Consumer magazines in South Africa seem to have secret lives that often defy any logic based on ABC figures, so titles can open and close with media analysts left scratching their heads in wonder. So how does this affect custom publishing? Tanya Farber looks for answers.
Neal Farrell, a publisher at Ramsay Media, says: “Because the consumer market is shrinking, with several titles having closed down in the last five years, a vacuum was created that the custom publishing industry was quick to occupy. It now seems to be going from strength to strength.”
Reality magazine, for example, which is published by Ramsay Media (which also publishes Toyota Zone and automobil), has seen its readership grow by a staggering 316% since it was launched just two years ago. Distributed to 190 000 members of the Sanlam Reality lifestyle programme, it is a clear example of a healthy business model in this highly competitive industry.
But many role players theorise that the consumer title slump brought on by the recession is but one part of the equation of why custom publishing is booming, and say that successful titles are the ones which fulfil the readers’ need for valuable content, rather than a focus on the product.
Andrew Nunnely, business development director at New Media Publishing (whose custom titles include Woolworth’s W, MultiChoice’s Dish, Mango’s Juice, Plascon’s Spaces and Mercedes Benz’s Mercedes), says it is about anticipating exactly what the reader wants to consume by way of interesting content.
“Woolworths’s customer title Taste, for example, is produced within a clear marketing strategy for Woolworths, but the editorial team puts the reader at the heart of what they do, and the fact that over 25 000 pay R32 for a copy of it shows that it works,” he says.
Custom publishing, if its content is pitched correctly, can trump consumer magazines at the newsstand, as well as traditional advertising and marketing strategies conceived in the consumer magazine boardroom.
“We know how to tell good stories, and that is what traditional marketing and advertising is battling to do. Good content marketing fosters behaviour change in the market. In short, it can be more powerful than any advertising you have ever done, and marketers are starting to realise that,” says Nunnely.
This, however, does not make it a risk-free business choice and, he adds, it is “definitely competitive”, but “not necessarily lucrative”.
“I think there’s a popular perception that custom publishing is easy money, and it’s just not true,” he explains. “When the recession hit two years ago and publishers saw decreases in copy sales and were battling to secure advertising revenues, many turned to custom publishing as a possible solution.”
He adds, however, that it requires major input on the production side of things, and that you have to get the business model right to succeed.
Another force that is propelling the industry’s growth is the high cost of advertising in mainstream titles.
Donna Verrydt, a director at Contact Media (which publishes the Wits Business School Journal, The Afropolitan, Garmin’s Gtribe and JoziBeat), says: “Marketers are becoming more aware of the opportunities in producing their own custom titles, speaking directly to their market and having the freedom to present their marketing messages. This is, essentially, an extension of their marketing arm.”
According to Farrell, the nature of the brand, the client’s appetite for investment, the advertiser’s receptiveness to the product and the reader’s engagement with the content will determine the business model and how lucrative a contract is. And, if the business model isn’t watertight, any publisher’s biggest fear can come true: losing a title to another publishing house.
Katherine Graham, a journalist who has worked in custom publishing for five years, has seen this type of panic from the inside.
“I worked for a custom publisher that lost the contract to produce a monthly in-flight magazine, and that was a huge blow to them. Thankfully, they were able to launch a similar publication, which was able to pick up some of their lost revenue, but the fear is always there. I think you constantly have to impress your client and reinvent yourself, and also pitch for new work,” she says.
Jocelyn Warrington, an editor at New Media Publishing, describes how custom publishing houses are always looking for innovative ways to keep existing clients and attract new ones.
“Retailers are fast recognising the value of client-targeted content (as opposed to hard-sell advertising of their products) and publishers have been quick to jump on board, some even offering to publish titles at no charge to the client but in return for the advertising revenue generated,” she says.
Another important strategy for these media houses is attracting the right talent to create the actual products.
According to Nunnely, custom publishing attracts personnel who think outside the box. “Because we don’t have the same commercial realities and restrictions that consumer publishing has, we are very often the people who really drive innovation and who get to do the fun stuff of experimenting a little,” he says.
“And,” says Farrell, “because of some consumer titles having closed down recently, a substantial pool of freelancers, contractors and consultants have been created. Where before many purists believed a customer title spelled the death of editorial integrity, now they’re seeing us as their salvation.”
Graham says it also appeals to writers who enjoy the flexibility of writing for a number of niche publications, covering everything, for example, from travel to business to hospitality.
“There is less pressure than in mainstream publications, and yet the pay is the same,” she says.
For Warrington, it is also attracting more and more top-notch practitioners, because it “offers journalists the chance to learn a whole lot about the world of marketing, as customer titles are, essentially, mouthpieces for their clients’ businesses. It teaches a journalist to develop creative publishing solutions to retailing goals, as well as the fine art of client collaboration and the value of good customer service.”
According to Verrydt, there is also a drive to attract top journalists who will get the ‘valuable content’ strategy right.
“If there is one thing marketers know, it is that marketing messages are assaulting the market every minute of every day. Because of this, people have actually become somewhat desensitised to marketing messages. But what people do seek is good content, and this is where top journalists are essential.”
Some of the trends going hand-in-hand with this focus on valuable content are to do with seeing the media product as part of a greater whole.
“The story is the point and the channel is just the delivery,” says Nunnely. “The industry is beginning to understand that there isn’t just ‘digital’ or ‘print’. Content can be delivered in a host of interesting ways, from events to TV to podcasts and apps, and many ways we haven’t yet even thought of.”
Another major trend, says Verrydt, is about building communities and loyalty programmes.
“What do our custom title readers get that mainstream title readers don’t get?” she asks. “They get VIP inclusion into a ‘community’ which is not open to the masses. Along with this ‘VIP membership’ comes content of relevance and interest, discounts, partner offers and special deals.”
While these trends could continue to play a role in the exponential growth of custom publishing, the proverbial ‘laughing all the way to the bank’ scenario might have somewhat of a bitter sound to those in the shrinking sectors of the ever-changing media landscape.
This story was first published in The Media magazine.
Follow Tanya Farber on Twitter @tanyafarber