‘Turbulence isn’t always a bad thing’: How magazine brands are innovating their way through the multimedia age

It’s fair to say that for most of the 20th century, magazines have had it pretty good. Internationally renowned titles like Time, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair and Marie Claire have been capturing huge audiences (and advertising dollars), while in New Zealand, titles like Metro, North & South, Cuisine and New Zealand Geographic have helped shape the country’s media landscape.

But with the rise of the internet, a shift in consumer habits and a change in economic structures, the magazine industry has faced an increasingly uphill battle, fighting off a plethora of troubles from falling readership and circulation to increasingly disinterested advertisers.

The emergence of the digital sphere has been a killer for some traditional publications as the old adage of ‘adapt or die’ has played out across the developed world. A number of newsrooms and editors initially scoffed at the thought of fledgling technologies like the internet and mobile phones upending a decades-old system like print media. But most eventually came to the consensus ­– often reluctantly so – that they needed to embrace the online world. Facebook, Twitter, e-newsletters and online advertising all became essential components of the digital transition checklist. 

But if only things were as easy as ticking boxes. As a number of publications have found out in recent years, creating an effective digital strategy – and making money from it – can be a deceptively difficult thing to do. As Gus Balbontin, former chief technology officer at Lonely Planet, commented earlier in the year: “When you’ve been working for so long with an old machine … and you want to deploy that same machine to a very new task with new patterns, new distribution networks and new technologies, it struggles”.

It’s hard, but it’s certainly not impossible. And while the conventional wisdom suggests magazines are dying, there were plenty of new launches last year in the US and progressive publishers with a willingness to experiment are taking on new platforms, harnessing the influence they have over their audience in ways other than simply selling subscriptions or ad space, and generally trying to innovate their way out of a tricky situation. 

Embracing multimedia

One publication that’s managed to adapt in its own unique way to the new media reality has been New Zealand Geographic. Editor and Kowhai Media publisher James Frankham says that while it’s a really turbulent time for the media with challenges at every turn, turbulence “isn’t always a bad thing”, something economist Tim Harford also argues, albeit from a macro point of view, in his new book, Messy.

“There are more opportunities now than there have ever been in a landscape that’s more settled,” says Frankham. “So for us, that’s meant a huge, deliberate, and calculated push into digital. It’s no longer good enough just to have a website. It has to be an experience and it has to be multimedia.”

The title maintains extremely high editorial standards, which doesn’t come cheap. But that focus on quality has resulted in impressive subscription gains and advertiser loyalty. Unfortunately, that’s often not enough these days, which is why NZ Geographic partnered up with Natural History New Zealand (NHNZ) last year to launch a new digital platform and streaming television service. The website—nzgeo.com—showcases thousands of stories and images from the magazine’s 25-year old archive, as well as over 100 hours of high definition, on-demand, NHNZ nature documentary programming. Frankham also saw an opportunity to use the content as an educational aid and – thanks to the Ministry of Education – every New Zealand school has access to the archive, and a number of tertiary institutions and public libraries have signed up for the service too. 

“There are more opportunities now than there have ever been in a landscape that’s more settled.” 

NZ Geographic also formed an agreement with RNZ for audio and news to come through the site as well. “This meant we could focus on the web environment, while they could focus on producing top quality media assets in those areas where we didn’t have the expertise,” says Frankham.

“To produce top flight, blue chip natural history documentary television and leading audio podcasts within a beautiful, seamless, world-class website is one hell of a hill to climb.”

But despite the hard slog, they’re ascending that hill. Digital subscriptions now make up more than 20 percent of the magazine’s total subscription revenue, and NZ Geographic earned the top gong of ‘Magazine of the Year’ at last year’s MPA Awards, with judges commending it as “a 25-year-young magazine that has developed into so much more ­– did anyone say ‘national icon’?”

Big yet bold

As a single publication, NZ Geographic may have proved triumphant, but it was Bauer that emerged most decorated from last year’s awards after hauling in a total of 20 wins for its efforts across a number of publications. Bauer undoubtedly has the most reach of any of the local publishers. And a big number is still very important to keep big advertisers and media agencies coming back. But it’s certainly not relying on just that and is continuing to adapt. In the space of a year, Bauer has closed a magazine (Cleo), launched another in its place (Miss FQ), created brand new titles like Nadia and Paperboy, and launched another free online hub – noted.co.nz ­– for its news and current affairs content.

One of Bauer’s bravest and most notable launches was Auckland lifestyle magazine Paperboy. Already considered daring for committing to a weekly print-based product in a digitally-focused world, Bauer further upped the risk factor by giving the magazine away for free – a marked change in strategy compared to previous statements made by CEO Paul Dykzeul.

“We’d done a lot of research around what Aucklanders needed in their content and found there was a gap in the areas we now cover in Paperboy,” explains Bauer publisher Brendon Hill. “People were doing it around the world but no one was doing it in Auckland, so it was a bit of a leap of faith for us. It was also quite risky because it’s a big cost printing 100,000 copies a week and creating the content for it. But we’re in it for the long haul and it’s going good to start with.”

He says it also knew there was a gap for advertisers, because while newspaper inserted magazines – which are often popular with retailers promoting deals to weekend shoppers – were hitting an older audience, mass scale media targeting younger people remained an untapped market.  

“This is why our average targeted age is much younger than anything else out there,” says Hill, and this has thus far influenced its distribution strategy as the magazine has primarily been placed in public transport hubs and high foot-traffic areas. 

Beyond Paperboy, Bauer has some of the most prominent current affairs titles in the country with Metro, Listener and North & South. But not all of that great content was available online. In a similar vein to its other content hubs like Food to Love and Homes to Love, Bauer launched noted.co.nz last year, agglomerating current affairs content into a simple and comprehensive location, all available for free. And with additional content thanks to deals with RNZ and The New York Times, it could be considered “The Atlantic of New Zealand”.

Like a good investment strategy, success in the media business is increasingly about a portfolio approach; about thinking creatively and coming up with new ways to create revenue through a connection to your audience.

In one of the most interesting examples, Your Home and Garden partnered up with Farmers last year to create its own homewares range, thus bringing in a non-traditional revenue stream through licensing. Although the figures around the range are commercially sensitive, Hill says the royalties from the collaboration form a significant contribution to the commercial success of the magazine’s brand. 

The initiative won a highly commended accolade in the best publishing innovation category at the Magazine Media Awards, and the magazine took home a number of other gongs too, including supreme editor of the year for Shelley Ferguson and the new Magazine 360 award, which aims to celebrate the way magazine brands engage with the audience across many touchpoints. As the judges said: “Strong clarity of its varied range of brand assets and the entry clearly demonstrated revenue opportunities and commercial outcomes.”

Bauer has also made significant gains in the content marketing space with its Media Collective and Content Collective, the former being a multi-disciplinary team of creatives working on high-level advertiser briefs (eg: ANZ’s sponsorship of Grand Designs New Zealand), while the latter creates content for clients (eg: Carpet Court, Haier) to run on its own platforms or direct to consumer.

“We’ve really pushed the content space because that’s what we’re good at,” says Hill. “We’ve looked at one of our core strengths and tried to monetise it in different ways, so we’re always looking at new ways to innovate and create new revenue streams. We’re realistic that advertising revenues and circulations will continue to decline in the short term, so we need to create new revenue streams. We try to have six to seven revenue streams per brand now.” 

Power of the paywall

While paying for content might not seem particularly innovative, it is at a time when the internet offers a free information buffet, which is why the success of Dish ­– which won Best Publishing Innovation at the MPA Awards for its paywall – came as a surprise to many in the industry.

“We had an extensive back catalogue of recipes that we felt to be of value both to the business and our readers,” says Dish editor Lisa Morton. “We’d been re-visiting a small portion of these in annual themed collections, such as Baking Dish, Everyday Dish and Entertaining Dish. The success of these publications reinforced our belief in their value, so when it came to revamping our website in 2015, making our recipe archive available digitally was an essential component.”

Paywalls, of course, are a tricky thing to pull off. But Morton says the value is in the product, and that loyalty from Dish readers stems from the fact that they know the magazine’s recipes work.  

“While the standard approach to digital recipe content is free distribution, we felt Dish branded recipes were enough of a trusted source that we could ask for a subscription fee to access them.”

“Our belief was the biggest opportunity would be to convert existing print subscribers to print and paywall by asking a small premium, providing the convenience of access to the full back catalogue and across devices,” she says.

Dish has also generated additional revenue by creating sponsorship promotions with partners and ‘unlocking’ recipes using particular ingredients, such as when Rangitikei Chicken sponsored a series of chicken recipes on the website. Dish was also early to embrace Facebook, with food editor Claire Aldous creating weekly Friday baking recipes for a number of years, attracting more than 500,000 followers.

But not all of the magazine’s innovations have worked out in the long run, with trial and error proving inevitable.

“Sometimes we invest in things that don’t perform as we would like, but we’ve never been afraid to try something and if it doesn’t work, recognise it and move on,” says Morton. “Before revamping the website, we trialled a Dish iPad app version of the magazine. It was a thing of beauty, with multiple layers, integrated video and sound. Unfortunately, each issue took as long as the print publication to design and the return on investment ultimately just didn’t stack up.” 

But there have been plenty of Dish innovations that have worked out over the years and Morton insists the magazine has plenty more to offer as it looks to capitalise on what it’s done so far.

“Like other media brands we’re interested in how to integrate video or podcasts, but rather than jump on a bandwagon we’re looking at how we can create authentic premium content with a small editorial team.”

For the most part, innovation is the result of either the need to improve on the status quo or to escape from a downward trajectory, and publications like NZ Geographic, Dish and Your Home and Garden are living, breathing examples of doing the basics very well, but also trying new things.

When asked about the future of the industry, Hill believes that magazine companies will look very different in ten years. 

“Magazine companies around the world will need to restructure their internal organisations to allow innovation to be at the forefront of what they do. Consumers want audio, consumers want video, consumers want images, consumers want words, so we need to deliver it to them,” he says. “Things are changing really quickly. But there’s so much opportunity everywhere, so we’re bullish.”

Turbulence really can be a good thing – as long as you can find ways to ride it out.

This story is part of a content partnership with the Magazine Publishers Association. 

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