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How magazines can take a strategic approach to advertising

stack of magazines

How far can a magazine go without compromising its brand values? Mary Hogarth looks at strategies to improve advertising revenue.

When I first began my magazine career back in the late Nineties, the revenue model was more straightforward. Most proceeds came from copy sales and display advertising.

Today, not so much. While advertising sales still make a significant contribution to a magazine’s core business model, revenue has significantly declined across the sectors.

Although many publishers feel this a result of the digital disruption era, I suspect that a rethink was needed way before the big 2008 crash because as we know, familiarity breeds contempt.

Strategies for ad sales 

During the pre-digital era, I was working at a publishing company which published two national, newsstand titles, Writer’s Forum and Weddings Today. As we were a small team, I oversaw key aspects of the business side of publishing, which meant being involved with advertising sales targets and looking at maximising opportunities for promotional content.

While the Weddings Today focussed more on display advertising and promotional pages, Writer’s Forum had lots of potential for additional advertising revenue streams.  Opportunities for advertorial content and sponsorship – at that point – were aplenty.

Today, many such opportunities still exist.

However, publishers and editors should never underestimate the value of supporting their advertising sales teams by encouraging communication across the brand teams. It makes advertising sales easier and helps to build team spirit, all of which will positively impact on sales targets.

The value of such support was a vital lesson I learned long ago and was at the core of the following strategies we initiated at Writer’s Forum. Those five developmental strategies were as follows:

  1. Themed issues: producing themed issues at critical points in the year. Themes included self-publishing, holidays for writers, writing courses and a festival guide.
  2. Advertorial space: to support our advertising sales team, we included a small amount of advertorial content in every issue.
  3. Supplements: to further boost our ad revenue, we developed an annual Website for Writers guide, which I wrote. In addition to editorial, it carried advertorial copy as well as display advertising.
  4. Classified section: this enabled smaller companies or individuals to advertise their services – from proofreading and editing to word-processing and weekend workshops – all of which achieved a decent page yield.
  5. Writer’s Web Directory: was an extension of our classified section, the directory evolved as a result of the success of our annual edition of Websites for Writers.

Supplements and themed issues significantly boosted advertising revenue. The classified section widened advertiser participation while at the same time provided a directory of services to our reader.

Moreover, the initiative evolved following a meeting with our sales team who pointed out that some buyers couldn’t afford a quarter or half page advert but would pay for classified.

Listening to our sales team and developing strategies to address their concerns, rejuvenated advertising sales and ensured the team felt supported.

As a result, the advertising revenue on Writer’s Forum tripled between 2001 and 2005 at a time when the Internet was evolving, and social media had yet to become established.

Current challenges 

How would I counteract today’s decreasing advertising revenues? A few things would change, but the basic model of attracting the right advertiser to relevant products or services remains vital. Advertisers need high response rates, but these can only be achieved if adverts are targeted correctly.

Despite much of the recent doom surrounding print advertising, I believe that print and digital content can work well together. I see digital as an opportunity to be explored. Innovation and providing relevant content should be the starting point.

To make those five initial Writer’s Forum strategies successful in today’s market, I would look at including a servitization provision and expand on themed issues.

Moreover, I would adopt a multi-media approach to advertising sales by offering advertisers a package rather than separating advertising space into print, online, social media and eNewsletters. Taking a 360-degree, multi-platformed approach is – in my opinion – the way forward, and I have advised my clients accordingly.

Every publication is unique, so a publisher’s approach to advertising revenues must be developed specifically to fit the brand, its audience and their needs.

Why? Because when you give advertisers a choice of platforms, they are likely to choose only one. However, by offering media buyers an appropriately priced, multi-faceted package, you are providing them with a much broader exposure to their target market.

Such a strategy makes advertising a more attractive value proposition and could counteract a decline in sales.

Case study: Empire – a high-value product

Terri White, the award-winning Editor-in-Chief of Empire, shares her thoughts on advertising, promotional campaigns and blurred lines.

As Editor-in-Chief I’m involved in ideation for all advertorials. Creating Empire’s content day in day out means my team and I are perfectly placed to know what our audience will engage with and how brands can really connect with them. Content is content, whether it’s paid for or straight editorial – the reader still demands the same level of excellence. They want to immerse themselves in great storytelling, whether that’s straight from Empire or from Empire and a partner. 

Many magazines are struggling in terms of advertising revenue but in my opinion, there is absolutely no reason to compromise editorial standards to achieve strong ad revenue. I’ve actually found the opposite to be true – if you don’t have integrity and authenticity in your editorial, why would a brand trust you with theirs? 

I firmly believe that if you create a strong, compelling editorial product that deeply connects with and resonates with your audiences, the advertisers will come.  

It’s about having integrity and excellence as an editor and about being transparent with your audience. It’s about applying rigour and high standards to everything you put your hands on – whether that story has been paid for by your publisher or by an advertiser. 

Is native advertising a good thing for magazines? Yes, I think it is – but there needs to a true understanding of what native is. Native, to me, is not promotional content that isn’t labelled as such. We have complete transparency with our audience in terms of what is paid for. 

To me, native is great strong content that has been created with the help of the biggest and best brains on the editorial team. It packs the same punch as editorial, but it has been done in partnership with a brand. Our audience doesn’t care as long as the content is of the same quality as everything else in the magazine. 

My perspective

Listening to your team is vital, as is developing excellent communication between the editorial and advertising sales teams. Getting these two teams to talk to one another is perhaps one of the toughest strategies to implement – but it is vital if revenue is to be improved rapidly.

Lastly, consider taking a 360-approach to advertising sales, and don’t forget to invest in your media kit, which should be data-focused with infographics as well as detailing advertising options. Skimp on this at your peril.

This article is based on the ninth chapter of Mary’s latest book, Business Strategies for Magazine Publishing, published by Routledge and available from Amazon. 


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