Time Out has refused to stand still over the past 40 years. It has diversified into new markets and moved online. Will this strategy see it through the challenging time ahead? asks Archana Venkatraman
Time Out, the weekly city listings magazine, this week launches its 40th anniversary issue. But, faced with a dizzying onslaught of competition both online and in print, it must prove that there is life after 40 for the brand.
Despite a marked dip in circulation since its print heyday in the early Nineties the brand has managed to survive by diversifying its product range and launching global editions. Arena BLM head of press Jo Blake says the brand remains relevant today because it has “constantly revived its offerings”.
Rarely has an entrepreneur done so much with £70, given as a birthday gift. Tony Elliott transformed Time Out into a multimillion-pound publishing business across the globe. Time Out’s first issue was launched in London in 1968 as a double-spread A2 paper, priced one shilling, by its now chairman Elliott. In 1973 it launched its first city guide to London and now has 25 international editions with a further five planned in 2008.
It has morphed from a city listings magazine to a powerhouse publisher that also publishes reviews, online services, regional guides, shortlist guides, translations and hosts events such as film screenings and art gallery tours.
But readers’ changing media habits and the availability of free alternatives is challenging the 40-year-old brand. Though local tabloids offer only basic listings, it has ceded ground to online listings and freesheets. Time Out London recorded a circulation of just over 100,000 copies in 1993, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations. But, by June this year that had tumbled to 76,356.
Earlier this month Elliott confessed the group was in an “intensive period of thinking and researching” to prepare for the future. Mooted shake-ups include comprehensive listings on the internet, backed by a slimmed-down free edition, as well as “controlled free” circulation – giving it free to people in specific demographic groups.
As it battles a downturn in the advertising market by cutting costs, it must also find the funding to expand online in the UK and for its numerous overseas properties, buy out investors in Time Out New York and pay off some bank debt.
Steps already taken to retain its readership include a comprehensive travel guide section from this month, featuring adventure travel, family holidays, city guides, green travel and even UK escapes and weekend breaks.
“As 40% of our readers take three to four holidays a year, with city breaks being very popular, this was a logical strategy,” says Time Out head of marketing Catherine Demajo. The new section, Demajo says, is a potential area of advertising as travel remains the highest topic of interest.
Vizeum, Time Out’s media agency, agrees that with updated strategies, the brand has evolved into a multiplatform brand and is able to monetise each. Stuart Newman, managing partner for the brand at Vizeum, says: “Time Out has to exist across the number of mediums that its audience use.”
Time Out’s biggest challenge is to navigate through a changing media landscape – freesheets now offer basic listings against Time Out’s £2.99 proposition. In 2005 it digitised its entire content and made it available free, gaining 1.7 million unique visitors. “2005 remains a landmark year but Time Out had momentary highs with Paul McCartney and Elton John as guest editors,” says Demajo.
It aims to develop its digital business and integrate it with the print content, but Demajo insists Time Out exists in a category altogether of its own. “While some content offered by freesheets is similar, Time Out is more definitive, comprehensive and not just another brochure.
“Time Out has always been a pick of choice for the culturally curious, adventurous and those seeking an end-to-end city guide.”
Yet industry watchers say the company, which has been without a chief executive since May this year, must do yet more to innovate.
Arena BLM’s Blake suggests the magazine should move towards handouts of latest issues, and make more of its heritage in its online offerings.
But Vizeum’s Newman says moving to the web and yet retaining its subscription and newsstand model is a challenge. “This is where the brand’s investment and marketing strategies will play a major role,” he says.
Time Out is not alone in facing a radical overhaul of its business. But as an independent whose stock in trade is readily available listings information, it must draw on the heritage, brand values and history of innovation that its four decades in publishing brings. vFacts and figuresTime Out 1968: Tony Elliott publishes first issue of Time Out in London as a folded A2 monochrome sheet. It lists events from theatre, cinemas, musical gigs and politics 1971: Time Out London expands to a large format comprising 100 pages in bold colours and cover designs 1973: First Guide book published – a guide to London 1983: First Time Out Eating Guide published 1995: Time Out New York launches 2005: Magazine content extends online. Timeout.co.uk offers listings, features, booking services and user reviews 2008: Time Out launches city editions in Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong, Barcelona and Amsterdam. The group has signed deals to launch in cities including Belgrade and Jakarta in 2009.