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Tesco’s magazine has overtaken The Sun as the most read print title in the UK, proving that retail brands can become publishers in their own right.

The bi-monthly publication has grown its readership to 7.2m, according to the NRS. By contrast The Sun has a readership of 7.1m.

The retailer’s investment in content is a smart move, and it isn’t alone. Asda’s magazine has 6m readers. The M&S magazine has 3.7m readers. Sainsbury’s has 3.4m readers. 

By contrast, the biggest newsstand print magazine is What’s On TV, with 2.2m readers.

This tells us what we already know: original, quality content is king. I’m sure you’ve heard that a million times, but try to avoid growing tired of it.

Tesco vs The Sun

While the stats are impressive, a touch a caution is required. As Roy Greenslade writes in The Guardian, "beware of comparing apples and pears". 

While Tesco magazine does have 7.2m readers, it is only published every two months, while The Sun, of course, is published daily and therefore reaches a larger audience overall. 

Moreover, Greenslade also points out that the tabloid enjoys a greater reader engagement. People spend an average of 29 minutes with The Sun and 16 minutes reading the Tesco mag. How much of the former is spent on page three is unclear... 

This does not detract from Tesco though, or the value of the content for retailers. Investment in this area is definitely the future. 

Audiences, not customers

I like the way that retail brands are thinking about appealing to ‘audiences’, as opposed to ‘customers’ or ‘prospects’. 

Many of these magazines are of course full of commercially-aligned content. For example, the recipes in the Sainsbury’s magazine are there to help convince you to buy the ingredients from its stores, or website. But make no mistake: these are not catalogues, where the focus is all about the products. 

The best own-brand magazines mirror the best non-brand magazines, in that they are there to inform, entertain and inspire readers.

Why? Because the smartest retailers really understand content, and in some cases they are light years ahead of their publisher counterparts with regards to optimising their content for devices like mobiles and tablets.

Take Net-A-Porter, which clearly takes its content operation very seriously. So much so that it hired Harper’s Bazaar editor Lucy Yeomans earlier this year, to become its editor-in-chief, overseeing its various publications.  

These include an own-brand magazine, tablet and mobile apps, and its website, which are read by “over 3.5m woman” according to Yeomans.

Other e-commerce pureplays have invested in magazines to extend their brand in an offline environment. 

ASOS ramped up its investment in content five years ago, after deciding to ditch its affiliates, a move that caused ripples (ASOS CEO Nick Robertson described affiliates as “grubby”) but which has turned out to be an inspired move.

It initially focused on magazine advertising, in the likes of Grazia, before launching its own magazine. 

The ASOS magazine, which is available in print, online, or as an app, is read by around 450,000 people. A big success. 

So what about the publishers?

Econsultancy CEO Ashley Friedlein predicted in early 2011 that the publishers and retailers would move towards a ‘pubtailing’ model. He said:

"Pubtailing. This is the blend of publishing and retailing. Many publishers need to sell stuff to fix their broken business models, whether subscriptions, apps, content, affiliate revenues etc. and so need retailing skills. At the same time retailers need to have skills in content, community and social media which publishers are typically better at.

"Also, many e-commerce sites (and stores) increasingly need to look at advertising (i.e. a publisher skillset) revenue streams to continue to grow, or make up for the fact that the likes of Amazon, Google or Apple might be hijacking their sales (largely via m-commerce in store). My post on 'the unbundling of the shopping experience across channels: implications for retailers' talks more about this."

Ashley was right about the retailers, but a little bit too optimistic as far as the publishers are concerned. Most major publishers remain clueless about how to make the most of their audiences in a digital world.

Their decline is terrifying for all concerned, and the window of opportunity is closing fast. 

Perhaps it has been easier for retailers to get into the publishing game because they’re better set up for it? Maybe they are less concerned about protecting their legacy business, and actually have a vision for the future that makes sense.

Or, more likely, it’s because they had to, given that search rankings are nigh on impossible to achieve without a solid base of killer content, and no brand should to be overly reliant on paid search. I think that’s the reason why so many brands are producing so much content. The rise of social media has also helped to focus minds on content creation.

In any event, I think the pubtailing model is certainly one that still offers some hope to the world’s beleagured publishers, but the reality is that it is the retailers who are winning at this game, and the success of retail brands mentioned above shows that they are adept at becoming publishers in their own right. 

So, an open question: which publishers are actually doing this stuff well, at a meaningful level? Which other brands are having success as publishers?

Suggestions on a postcard, or in the comments area below if you prefer... 

Chris Lake

Published 20 November, 2012 by Chris Lake

Chris Lake is CEO at EmpiricalProof, and former Director of Content at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter, Google+ or connect via Linkedin.

582 more posts from this author

Comments (4)

Steve Davies

Steve Davies, CEO at Fitch Media

Chris, a word of caution on these conclusions - I'm not saying you are wrong, just that there's more to it than initially appears.

Back in 2007, when BSkyB re-launched their publishing division, my teams were providing much of their marketing insight and campaign management support - we therefore got to know how that business worked.

Sky's magazines 'were' the largest titles in the UK, with around 7.5 million receiving Sky Mag, plus around 8 million people reading the Sky Movies and Sky Sports mags. With a base of 10 million customers (most of whom received the mag), this made Sky considerably bigger than Tesco as a publisher.

While the reason for Sky publishing their magazines might seem obvious (increasing engagement with viewers and providing leverage when bidding for exclusive content rights), it was also justified by a little-known loophole which enabled them to offset £2.25 of the subscription fee into the zero-VAT class for news/publishing products. This saved them around £50 million (in tax) each year.

Sky closed down their magazines a year ago and moved this content publishing online (newsletters, apps, web) since this offers greater immediacy of response and higher conversation rates. Plus the revenue closed the tax loophole and Royal Mail raised the prices for bulk mail, so the numbers no longer made sense (even at around 9 million readers).

The other point to challenge/clarify is that of "quality content is king". As has been taught in business schools for decades, good marketing involves understanding what customers 'really want' and therefore what business you are in. It's the classic error that Kodak made with photography and IBM (nearly) made with typewriters - don't be misled by the product, which is merely a proxy for the 'experience' enjoyed by the customer. Kodak should have been in the business of capturing, manipulating and sharing images instead of 'photography'.

Tesco are in the business of providing daily household consumables, and using content to remind consumers of their needs and wants, may indeed make sense. But consumers will most likely be ‘reading’ Tesco’s magazine to find offers, ways of redeeming their club card points and perhaps advice on how to spend ‘less’. Provided Tesco produces content within this remit, then the economics may continue to make sense. It would be interesting to note how many of Tesco’s magazines are mailed to customers as opposed to picked up in store.

Anyway, I agree with you that content is the new currency of branded marketing, but it’s not a de facto tool that every brand should necessarily adopt (in becoming conventional publishers) – it all comes down to the experience delivered to customers and the utility of that experience when compared to other options.

As far as publishers becoming retailers, most publishers in my opinion don’t understand what business they are currently in, far less trying to enter a new one. There’s a whole white paper on this topic, that I must get around to writing sometime, but to answer your question – No, there’s no publisher who is doing this pubtailing stuff well, nor do I see that situation changing until they begin to understand that there is no real correlation between quality content and value.

Value comes from the experience being offered, and a great user experience leads to a well-respected brand and the opportunity to provide retail services to its audience. It’s basic digital marketing, but then most publishers remain clueless about that too.

over 3 years ago

Chris Lake

Chris Lake, CEO at Empirical Proof

A very thoughtful comment Steve, and interesting to hear about the Sky example (and tax loophole). I guess I'm not talking about retailers becoming conventional publishers, but more about the kind of scale that potentially comes with top notch content marketing. But yes, tons of caveats... horses for courses, as ever.

over 3 years ago

Steve Davies

Steve Davies, CEO at Fitch Media

My fingers (and toes) are crossed that content marketing might herald a new era of 'marketing with substance'.

I've always been fascinated by the notion of marketing, understanding the behaviour and needs of an audience and then skilfully aligning products and services more effectively than the competition, but 'most' marketing fits into the blunt-force end of that scale with little or no pride in the way that engagement is won.

So far, content marketing seems to be quite discriminating (in terms of quality and integrity) - although no doubt there are plenty of marketers trying to think up a way of building a bigger pipe and hosing their audiences into submission.

Maybe that should be the title of my white paper - "Marketing with Substance" – but I do hope that's the philosophy that content marketing ends up encouraging..

over 3 years ago

Ashley Friedlein

Ashley Friedlein, Founder, Econsultancy & President, Centaur Marketing at Econsultancy, Centaur MarketingStaff

I recently gave a presentation at a RichRelevance event on "What can retailers learn from publishers online?" (download it from http://econsultancy.com/reports/what-can-retailers-learn-from-publishers-online).

In short the answer is... not much! Which supports your point Chris.

However, the people who are doing a much better job of online publishing (than most publishers) are the brands and manufacturers. My presentation gives a number of examples.

So the interesting battle might be between the retailers and their suppliers (the brands/manufacturers). Just as these lot have tussled for years in the real world (around price, supermarket own label vs brands etc) the same is happening online. Who, for example, will own the 'prime shelving space' for key phrases/terms on Google and what leverage will that give them in negotiations?

over 3 years ago

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