BSMEs show us how print can prosper in the digital age

Last Thursday’s annual BSME awards ceremony was a chance for magazine editors to get together and celebrate their successes – as well as commiserate with others who have not been so lucky.

At the moment, there is an increasing number of good news stories coming out of the magazine world. Yes, there are notable failures – or ‘corrections to the market’, as economists would put it – including the closure of InStyle, etc; but – whisper it – the industry is holding up.

In an article published on Monday, the Guardian highlighted the success of Conde Nast’s luxury portfolio. Vogue and GQ have had their biggest issues ever (including record levels of advertising) as has Time Inc’s Wallpaper. The article might, as well, have mentioned Good Housekeeping, a perennial which now sells over 430,000 per month, and growing.

The argument here is that almost nothing creates a sense of luxury like a magazine: the A4 size, the paper stock, the quality of the print: it’s still the best medium for those advertisers, and – as the continued success of ‘property porn’ in Country Life shows – consumers enjoy the advertising almost as much as the articles.

But it is not just the luxury world where success has been achieved: Shortlist Media has redefined the world free magazines and – as a result – it was bought last year by DC Thomson.

On Thursday night, Lisa Smosarski, editor of Shortlist’s Stylist title, was named best editor in the women’s weekly category for consistently turning out a must-have publication for hundreds of thousands of young women. Many of whom, if my office is to be believed, rarely read any other print publication.

In more specialist consumer categories, the award shortlists were also quite a help if one wanted to understand what the customer really wants.

Under the editorship of Elise Wells, Slimming World, which was nominated again this year, has seen an extraordinary growth in circulation over the last few years (from around 250,000 to 600,000). Unlike many of its rivals, it has continued to invest in great photography and long-form stories, as well as sumptuous recipes.

It might be easy to assume that these stories represent the few successes in a landscape of carnage – magazine circulation did fall 5.3% in the first half of 2016, but this represents more of a levelling off than a sharp downturn. But overall 29 of the top 100 consumer magazines actually grew their circulation in the period, with another half dozen staying flat. In a tough business climate, those are good odds.

All the examples above – with the addition of Ian Hislop, editor of Private Eye, and Ben Preston, editor of the Radio Times, who respectively collected the Mark Boxer and Editor of the Year awards – have two things in common:

Firstly, they have continued to invest in creating great content. At a time when the corporate world is waking up to the value of  content, it really is about time the magazine world relearned their own lesson – that it is worth paying to get content that people want to use.

Secondly, all these brands show the need to work intelligently with the digital challenge. Hislop, famously, has a massively frustrating policy of only publishing the stuff from the previous edition. Result? More people buy the magazine. Slimming World has a digital subscription model which is onerous by most reckonings: but it simultaneously protects the income stream of its consultants and drives subscriptions to the print magazine.

Like Radio Times, Shortlist’s digital brands – Mr Hyde and Emerald Street – maintain the company’s free model, but allow differently segmented outlets for advertisers and a wealth of valuable data.

There isn’t one solution to the digital conundrum. Every case is different. But the basic rule is: know your audience, and your advertisers, and work out what works best for you and them – then perhaps print can prosper in the digital age.

So, in a season short of good news, let’s celebrate an industry that is proving surprisingly resilient and innovative. And let’s look forward to the BSMEs of 2036.

*Yes, I know that the BSMEs are not just about consumer brands. I will return to the challenges for B2B titles in the new year.


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