ABCs: media buyers highlight winners of turbulent year in magazines sector

Covid-19 wreaked havoc on circulations but subscription copies rose 13%.

Magazines: consumption has been significantly influenced by life under lockdown
Magazines: consumption has been significantly influenced by life under lockdown

Media buyers have started poring over the long-awaited semi-annual circulation figures for consumer magazines, which most key publishers skipped last August due to the unprecedented impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

As a result, yesterday’s February release provided the first official update for a year. It confirmed that the shutdowns have severely restricted the number of copies getting into readers’ hands, but also revealed how publishers are adapting. 

ABC figures show there was an 8% drop in the number of actively purchased copies per issue in the UK and Republic of Ireland magazine market, to 14,469,384.

Sue Todd, chief executive of Magnetic, which represents the sector to advertisers, claimed that under the headline drops caused by “limited distribution channels” there was a “positive story that’s important for advertisers”.

Todd highlighted a "record surge in digital editions” and the 13% year-on-year rise in subscription copies across the market, describing the latter as “good news for advertisers as research indicates these loyal and committed readers are more likely to respond to reviews and advertising content”.

Meanwhile, the chief executive of Cosmopolitan publisher Hearst, James Wildman, pointed to a 22% year-on-year rise in unique users to its sites.

Campaign asked media buyers what they found interesting about the figures and the sector’s performance over the past year. Here’s what they had to say.

Sarah Johnson

Publishing business director, Havas Media Group 

As consumers looked for inspiration to fuel their lockdown passions such as cooking, crafts, fitness, gardening and homes, the Home Interest sector has remained buoyant, reporting flat year-on-year sales. 

Hearst’s House Beautiful reported a flat circulation as it adapted its editorial on making your home multi-functional to reflect people working, teaching and living at home. The magazine also included banded print supplements with every issue, each with a focus on a different room within the home.

Condé Nast’s House and Garden recorded an increase of 1% in circulation, despite a cover price increase to £4.95 in May. Its digital monthly average readership also increased by 23%. ?Country Living adapted its editorial throughout the year to follow key emerging trends, reflecting a growing desire to escape to the country and shop locally.

Home Interest sector subscriptions grew by 4.5%, with digital subs growing significantly by 29%. Hearst posted particularly strong growth in subscriptions with an increase of 39.4% as it adapted to reach its audiences through the pandemic. With audiences spending more time at home, brands such as Country Living and Good Housekeeping grew their subscriber base by 62% and 46% respectively.  

Katherine O’Dwyer

Publishing director, Goodstuff Communications 

It has been a difficult year for all publishing brands, but the magazine market has led the way in terms of diversifying its portfolio and evolving its ecosystems. In many ways, we've seen Covid accelerate the trends that have been evolving for the past few years now. 

It's no surprise that the sectors seeing growth are those that reflect our passions and habits that we've picked up, or re-engaged with, over the past year. From cooking to gardening, titles that appeal to our interests have seen remarkable growth, not least because they are serving a real demand for positive content that isn't an overwhelming news agenda. In particular, hats off to Olive leading the charge at 38% and Gardener's World at 33% year-on-year growth – these are major feats.

Another encouraging sector that is growing is educational magazines for children, with The Week Junior up 36%, a natural consequence of home schooling but also an optimistic sign for a new generation of magazine consumption.

Patrick Dolan

Senior investment director, Spark Foundry

Looking at the headline figures in isolation for this set of data is not enough, we need to delve deeper. 2020 was a year that accelerated change across the entire market, such as distribution models, title frequency and, in some areas, growth.

While some sectors did see large declines (for example, women’s weeklies, down 15%) we must look beyond the headline. Last year was an astounding year for subscription models, the women’s weeklies included, with publishers seeing double-digit growth for their subscriber base. Bauer has said that it saw more than a 300% increase in searches for magazine subscriptions alone.

Stylist is another success story, adjusting its distribution model ensuring it could maintain a circulation of over 400,000, and introducing for the first time, a subscription model. It now has 5,000 people willing to pay £1.99 for what they previously had for free, with plans for rapid growth in this area.

The biggest success story in the digital space is women’s lifestyle title Hello. Despite seeing a decline in its traditional print circulation, heavy investment in its digital properties is paying off with unique users increasing over 40%.

We should feel optimistic as we look forward into this year. If magazine publishers can evolve at as rapid a pace as that during 2020, it places them in good stead, especially with third-party cookies set to be phased out.

Emma Dibben

Head of print brands and media partner engagement, Wavemaker UK

Magazine content in the past year has been almost exclusively about positive moments to edify the soul in lockdown, no matter what your general interest or niche flavour. It always has been, but even more so now.

Print circulations have seen decline – however, as with newsbrands, sales have been surprisingly resilient. Travel points have been challenged and newer routes to market, such as the dynamic distribution, have been difficult to execute. It’s been especially tricky for the women’s weeklies sector, given the lower propensity for subscription purchase and reduced frequency of visits to the newsstand.

Subscription copies have increased by up to 50% for some key publishers. Although this does not outweigh the headline declines, subscriptions have delivered higher yields and higher-value customers for the future. This is important when the growth and prosperity of the publisher business model lies in driving ecommerce and affiliate revenue.

The best way to view these numbers is with an eye on the prize across the magazine publisher platforms: there are millions of consumers primed to spend. Immerse them in your superhuman brand magic and they will follow.

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