Women still want women’s mags, but those behind the titles have to keep reinventing their publications, says South Africa’s doyenne of women’s magazines, Jane Raphaely.
Magazines are the shape-shifters of the media world, as flexible as a Chinese acrobat, as chromatic as a chameleon and as diverse as the divine Ms Meryl Streep.
When I started reading them in England, just after the Second World War, there was one in particular that captured my imagination and convinced me that this was the medium of change for the better, the magic mushroom that would change all of us, just like it did for Alice. It was called Woman and it was edited by a remarkable alpha female called Mary Grieve. On the surface it was just like most other women’s magazines. It dispensed great advice on every aspect of women’s lives and provided invaluable information on where to find the few things worth buying. It sought out great short fiction and the illustrations were the lushest pages in the magazine because the artists were not constrained by the harsh realities of the impoverished welfare state that England was at the time. Its resident agony aunt, on the other hand, had to confront the hard fact of post-war life: the remnants of it were in the shape of battle-worn men bringing their traumas home. Whatever the problem, Woman had the answers.
By 1965, Woman was selling 3,2 million copies. Week after week I fell on the new issue that was one of the bonselas (gratuities) of babysitting for affluent neighbours who could afford to buy magazines and pay someone else’s child to take care of theirs. It was then that I discovered the most important fact of magazine life. My neighbours never threw away their magazines. They might share them or pass them on but they weren’t discarded. The content was too valuable, its influence on their lives too precious, and the relationship too important to be trashed. That is the power of a good magazine and that will never change.
In 2011 Associated Magazines chose to launch one of the oldest magazine titles in the world, Good Housekeeping, in South Africa. On the face of it, this might seem a reckless, not to say retrograde step. South Africa is one of the most expensive places on the planet to publish magazines. Paper, printing, distribution and retailing all cost more here and, to add insult to injury, magazine publishers have no choice but to give their precious product to retailers on a sale or return basis.
We also decided that Good Housekeeping should take a great step forward for our company. It would have a sister edition, in Afrikaans, Goeie Huishouding. Early advertisers would be offered two for the price of one, which we hoped would be an irresistible lure. We will always be grateful to those brave and loyal clients who chose to take up that offer. And we will cherish the early adopters who fell on the magazines, tweeted them off the shelves and into other people’s hands and hearts, and made the Cassandras of the magazine world admit that a print product with great digital presence, and really valuable content, can make it here, in one of the most competitive and difficult magazine markets in the world.
My last reservation about magazines online evaporated when I saw Vanity Fair on an iPad. It was far more vivid and readable than the print version. It was lush, it had party tricks, it was irresistible. It lured me in to play. But where were the advertisements, the other half of magazines, the pages that satisfy the needs of the ardent shopper, the most insatiable consumer, or the woman who has more money than time? I should not have been surprised by the missing ads.
COSMOPOLITAN SA’s website (www.cosmopolitan.co.za) is one of the most successful in South Africa. It has 52 173 unique users and 591 019 page impressions and has enough advertising support to be profitable. But the volume of advertising is nothing compared to the support that the print product receives. For some reason, advertisers and agencies prefer to place their bets on print.
There is new research from the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business, which indicates that this is not about to change. The study asked three questions:
• What are the motives of South African women for using the internet?
• What are the motives of these same women for reading women’s magazines?
• In what areas would the internet provide superior gratification to magazines and vice versa?
In their report on this study and its results, Mlenga Jere and Susan Davis note “the overwhelming majority of women said that they used the internet primarily for chatting or banking. Less than 70% used the internet for work and far more used it for cooking and recipes than news or other information”. In order of importance, the primary reasons governing use of the internet were interpersonal utility (friendship), information seeking, keeping up to date with current events, self-development, exploration (just surfing), diversion and career opportunities.
The factors that motivate women to read magazines are very different: information seeking, improving one’s social position, shopping, finding love, diversion, career opportunities, self-development, and exploration. Many respondents agreed with statements describing the rich content of print magazines and expect every single article to pack a punch. Ultimately the study showed that the internet could only outperform magazines in six areas, whereas print triumphed in 20!
So what does my crystal ball say about the future for magazines…and the internet? It says what it has always said. There is a hale and hearty future for both provided that both do the right thing. With digital we will always have to fight harder to hold attention. We need to perfect delivery and to fine-tune content to the precise needs of this impatient and unfaithful customer. We may have to resign ourselves to never having a ‘proper relationship’ with her.
The future is equally demanding for magazines in print. We need to better ourselves to justify the trust that readers place in us. Dumb ourselves down and we will go the way of the Dodo. Now is the time to reinvent the medium in an even finer form, with fresher content, more moving stories that make readers laugh and weep, really useful advice that saves lives and relationships, stuff that makes us look better, make love better, and live better, and things that make us want to shop till we drop. How Mary Grieve would have loved that challenge.
Jane Raphaely is the chairman of Associated Magazines. She recently published her autobiography, Unedited.