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…