The paradox of the digital age is that as technology converges, markets fragment. Niche magazines, which are marketed to increasingly specialised, even esoteric, communities of interest, are rapidly increasing in numbers.
In the United States, you can buy titles like Girls and Corpses (mostly featuring dead bodies groping scantily clad young ladies) and Cowboys and Indians (apparently dedicated to the lifestyles of southern ranch owners). But the outrageous and bizarre are just the peak – or the low point, perhaps – of the media fragmentation also seen in subjects with more mainstream appeal.
The South African market boasts hundreds of titles, including INTIEM (Intimacy), dedicated to promoting intimacy among married Christian couples; cosmetic surgery magazine A2; and The Collector, for antique and art fundis.
Niche magazines lay claim to loyal readership, high credibility among those readers, a collectability factor and targeted messages for advertisers. But many nevertheless struggle to get advertising in South Africa, where media agencies tend to prize volume. And part of the challenge of getting readers is getting the magazine to them.
The South African distribution environment is dominated by two players – Caxton CTP’s RNA and the Media24 logistics arm, On The Dot (OTD). Both offer established logistics networks that will deliver to all the major retailers and even some not so major ones. Both deliver niche titles.
Some publishers use their own networks, as well as the big distributors. Managing director of niche publisher Media in Africa, Liezel van der Merwe, says her company manages its own distribution for its business-to-business titles, which include Floors In Africa, and Walls and Roofs in Africa. These are distributed through the post to a specific database. Their Great Flooring Guide is bagged with décor titles like TUIS, HOME and VISI.
Media In Africa also publishes INTIEM, and Van der Merwe says using RNA to distribute this title has boosted the magazine’s profile.
“Getting shelf space for a new magazine that is not in the Media24 or Caxton stable is a massive challenge. The competition is fierce. However, INTIEM secured shelf space because of the uniqueness of the magazine and the demand from the public. RNA took on the magazine, which was vital in securing distribution success. Independent distributors don’t have the reach that RNA and On The Dot have.
“RNA’s team of merchandisers ensure continuous success on the shelves. Without proper merchandising, the public don’t have an opportunity to consider buying your magazine,” she says.
However, specialist niche distribution can offer magazines and the outlets that stock them a higher degree of personal attention, says Michela Metelerkamp, co-founder and CEO of Ezweni Magazine Distribution. Ezweni is the only specialist distributor in the country and since its inception in 2006 it has grown from a staff of three and one cycling magazine to 40 employees who distribute 80 retail and free magazines. In 2008, Caxton bought into the company and Ezweni took over distributing RNA’s small titles.
Metelerkamp says the high level of service her company offers is one reason for its success. “RNA focuses on delivering to big retailers. Their approach doesn’t work so well on the small side. Small retailers need individual care and attention. They are independently owned, they need someone to complain to, to build a relationship with.”
Ezweni also offers retailers a 30-day credit account, so the stores don’t have to pay for magazines they don’t sell, which is something the big distributors do not offer. And their reach is wide: they deliver to 4 000 venues – including government departments, mining houses, the Emirates gate service at OR Tambo International Airport, and many small shops – in Durban, Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and all over Gauteng. Their operations are co-ordinated by custom-built software that can also refine their focus on specific retailers by area, LSM, age group and so on. They employ their own drivers and it is cost effective for them to take small deliveries to smaller stores, as it would not be for RNA or OTD.
Ezweni, who service 50 local publishers as well as the titles they get from RNA, also aim at getting their titles into Exclusive Books and CNA, which gives the magazines credibility and access to a wide audience. Metelerkamp says they focus on these two retailers as large supermarket chains such as Woolworths and Pick n Pay are highly selective about what they stock. Exclusive Books likes to attract as wide a readership as possible, increasing foot traffic to their outlets, whereas it’s not worth the while of supermarkets to stock titles with narrow appeal.
Publishers approach Ezweni – Metelerkamp gets about 15 requests a month – and if she likes the title and thinks it has a chance, she will market it to the outlets. However, if a magazine is very esoteric with an extremely limited appeal, she advises them to distribute though subscription. Metelerkamp tells even the free titles to get a barcode on the cover, as including a price makes the consumer feel they have picked up something of value, even if they actually paid nothing for it.
Metelerkamp says that the biggest challenge she faces is making small retailers understand that they won’t make much money off the magazines they sell. “The point is rather to get foot traffic into their stores. If you have a pet, you might go to the pet store once every three months. If you know, however, that they stock a particular magazine to do with that pet, you will go in monthly to buy it – and maybe end up buying something else from the shop.”
A distributor might have demonstrated competency in a particular sector. The bodybuilding title Muscle Evolution switched from RNA to OTD because, says publisher and editor in chief Andrew Carruthers, OTD has a proven track record with distributing health and fitness titles. Carruthers, who started the magazine 10 years ago, says they have increased their footprint and print run (from 13 000 to 17 000) with OTD. “Distribution is an evolution in itself in that we need constantly to relook at the footprint of mag drops in order to find where the sales hotspots are and focus on delivering more content to those areas,” he says. Muscle Evolution’s team are now planning to spread into African countries where the sport of bodybuilding is growing at a rapid rate.
Increasingly, digital platforms offer another avenue of distribution – and open up the magazine to a new set of readers. DIY magazine Home Handyman editor Johan Stadler says the digital edition of his magazine has attracted expat readers from the UK, Australia and New Zealand, and some subscribers in places like the Philippines and Brazil. This is surprising, considering the local focus that Stadler says is Home Handyman’s strength. “The nice thing about digital is that there are no production costs because the production is already made… [And] when we have problems with the postal service and our subscribers don’t get their magazine on time, I can offer them a digital edition.”
The readers of the print edition, distributed by RNA to supermarkets and building supply stores across South Africa, tend to hang on to back issues. Home Handyman even publishes an index to help readers easily access content in back issues.
Stadler says his magazine’s content is not threatened by the internet. A lot of the information may be available online, but it’ll be in imperial measurement, or use products that are unavailable in South Africa.
Carruthers has had a similar experience. “In the beginning we thought that digital would impact our hard copy sales, but this in actual fact isn’t the case at all. The digital consumer (from what we have gathered) is a different reader to the guy who loves the tangibility of having a printed paper copy in his hands. Our magazines are timeless in that the information is always relevant and Muscle Evolution is not a magazine that gets thrown in the bin after one read. It’s also a great selling point to tell our clients we are digital and being published and purchased all around the world through zinio.com.”
Muscle Evolution began partly as a platform for the sale of sports supplements, and the internet has only enhanced this aspect. “As the digital platform develops we will start embedding video feeds and links for readers to purchase product directly by simply clicking on a product,” says Carruthers.
Van der Merwe says Media In Africa is experiencing an increase in digital copy sales. Also, “we’ve secured the website www.freemagazines.co.za to host our business-to-business titles, giving us the advantage of a top Google search site,” she adds.
Niche magazines are not one-size-fits-all – and successful niche distribution should mirror the particular needs of their very specialised readership.