Niche publications are on the rise, but what makes them so successful? Tanya Farber finds out.
On paper, the numbers don’t add up. The critical mass that any magazine publisher would want to see when ticking the ‘sustainable business’ box is simply not there. But somehow, where niche magazines are concerned, the absence of a sizable audience is mirrored by a fierce loyalty among those who make the purchase.
Urs Honegger, CEO of Panorama Publications (whose magazines include Animaltalk, PC Format, TeenZone and Mom & Me), says that his company “purposefully keeps pursuing the niche magazine market for the exact reason that readers are much more engaged, more loyal, more passionate and more keen to interact with their niche magazine”.
In the case of Seventeen, explains its editor-in-chief, Janine Jellars, interacting with the readers is paramount.
“Seventeeners feel a definite sense of ownership of the brand,” she says. “We have a high level of interactivity with our readers and they reward us with their fierce loyalty. Our research shows that over 70% of readers don’t just buy the magazine, they treat each edition like a collectors item that they save.”
Jellars says the magazine embraces the ‘fubu’ (for us, by us) principle, which means that readers are included in the magazine.
“We spend a considerable amount of time dealing with reader queries and even answer questions they have about issues they’re dealing with. Also, our fashion upfront pages are shot using normal girls as models and we include their comments and quotes in features.”
So what are the challenges? As is often the case, ‘opportunities for’ and ‘threats to’ a business are often the same beast wearing a different mask. Niche magazine’s readerships are frequently small but very loyal. This can be an anomaly for marketers and those buying advertising space.
Honegger says a great challenge is “to get ad agencies, media buyers and clients to understand that qualitative readership is more valuable in today’s world than quantitative”.
He says that most niche magazine do not feature on the South African Advertising Research Foundation’s All Media and Products Survey (AMPS) or any agency planning tool.
“They only do, like in our case, if the media owner pushes for the inclusion on AMPS at a substantial cost.”
Because of this, he says, his company has to do “an inordinate amount of constant education in the media buying industry”.
Seventeen faces this challenge by “doing a great deal of advertorials”, says Jellars, “and we’ve seen how well they’ve worked for clients and readers”.
Chris Erasmus, publisher of Odyssey Magazine (and Simply Green), which goes back 35 years, concurs with Honegger that much of the advertising industry – including media planners, strategists and buyers “are simply not yet with the programme”.
“Many are still running in what we see as the ‘old groove’ of ‘cost per thousand’ calculated on circulation,” he explains. “This, in the world of niche publishing where one is speaking to a dedicated, loyal audience which is highly receptive to a trusted message source, is simply not a useful measure of the advertisers getting their money’s worth.”
But selling advertising space isn’t the only struggle against mainstream publications. Space on the newsstand also poses a challenge.
“By default, niche magazines have smaller circulations and are therefore not able to compete with consumer magazines on the newsstand,” says Honegger. “A very large part of the South African reading public is never exposed to the variety of excellent niche magazines that exist.”
Then again, he says that niche magazines can be “very successfully converted into the digital media space because the high engagement of the readers means that the up-take of digital magazines apps is greater and faster than with your standard consumer titles”.
For Simply Green, there were two other major obstacles that the publication managed to overcome so as to build a relationship with readers.
Erasmus says that Simply Green was launched in October 2008, “on the very eve of the global downturn hitting the local economy”. Additionally, he says, “we faced the challenge of ‘eco-fatigue’ (a resistance to eco-related material).”
And so, they defined their policy to be a more positive one that would attract rather than repel readers.
“We didn’t want to focus on the negative, depressing and disempowering ‘big picture’ issues in a way that undermined potential readers’ ability to galvanise their responses in a positive way. We summed up this approach as focusing on ‘next best step solutions’, which allowed us to speak to the many incremental steps that ‘going green’ is all about.”
Interestingly, Simply Green’s ability to ride out the recession storm was not a unique story. By February 2009, when the global economy was on the verge of collapse and circulation figures for magazines in the UK were generally down, Charlotte Philby – a writer for The Independent newspaper in Britain – discovered what she called ‘a wave of emerging titles’ that were bucking the trend and drawing readers into more closely-defined niches of interest.
Three years later, is it the much-anticipated demise of all things to do with print that those in the niche publishing business must tackle?
According to NG Kids (National Geographic Kids) editor Fiona Thomson, there will always be value in the adaptable format that print affords. She says that NG Kids is an example of a niche magazine that has a “very strong visual aesthetic which works particularly well in print”.
But, she adds, “We are also very excited by the possibilities of augmented digital content as an additional offering for our readers”.
This synergy between print and digital content is one that many publishers are still trying to get right, but niche magazine publishers have something of a head start on the concept of a tightly focused interest group that seeks out content on a very specific topic, and interactions with others who have the same interests.
Because of this, Thomson sends out a very clear message of ‘fear not’ to other niche publishers: “In the scenario where the asteroid hit the earth kicking up a huge blanket of dust,” she says, “the niche titles would be the little furry creatures that made a plan – even if it did mean eating insects for a while. They survived, adapted and became stronger!”
This story was first published in the July 2012 issue of The Media magazine.