How Can Magazines Arrest their Decline?
The latest ABC figures made for grim reading for magazine publishers.Overall, paid for circulation in the women's magazine sector fell by 5.1% on last year and the market leader, Glamour, saw its circulation fall over 11%. The story was the same in the men's sector, with an overall fall of 3.3%The hope that digital devices, such as the iPad, would ride to the publishers rescue has yet to come to pass. Digital editions are now included in the ABCs and yet the slide hasn't stopped. Two titles amongst the biggest digital edition sellers - Cosmopolitan (13,298 digital editions) and Men's Health (12,142) saw year on year circulation falls of 9% and 1% respectively.So what's the story behind these ongoing circulation declines? Well, as for newspapers, the internet is at the heart of it.The newspapers made the mistake of making their online editions free in the misguided hope that the cost of quality journalism could be online advertiser-funded. Of course, the loss of revenues from print sales and advertising was higher than the new revenues made from online editions, but once the 'free news online' genie was out of the bottle, it became a consumer expectation. Nobody could put the stopper back in.However, magazines didn't make the same mistake. Online editions never published all the content of the magazine. Instead, they were used as content 'teaser' and as means to engage readers between editions - a stepping stone to a magazine purchase rather than an alternative experience to one.The problem for magazines is not so much that they've let the free content genie out of the bottle, but more because of the explosion of free and immediate alternative content that the internet has brought.Those looking for the latest celebrity scoop need do no more than visit the Mail Online or one of a host of celebity gossip sites like TMZ. Not only can they break a story without having to wait until the next week's edition, they've proved themselves more adept at getting their hands on those stories in the first place.Women looking for fashion advice no longer need to flick through the fashion pages of their favourite magazine but can pick from a pethora of free fashion blogs from Face Hunter to Style Bubble. It's a trend that the fashion houses have identified - bloggers will be well represented in the audiences at this week's London Fashion Week.So how do magazines fight back and ensure they're just as much a part of the future as they have been a part of the past?Well, mobile devices are part of the answer. Although tablet editions have not yet ridden to the rescue, tablet penetration is still only 10%. Against that backdrop, the digital sales of publications like Cosmopolitan and Men's Health look impressive. And tablet penetration has increased 5-fold in the space of a year. If that rate of growth continues, and publishers can come up with compelling products that consumers are prepared to pay a premium for, then tablet edition sales may will help to turn around the circulation slide.And it's not all about tablets. With the bigger screens in vogue in the smartphone market, from the iPhone 5 to the Samsung Galaxy SIII and the Note 'phablet', publishers should look again at this channel - particularly as a way to capture younger readers less likely to own a tablet.The other part of the answer might be to take a leaf out of the book of the successful online subscription press titles such as the FT and the WSJ.Take Vogue UK. It's average circulation from January to June was 205,000, a fall of almost 3% from last year. The visitors to its website number 1.3m per month - 5 times that amount. It doesn't take a leading mathematician to work out that if it convert even a small proportion of those visitors into online content subscribers, the revenue gains would be substantial.Those potential subscribers may pay for access to specialist premium content on the site or, as for the FT, may pay a rate dependent on the number of articles they read.Of course, the full potential of this approach being realised relies on the 'micropayments' conundrum being solved - making it easy for consumers to pay small amounts online without having the inconvenience of fishing out their credit or debit cards. And the audience will only be maximised if the site is optimised for all devices - particularly tablets, which encourage consumption in a more relaxed environment akin to the print magazine experience. Optimising their site to make it 'device neutral' was the reasoning behind the recent Vogue.co.uk re-launch.The next few years will no doubt see a 'shakeout' in the magazine sector. Only those magazines with a reputation and specialism strong enough to create a desire for their premium content will thrive. Those titles that fail to create content that is distinctive and desirable will drown in the ocean of free online content.