Customer magazines: An overview

However you look at it, the contract publishing sector is in rude health. As other brand channels furiously jostle for position and advertising in an uncertain and rapidly evolving media landscape, customer magazines are sitting pretty. Canny publishers like John Brown, Redwood, Cedar and Ink Publishing have, in recent years, taken the medium to a new level, creating a vehicle for branding and the soft sell that’s proving irresistible.

The impressive figures speak for themselves. After Internet advertising, customer magazines are easily the fastest-growing marketing medium with current spend running at more than £800m. With ABC figures of more than seven million, Sky Magazine has easily the highest circulation in the UK. And new titles continue to be launched at a staggering rate – 120 of them during a six-month period in 2007, which equates to a new customer magazine coming out every working day. Last year, we saw accomplished new titles from Butlins, Harley-Davidson, Coutts, Center Parcs and Shell, among many others.

The question is why? When we’re constantly being told that print is in its death throes, how has the once-humble customer magazine managed to evade the digital sledgehammer? Well, for starters, it’s because they’re more than capable of holding our attention. Research from Millward Brown shows that the average time spent mulling over the pages of your targeted consumer magazine is 25 minutes, while the very strongest contenders can keep readers informed or entertained for about 40 minutes. In anyone’s language, that’s significant exposure for your brand, and it’s achieved with the reader’s permission. (By comparison, posters hold the attention for eight seconds and TV ads for 30 seconds.)

As if this wasn’t enough, customer magazines have been shown to increase brand loyalty by a third, prompt nearly half of their readers to respond after scouring the latest issue and, finally – the fact that will sound like music to any chief executive’s ears – actually increase sales by 8 per cent. You can’t argue with that.

And what of the range and quality on offer? With so many different titles on the market, it’s impossible to compare customer magazines on a like-for-like basis. Award-winners both, Ink Publishing’s Ryanair Magazine may be just what you want next to your emergency instructions and sick bag, but it’s a million miles away from John Brown’s tactile, large-format Crystallized for Swarovski, aimed at creative types and hailed as the ‘most luxurious business-to-business magazine in the world’.

The very best customer magazines do more than simply employ the corporate brand guidelines to create a magazine, but create a sub-brand in themselves. The balance between content and branding is a critical one – heavy-handed brand messages are a sure-fire turn off. So from the mass-market fare aimed at supermarket customers, to in-house titles for employees, to specialist magazines for the professions, the trick is exactly the same – understanding the audience and creating content that’s relevant, lively and engaging (and brought to you by…). Exactly what you’d expect from a regular magazine, which is why the lines of demarcation between sponsored and independent titles have become so blurred.

Writers whose byline you’d expect to find in the Sunday papers or style press pop up with increasing regularity in customer magazines, while leading design consultancies like Farrow and NB Studio contribute their visual nous to stand-out publications for the Design Council and Soho House respectively. If anything, customer magazines have the licence to be more innovative than their cautious paid-for counterparts, and are showing the way forward in terms of editorial and design.

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