Risk-taking is not something that the advertising industry tends to indulge in. Even if certain so-called risks are taken, you can be sure they will have been subjected to enough research to render any hazards minimal.
Customer magazines that talk of taking risks do so, by their own admission, within the confines of existing and usually successful formats. Many point to the example of Glamour magazine, which was reduced to handbag size with great fanfare and success, and many followers. Now it might seem obvious that producing a magazine that fits neatly into a woman’s small handbag will be a triumph. The launch, however, would never have taken place without the thousands of women responding positively to the idea at the research stage.
Both consumer and customer magazines are restricted in terms of the degree to which style and content can be toyed with.
Consumer titles are governed largely by the wishes of advertisers, and customer magazines by their clients. The latter now also have the added burden of considering the Royal Mail’s pricing in proportion (PIP) rules.
Because customer magazines are defined largely by their audience and by the need for clients to engage with that audience, any format or content risks have to be taken with that in mind.
TMW Publishing editor Amber Key says/ "Risk-taking isn’t something that is usually in the mind of clients when they approach a publisher with a chunk of their budget for the year. To many, a magazine is still new ground.
"A good publisher will look at the target audience and base the look and feel around what’s likely to engage them. Often this audience comprises a varied age range and demographic, so you’re constrained creatively from the outset."
But Key accepts that magazines production is formulaic and that once the templates have been established, clients tend not to want to push boundaries too much.
Some titles are forced to be inventive from the outset because of budget restrictions but also because of the particular tenor of the audience. Think Publishing specialises in membership magazines, which means that budgets play a deciding role in the look of a title.
Think publishing director Ian McAuliffe says that membership magazines, such as Walk produced for the Ramblers’ Association, need to have a distinct look and tone in order to engage readers. And if the magazine looks as if a lot of money is being spent on it, it won’t necessarily go down well with its readers, who may well think their membership fees would be better spent on something else. "You get the really high circulation magazine such as Sky Sports, the world’s biggest sports title. I have a full Sky package so I get the magazine, but I have never read it.
"Then you have the magazine for the Wildlife Trust which has 750,000 members, and you know every one of those members reads the magazine."
Because of the limited budgets, McAuliffe says Think has had to adapt the formats of the magazines. "We have very few publications that are bigger than A4. They are mainly Super A5 [such as Glamour or National Geographic]," he says. And as the Royal Mail distributes 95% of the titles, this size helps reduce those costs too.
Summersault Communications head of client services Kate Deans believes the format of a magazine is certainly one area where risks can be taken. "The B5 format of Central Trains’ Connect is an unusual shape for a customer magazine," she says. "It is easy and portable and encourages customers to place it inside pockets or briefcases in order to browse through it later."
But she adds that it is much easier for customer magazines to create stand-out through content than it is for consumer titles. "If you look for example at the newsstand titles in January – every magazine has stuff on New Year’s resolutions, losing weight, etc. Customer magazines don’t have to fall into that trap. Take Land Rover Monthly. It talks specifically to a segment with a particular attitude towards life – the magazine communicates the brand values that appeal to those people.
So you are not competing with a whole lot of other magazines saying the•same thing as you – because no one else is," says Deans.
After three years with no magazine, Ikea has just launched Ikea Family Live, its international title, in the UK. The first edition was launched in Sweden and five other countries in 2005. The latest edition of the magazine was published in 16 languages, with another ten on the way.
The magazine is one of the principal benefits of joining loyalty club Ikea Family. The magazine is published by August Media. Editorial director Mark Lonergan says/ "Creatively, the concept is incredibly bold in customer publishing."
In other words, the magazine is not packed with Ikea products but includes real people talking about their homes and so references to a lot of non-Ikea furniture."This is a key reason why readers relate to it as a magazine first and as an Ikea product second," says Lonergan. "Most others in this market look like a series of advertorials. Of course the ‘soul’ of Ikea Family Live is about the home, but 90% of the magazine is about how real people live their life in their own homes."
APA chief executive Julia Hutchison believes that it is because customer magazines have had to fight not only to get a fair share of marketing budget but also to prove the effectiveness of the medium, that they stand out in terms of content and design.
"Customer magazines have had to showcase themselves and have never been staid – even for more dry industries such as financial services. In terms of design, customer magazines do not have to follow newsstand conventions. They can be designed to stand out from the rest. Publishers are not only taking risks with the printed format either. Many clients are now testing other branded-content media, like podcasts, radio, TV and microsites."
Square One Publishing publishes LighterLife on behalf of the slimming programme of the same name. Apart from going to members of the programme, the magazine is also, very unusually for a customer title, sold in retail outlets. According to LighterLife, 60 per cent of its readership is not associated with the programme.
Last month the magazine removed all third-party advertising in order to strengthen its own brand messages. According to Square One, only a customer magazine could take this decision on the newsstand as the product is about brand awareness and acquisition and not profit.
The fight, says TMW’s Key, will continue for customer magazines to stand out. "In today’s internet world where news and celebrity pictures are instant, the most successful magazines are those that can capitalise on it. Weeklies are the hot new thing in newsstand publishing.
Customer publishing is never going to be about weeklies. Monthlies are as frequent as it gets. You can’t compete on topicality, so you need to compete on substance – good quality writing, well-known columnists, and celebrity features and articles that piggyback major trends in current affairs.
"The reality is that, in customer publishing, clients don’t want to push the boundaries too much. Once they have hit on something that works, they tend to stick with it."