairly high readership level, with more than four in ten saying they regularly read them.

Randall says it is much easier to produce magazines for retailers or luxury brands, but harder to produce magazines for lower interest markets such as train operators or financial companies. This is supported by the Key Note research, which shows that though one in five people say they regularly read the magazines produced by car manufacturers, only about one in ten regularly read the customer magazines of telecommunications or finance companies.

August Media managing director Mark Lonergan says the boom in the sector is because of a rise in top editorial content, while stimulating brand loyalty. He adds that when a brand understands its own market and consumers, it is fairly easy to produce targeted content. He says those brands that understand how customer magazines can have profitable conversations with their customers invest more in the production values, editorial and targeting of these titles. For instance, John Brown’s magazine for accountants BDO Stoy Hayward, titled 33 Thoughts, challenges what is expected of financial publications. The thrice-yearly publication is, in the words of the APA, “a collection of 33 insightful, funny and occasionally bizarre thoughts about business and life.”

The APA’s Hutchison, who has always maintained the importance of customer magazines being customer-centric, says: “It really depends on the focus of the magazine as to how abstract the content can become, and really innovative thinking can result in a truly creative magazine that delivers on business objectives as well. On the whole, diverse and interesting content will result in more engagement with a magazine, which in turn creates more awareness of what it represents.”

Right on target
APA research shows that customer titles are read for an average of 25 minutes – a target that most media owners would love to boast of in a world where consumer attention spans are getting shorter. Editorial, and the ability to appeal to its audience, will therefore be the key to success. Lonergan’s colleague, Sarah Bravo, the editorial director at August Media, says: “However sophisticated the route to market, aspirational the brand, clever the format or cutting-edge the design, unless you get that reader well and truly under your skin, and communicate to them in a language they understand, you don’t have a reader. And without a reader you have no audience. No audience? No magazine.”

A fact made evident by a recent decision by Cedar publishing to bring in a five-time consumer launch editor to head its editorial team. Lori Miles joined Cedar as the company’s new editor-in-chief. Miles, Fleet Street’s first female editor in the 1980s, edited the London Evening News and has also launched high-profile weekly magazines including Take a Break and TV Choice.

Royal Mail head of publishing Emily Travis says the customer publishing industry has always been at the forefront of innovation, and has never been afraid to break the rules or push the boundaries. The reason? “Because not only do publishers know the brand inside out, but they understand and know their target audience. This, combined with the fact that customer magazines can be delivered directly to the individual [customer] makes for a very compelling proposition for editorial and design teams, enabling the successful meeting of creativity and business goals.”

Last year John Brown Group commissioned media auditor Billetts to analyse the relative cost, benefit and value of all marketing media to show how magazines perform compared with other media. The final analysis said that customer magazines are the highest value media for relationship building and offer greater value for money than direct marketing for cross-selling. A recent DMA survey also voted contract publishing as the preferred form of direct communication. Little wonder then that online brand ASOS.com has launched its own glossy customer title to offer its consumers celebrity fashion tips and style advice to complement its online offering.

Content to rule
Customer magazines have obviously come of age, and this industry can boast of some top editorial talent working on their brands. This power of content is being used to try to achieve the brand management objectives of their clients. If, as the APA research states, customer magazines are increasing share of market by 8%, brand loyalty by an average of 32% and provoke a response rate of 44%, then this medium is succeeding more than most.

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