‘A disconnect between investment and audience’: buyers on magazine ABCs

There is a lot to be positive about in the latest consumer magazine ABCs, which show circulation growth. But media buyers warn the transition to digital will be key.

The Beano: increased its circulation by 24% in 2021
The Beano: increased its circulation by 24% in 2021

Consumer magazines are in “good health”, but advertisers are not investing at levels that reflect this. That’s the verdict from media buyers who specialise in buying ads in the magazine sector.

Last week, the ABC revealed that several titles, from lifestyle mags such as Immediate Media’s BBC Gardeners’ World to DC Thomson’s The Beano grew their circulation substantially in 2021. In fact, Immediate Media had a particularly positive year, accounting for the majority of the 15 biggest risers.

Although circulation figures may have risen for the better-performing consumer titles – and this takes into account the migration from print to digital – commercialising these audiences has not been so easy.

The7stars trading director Michelle Sarpong, who told Campaign the women's lifestyle magazines segment had a particularly strong year of double-digit growth, described the ABC report, which gives advertisers a flavour of what consumers were reading in 2021, as "positive".

“The latest set of results is really positive for the consumer magazine market, with significant growth in digital across the majority of categories, along with growth in physical print copies in the homes and gardens sector,” she said.

“The shift to digital matches some of the findings in Magnetic’s recent research piece Harnessing Intentional Attention. Overall, 85% of titles reported growth in digital copies.”

However, she warned: “There is no hiding from the fact that there has been a slight disconnect between the investment levels into the magazine sector versus the actual decline in audiences. The latest figures demonstrate that there has been a significant shift into digital platforms, which is a trend that has been occurring for many years now, but has significantly accelerated in the last two years.”

The advertiser flight to digital is real and backed up by broader industry data. According to the latest figures from Enders Analysis, press advertising (which includes online) increased 14% in 2021 but is only forecast to rise by 1% this year. This illustrates that the rebound from Covid ad declines in magazines may not last, irrespective of how audiences grow.

“A lot of specialist titles have grown circulation over this period, really highlighting that readers have been concentrating on their passions and interests whilst navigating the last year, feeding into the latest research from Magnetic on Intentional Attention,” Zenith head of UK investment Dave Mulrenan said.

He added: “Fifty-four per cent of brands have shown an increase in their audience year on year, with subscriptions playing an increasingly important part in that increase, with 79% of the brands showing growth in this area. There has also been an increase in digital, where 85% of brands have increased their audience."

Perhaps, importantly, he believes that the “future looks bright for consumer magazines, and these results should make clients and planners consider them on the schedule as attention planning comes to the fore in 2022”.

Wavemaker’s chief investment officer, Ian Stevens, said he believes advertisers are already starting to take notice.

He argued that the “continued migration of magazines from print to digital has also been reflected in clients’ adspend, with an increase in digital support for magazines”.

The inference from his message is that newsstands, where traditionally consumers might go to buy magazines, will continue to be challenged – but who still goes to a newsagent to buy magazine content? 

Where the growth lies in the consumer magazine market is the transition to digital paid subscriptions, which ABC figures show increased 6% year on year. 

Stevens added: “Magazines continue to offer great potential for our clients to target specific audiences effectively combining print and digital platforms.

“The strong engagement and trust that readers have with their chosen magazine and the fact that advertising is an important and valued part of the experience means that the sector continues to drive great value and standout for advertisers.”

The positivity of the 2021 ABC figures should give consumer magazines confidence. However, the ability to commercialise growing circulation needs to be matched up to sophisticated and engaging digital offerings.

That’s the real message from those that buy magazine ads.

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