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Computer magazines and advertising

Print publishing, and especially magazines, rely on a happy conjunction
of the desire of consumers for independent information and the desire
of companies to piggy-back on this to reach consumers. Display
advertising – the kind you see in the main pages of magazines and
newspapers – works, and has formed a central part of the tao of marketing since popular publishing started in the 19th Century.

There
have always been two kinds of display advertising. The first kind aims
to hit the broadest possible market, or – at least according to some -
the lowest common denominator. This is the kind of ad that you see in
the biggest magazines and in newspapers, for huge brands and chain
stores.

The second kind relies on print publications’ ability
to hit a specific niche market. This could be a local newspaper’s
dominance of its locality, or it could be a computer magazine’s ability
to reach a target market segment. In the case of my old magazine, MacUser,
this was the professional design user in the UK – a high-spending, very
loyal market that was ideal for advertisers. Because the audience was
high-spending, MacUser was
able to charge high per-page prices for advertising, while having a
relatively low circulation (around 25,000 when I was editor). Companies
were willing to pay high prices because the magazine offered a very
targeted form of advertising – you knew an awful lot about the people
you were trying to sell to, which meant you didn’t waste money
attempting to sell products they aren’t interested in.

Take a
look on the racks of a large British newsagents, and you’ll see just
how many magazines this targeted, niche form of advertising has been
capable of supporting. Going back to my own market segment, Macs, there
are three Mac magazines with a combined readership of around 60,000.
This small readership supports the employment of probably around 30
editorial, ad sales and marketing people, full time, plus various
freelancers that add up to a few more full-time equivalent people. And
none of this counts the printers, distributors, and other "ancillary"
staff. The budgets, even in this tiny market, add up to many millions.

But
the problem for magazines is that something has come along that offers
far, far more effective targeted advertising: the Internet. Want to
reach only those people in London interested in Mac software between
1pm and 4pm? No problem – Google will offer you that, and what’s more
you get hard, tangible data on how effective your advert is. This is
great stuff, and entirely predictable since the dawn of advertising on
the Internet.

What’s more, the circulations of magazines in
niche markets are being squeezed by the same source: the Internet.
Readers are gradually drifting away from niche magazines, as they realise
that they can get the same or in some cases better information on the
web, for free. Every computer magazine I can think of has seen its
circulation drift down over the past few years, as more and more
eyeballs focus on the net.

This begs the question of what the
future holds for niche magazines, and I’d suggest that the future is
fairly bleak. Circulations and ad revenue can only drift down so far
before the quality of editorial suffers. Publishers will either seek to
force staff to do more and more, or simply dump the staff in favour of
cheaper freelance. Gradually, staff will leave and not be replaced -
and sooner or later this will mean that the quality of editorial
suffers. Once that rot sets in, the magazine is doomed.

Looking
at my own old market, computers I’d estimate that within five years
there will be no more than five main titles in the UK, plus some
imports. Even these will be slim by current standards, and most will
survive by effectively being print digests of material that appears
online first.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/stuartbrucepr/ Stuart Bruce – BMA PR

    I currently ‘read’ 30+ different magazines a month. Some are for leisure/interest. Some are for work. But the majority straddle the two – I enjoy my work. However, I read them in the bath, in the garden and on the sofa. The problem with the on-line premise is that it doesn’t fit how people actually read magazines. Advertisers might initially like the idea of that level of control and targeting but only if it works. My suspician is that on its own it won’t.

    Also the way people are influenced and make decisions is more complicated that the web advertising people would have you believe. I remember doing some research in the pre or very early web days. Through focus groups we realised that people were being stimulated by our PR campaign to respond to advertising. Looking at the raw stats it looked like the advertising was massively outperforming PR. The reality was somewhat different.

  • http://technovia.typepad.com Ian Betteridge

    I agree that the magazine format itself offers lots of advantages to readers, but readers have always only been half the story. What’s broken isn’t magazines, but the relationship between magazine advertising and response – a relationship that’s been crucial to the development and success of magazines in general, and in niche markets in particular.

    What’s more, you’re missing out on a truism of business: more measurable results that you can show to your boss will always be more popular than less measurable ones. The measurability of online ads is a huge plus. Add in the fact that the context in which they appear can be very tightly controlled, and you get a package that’s just more attractive – and arguably more effective – than traditional display ads for targeted marketing.

  • http://www.onemanandhisblog.com/archives/2006/06/the_doom_of_nic.html One Man & His Blog

    The Doom of Niche Magazines?

    Synchronicity is a wonderful thing. I was in a local newsagent earlier (picking up a copy of the new-look New Statesman, more on which anon), when I spotted a couple of Mac magazines on the shelf, I suddenly realised that I haven’t bought a Mac magazi…

  • Simon Edwards

    Ian, I am very disappointed to see you abuse the oft-abused term “begs the question”. Usually a question is “posed” or “raised”. Shall I bore you and your readers with a definition of “beg the question”? (The previous sentence does beg the question, by the way, as it supposes you will be bored – true though that may be :) )

    Si.