How magazines grabbed lockdown attention and flourished

It’s now over a year since the UK went into lockdown v1 – and so much has changed. Back in March 2020, the UK consumer magazine market, like others, suffered blows to confidence and sinking revenues. Campaign partnered with Magnetic for this year’s Spark conference to see how the sector's unique ability to capture attention inspired a bounce back.

How magazines grabbed lockdown attention and flourished

“Retail shrank, advertising fell, uncertainty crept in as we all moved to remote working,” said Kerin O’Connor, chief executive of The Week and Magnetic chairman about in March last year. “Times were generally tough.

“But in the face of extreme adversity we saw a wonderful response from the industry. Editorial teams didn’t miss a heartbeat; none of our readers would ever have known that magazines were produced from kitchen tables.”

O’Connor was speaking at UK consumer magazine marketing body Magnetic’s Spark 2021, which hosted a virtual gathering of luminaries from the publishing, agency and tech world. They examined that linchpin of successful advertising and one of the magazine sector’s virtues – attention.

“Our marketeers snapped up subscription opportunities all over the place, and that’s led to record new acquisitions and levels of subscribers. Our advertising teams pivoted, improvised and supported their clients and found new ways to bring readers to clients’ attention.”

As Sue Todd, CEO Magnetic, pointed out, subscriptions were up 13% across the sector, “with many brands performing well above that”.

While consumers devoured reams of news, they also sought quality content from their first, second and third choice magazines “to fuel passions and help stay positive”.

“We’re all still reflecting on what the profound changes mean for us personally and professionally,” Todd said. “I have personally been extremely proud of the way the industry that I represent has performed for advertising partners and consumers.”

Attention, meditation and intuition
Faris Yakob, author of Paid Attention: Innovative Advertising for a Digital World, former agency strategist and co-founder of ideas consultancy Genius Steals, started the attention-centred event.

Alongside getting delegates to take part in a miniature meditation, Yakob suggested that the ad industry perhaps has an unhealthy obsession with granular data, sometimes at the expense of what it ultimately strives for – attracting attention – and referenced research that delved into “what’s logical and intuitive about how advertising works.

“It demonstrated what seemed very obvious. Advertising no one sees has no impact. How could it? Exposure without the focus of attention still has some impact. However, the more active attention for a longer duration equals more sales. It feels very intuitive to me.”

But duration isn’t everything. The quality of attention is crucial, Yakob said: “We have some data on how this changes based on the duration of consumption. In some ways your screen time improves your wellbeing, but only to a point.

“Prolonged exposure to doom-scrolling, a binge of eight hours, or a gaming binge of eight hours, tends to make [people] feel less happy than they did at the beginning of their media experience.

“It’s something that we have to wrap our heads around as the media industry becomes more algorithmically [focused]. When we are cognitively depleted, we tend to consume easier media.” 

And that’s good news for magazine brands.

Attention seekers
There was some excellent news for consumer titles from Mike Follett, managing director of Lumen, whose eye-tracking market research business delves into attention.

Based on a 1,500-size sample of UK consumers, the Magnetic-commissioned study compared the impact of ads appearing in online magazines with those appearing on general websites and on social networks. For the latter, between 70% and 80% of ads on screen get looked at; for ads on more generalist websites, just 60% to 70%.

But, those figures leapt for consumer magazines – 86% of ads on mobile mags and 81% of ads on desktop ads.

Meanwhile, they also examined how long people look at those ads – a clearcut measure of attention. On social sites, attention was between 1.3 and 1.9 seconds, and for quality digital display it was between 1.3 and 1.4.

“But for magazines, dwell time was significantly higher than quality display and slightly higher than social, on average two-seconds,” Follett said.

“When you combine the data, you see a significant increase in aggregate attention for magazine advertising, because more people notice ads and look at them for longer.

“Total time per 1,000 impressions is between 50% higher than social media and as much as 100% versus other forms of quality display.”

Environmental health
So, what is it about ads appearing in print and online magazines that makes them more attention-grabbing?

For Anna Sampson, Magnetic’s insight and strategy director, “it’s a positive and optimistic environment – people read magazines to indulge in their passions”.

“We’ve found that means people are welcoming commercial messaging, whereas they can largely find it annoying in the digital world,” she said. “So to have an environment in which the consumer is welcoming the message, almost seeking it out because it’s relevant, that’s a really underrated value, especially in digital where people are ad-blocking.”

Empty cookie jar
In less than a year Google is ditching third-party cookies for good. Campaign media and technology editor Omar Oakes asked panellists whether this posed a threat or opportunity. The panel were unanimous that the end of the third-party cookie marked a boon rather than being deserving of a ‘boo’.

“From a publisher perspective, we’re seeing the benefit of this move because we’re moving into a world where we can engage more with clients and partners,” said Ryan Buckley, head of digital at Hearst.

It was a perspective Matt Rance, head of commercial data at Immediate, echoed. “We’ve had to develop strategies around what is our most valuable asset: first-party data,” he said.

“We’re well positioned… but we have to be realistic about the challenges we’re facing, we need to focus on relevant solutions, and it’s unrealistic to expect a single solution.”

For Katy Leeson, managing director of Social Chain Leeson, there is uncertainty around “how the major walled gardens will play together,” or if they will at all, while Buckley said that giving away first-party data to Google, Facebook, et al, raised a red flag.

“Magazines are the most-trusted media, so the sector has already done a lot of the hard work,” Leeson said.

The three Ps
Jan Gooding, a marketing consultant who has previously held leadership roles at companies including BT, British Gas and Unilever, delivered the events final keynote. She offered a vision of how brands and publishers can prepare the world for a major post-pandemic reset.

“Brands will be looking for others to partner with on a whole range of platforms pushing for change in the way they interact with consumers,” she said, outlining three elements that the world should focus on – purpose, people and the planet.

“[The] thinking is that everything has to start with brand purpose and extend and become embedded into business, rather than just being a part of marketing,” she said. “This idea is more radical than it first appears, because the drive for profit has always been used to justify many business practices in the past.

“Magazine brands can do so much in the areas of representation: challenging stereotypes and fostering more inclusive approaches to working life…

“Brands and consumers are ready for things to be radically different and magazine brands are uniquely placed to take advantage of the change that’s coming and contributing to the narrative of turning everything around.”

Spark 2021 took place on 24 March. The sessions can be viewed in full here on Magnetic’s website.


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