Are reading figures for customer magazines a true reflection of consumer behaviour?

In the interactive digital age, the continuing popularity of customer magazines is almost curious. As the internet continues to offer free content and eat into off-line advertising budgets, contract publishing manages to maintain its appeal and value as a marketing tool, while delivering a level of engagement with its consumers.

Customer titles, including Sky Magazine, Asda Magazine, Tesco Magazine and Sainsbury’s Fresh Ideas, are the top circulating magazines in the UK, according to the latest magazine ABCs. But volume means nothing if the magazines are not read or even enjoyed. After years of trying to establish its credentials, the medium can boast of 94% of its readers spending more than five minutes on customer titles. The figures, according to the latest National Readership Survey (NRS), are the first to define the amount of time people spend reading newspapers and magazines.

The data, released last month for the six months to June 2007, shows the ability of the print medium to engage consumers for prolonged periods (MW October 11). The research reveals that of the 250 magazines measured by the NRS, each title is read on average for a total of 50 minutes. Compared to that figure, the average time spent on women’s customer magazines might be only 23 minutes, but the NRS underlines that customer titles are finding ways to produce a creative product that also succeeds in meeting business objectives, such as promoting brands and brand loyalty.

No comparison
But the Association of Publishing Agencies (APA), the trade body for customer magazines, warns against comparing consumer mags to customer magazines. APA chief operating officer Julia Hutchison says: “Customer magazines are marketing tools and therefore should not be compared to consumer magazines, which serve a different purpose. But what this research shows is something that the APA has always talked about – customer titles delivering a level of engagement with its consumers that no other marketing medium possibly can.” Hutchison points to the ongoing APA Advantage Study, which reveals customer titles are read for an average of 25 minutes.

The NRS data also shows that customer travel titles are read for an average of 41 minutes, and TV magazines for an average of 19 minutes.

NRS managing director Roger Pratt says: “The introduction of data about the time spent reading reveals just how robust the print medium is. This first data set, which will become a regular part of future releases, demonstrates that consumers are committing substantial time to print media, despite increasingly busy lives and the proliferation of media channels.” But media buyers say that figures should be handled with caution. “The customer magazines figures, for instance, could mean that there are a huge range of people who stick these titles in the bin and another big segment reading these magazines cover to cover,” says one, who adds that there needs to be a distinction between paid-for and free titles.

Freely available
Hutchison argues that “free titles is no longer an issue” because of the ever increasing availability of free media, including consumer titles like Metro and the London freesheets.

Another media buyer warns the NRS figures should serve only as a guide, as “low interest” titles, such as those for train companies, will generate little readership when compared to retailers’ magazines, such as Waitrose Illustrated.

But the data will encourage advertisers, concludes Group M trading director Steve Goodman, “as it shows the extent to which consumers engage with these titles”.

The survey should also come as a boost to the already flourishing customer magazine industry; evidence that it can target a huge audience at a time when consumer attention spans are increasingly fragmented.

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