Customer magazines are thriving, as was highlighted earlier this year by the Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABCs) figures that showed the seven highest circulation magazines are all customer publications. Despite delivering such impressive numbers, the customer publishing sector still suffers from a slightly downmarket image, with some marketers still finding it difficult to accept that anything given away free is truly valued by readers.
Julia Hutchison, chief operating officer of the Association of Publishing Agencies, rejects any suggestion that customer magazines are less valuable – or valued – than other forms of marketing media. “No other marketing medium can deliver the level of engagement that customer magazines get,” she says.
The APA’s rolling research programme Advantage, which is carried out by Millward Brown, found that 82% of people say they spend up to 45 minutes reading a customer magazine, with 64% returning to the title more than once. This is a higher average readership than newsstand titles.
The survey also found that 47% of respondents said they are more likely to buy products featured in a customer magazine than in other types of advertising or marketing, while 44% claim to have bought an item as a result of reading a customer magazine.
Brand reputation is also directly affected, it seems: the research shows a 12% average uplift between readers and non-readers of a customer magazine.
Not forgetting, of course, the fact that the costs of producing and distributing customer magazines can be offset by advertising and the fact that retailers, at least, can often give out or in some cases sell the magazines through their own stores. The APA says that 55% of customer magazines carry third party advertising, with advertising revenue generating more than £75m additional income for the contract publishing industry.
But one marketer with experience of the customer publishing industry says that while the APA and the publishing agencies themselves have done a good job promoting magazines as a valid marketing channel, there is still more to do.
He says: “They need to address the lack of client understanding of what the agencies can do and what the value of customer magazines is. Most clients have failed to use customer publishing as a key part of their marketing strategy.”
Another concern is what is going to happen to the sector if there is, as most business people accept, a real recession. Simon Matthews is managing partner of branding, communications and marketing strategy agency Rise Communications, which has been advising the APA on marketing itself and its members’ services for three years.
He admits: “Historically, contract publishing has traditionally lost out in a recession, with many clients seeing it as an area where they could cut their spend. But it’s a far more effective form of communications than any other, particularly given today’s focus on building customer relationships over the long term.”
Indeed, Hutchison points out that customer publishing agencies are well placed to take advantage of the switch towards content-rich marketing communications – even online. “The customer publishing industry has proved itself to be the leader in branded content through its continued development of the medium,” she says. “With the increased use of websites, podcasts and other channels, customer publishing has shown it is an industry capable of responding to the demands of different audiences.”
She points to the recent launch of a customer title by video and games rental group Blockbuster, which simultaneously launched a magazine and an e-zine.
Mark Lonergan, managing director of publishing agency August Media, agrees that “customer publishing agencies are best placed to own online content”.
Clare Broadbent, managing director of Cedar Communications – which publishes magazines for Tesco, BA, Bank of Scotland Corporate, 888.com and Nikon – says the ability to extend the customer magazine experience into the online world is absolutely vital to any publishing agency’s success. “Any publisher that doesn’t integrate its branded content into multiple channels will fall behind, as will those that cannot demonstrate their editorial skills are seamlessly married to customer insight, relevance and accountability.”
That last point is hugely important because customer magazines must deliver against the client’s objectives, and within the client’s budget. But the problem can be that the client does not fully understand what they want from a magazine, and what it can deliver.
As Chris Rainer, client services director at agency Archant Dialogue, observes: “Many marketers don’t really understand the magazine market or how magazines can contribute to their business.
Getting it right is not easy – you really have to get under the skin of a client’s business. We have seen some great briefs and some terrible ones. It is a truism, but clients get the magazine they deserve.”
The APA’s Hutchison agrees that the relationship between client and agency is, in some ways, even more important for customer publishing than for other forms of marketing communications. “Much of the success of a customer title rests in the understanding and interpretation of a brand by a publisher and the relationship between the two.”
And Broadbent at Cedar says: “Customer publishing has come a long way. Editors now use sophisticated brand filters to ensure editorial content contains the most appropriate messages on behalf of their clients.”
Far from seeing their budgets being cut, many publishing agencies are claiming that the amount clients are spending with them is increasing. Certainly the number of agencies offering customer publishing services is growing, with the APA seeing its membership increasing significantly over the past year, while many of the bigger agencies are adding considerable business.
Lonergan at August Media says: “Spend is being moved out of direct mail because clients are looking to build longer-term relationships.”
Others agree that the move by many marketers to a focus on customer relationship management can only be good news for customer publishing agencies. Hutchison claims: “We can prove that customer magazines work – that they are a powerful tool in keeping old customers.
“They can also be vehicles for cross-selling and up-selling. We’re seeing much more integration of customer magazines into the marketing plan – no other media can deliver the same levels of engagement.”