Media: Change is good for your figures

Sales of women's magazines are falling. Why? Because women are changing, and publishers can't keep up.
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The Independent Culture
What's happening to women's magazines? Or, more importantly perhaps, what's happening to women? They used to be reliable purchasers of their favourite titles, deviating only momentarily to embrace a new arrival which would fit seamlessly into their ever expanding portfolio of must- have glossy buys.

Not any more. Choice has never been better, women have never been more media-literate - and women's magazines have never felt such a chill wind of neglect. The publishers, naturally, have well- rehearsed answers. "Yes, our circulation figures are slightly down, but given the number of launches in our sector we have, in fact, increased our market share," - and pigs have flown.

"Women are temporarily being distracted at news-stands by scratch cards/ the lottery/ a plethora of newspaper magazines, but the market is stabilising" - pigs remain airborne. "Some younger women have been tempted by the success of the men's magazines, but the market is returning to normal." Pigs in space.

In truth, "the market" is neither stabilising nor returning to normal. It has changed. Why? Because women have changed, and those publishers who have noticed this - and there aren't many - haven't changed their magazines fast enough. Hence most women's titles, from Good Housekeeping to Elle are losing circulation; stalwarts like Cosmopolitan and Vogue are just managing to hang on; Options, the big success of the 1980s, has closed and Red, Emap's pounds 5m - or pounds 7m, depending on who you're talking to - launch has taken a nasty tumble.

There is a golden route to magazine success: focus on your reader and fulfil her needs. Those needs will swing in different degrees from information to aspiration to sensation but must, without fail, reach expectation and beyond. Currently, many women are expecting more from their magazines than is being delivered, and there's nothing guaranteed to lose readers faster than dashed expectations.

In recent years it has become far more difficult to categorise women by age and type. A simple example: it used to be fair to assume that younger women would be interested in fashion and beauty topics and older women in home and leisure. Now, younger women are as interested in their homes as their mothers, just as their mothers are into fashion and style. Clothes and kitchens are now interchangeable between generations; aspirations remain diverse but not predictable, and the thirst for information grows across the board. Humour is less decade-dependent, music is timeless (Blondie at the top of the charts, for God's sake) and that well-loved Cosmo staple, "how to be good in bed" seems to appeal more to the fearsome 50s than their children.

This lifestyle evolution makes a nonsense of publishers' traditional market segmentation (they like to divide women's magazines into "fashion and beauty", "home" and "general interest"). "Fashion", to the reader, is a universal term meaning "now" style in clothes/ home/ thinking. "Beauty" is an oddly outmoded word which has almost no relevance to "self", and self is where beauty is at these days - be yourself, care for your well- being, follow your spirit. The "step-by-step to a perfect face" feature, so loved by the "fashion and beauty" magazines, have about as much relevance as "step-by-step to a perfect government". "Home" also relates to self, but in a more hostile way. It doesn't just mean sofas and sinks, it means the way you live and feel which, in turn means spirit, style and well- being.

I labour the point: suffice it to say the women's lifestyles as they lead them, or, importantly, as they aspire to lead them, are not being genuinely reflected in their magazines. And readers are quick to pick up a sham.

What's the answer? Many people claim modern men's magazines have hit it, with the enormous success of titles like FHM and Loaded. But, in truth, this is simply an immature market in the throes of maturing. When Cabal launched the younger men's title, Front, in October there were words of warning about the 'difficulties" of the market place. In truth, the only "difficulty" was that the market was wrapped in the mass domination of the only two big players. It was rather like saying that if Marie Claire and Good Housekeeping were the only two women's magazines in existence, younger readers would have difficulty responding to the launch of Company. Of course they wouldn't - they simply hadn't had the chance until it arrived. The men's magazine market is ripe for segmentation and will change almost recognisably in the next few years.

Meantime, I predict a fairly slow and painful evolution in the women's marketplace. More magazines focussing on smaller but more acute lifestyle niches, less predictability and more honesty.

One example is Good Health, which my company will be publishing from the April issue. It will be a lifestyle magazine taking health as its focus. It works from the basic lifestyle premise that most modern women understand that there is no one better to chart their pathway in life than themselves and the more information, direction and energy they have the better. Therefore, the magazine will cover every aspect of their lives from the point of view of personal well-being and happiness.

Needless to say, there is a knack in finding just the right lifestyle niche to sustain a vibrant title. Take gardening, for instance, a burgeoning marketplace on every level, fuelled by rapidly growing consumer interest. Hence, garden centres are booming - a sure way to spot a trend with legs is to watch where money is being spent - and so are all media support systems, including television programmes and magazines. At the last count there were some 12 gardening magazines blooming nicely on news-stands, with several more in the pipeline.

You could be mistaken for believing that cooking might support a similarly successful magazine niche. After all, there is massive consumer interest, supported by literally thousands of gorgeously seductive books and television programmes presented by the new, pony-tailed, superstar chefs. But cookery magazines don't flourish. Good Food survives with plenty of highly controversial on-screen support from relevant BBC television programmes. Publishers with handy television backing make forays into the market, most recently Food Illustrated from John Brown, which made very little headway on its own, has been rescued by Waitrose to become their in-store title.

Which neatly illustrates why stand-alone cookery magazines fail; they need some kind of Big Daddy, and recently there have been plenty of Big Daddies in the shape of customer-hungry supermarkets. Hence Sainsbury's own magazine, which prides itself on being a general- interest rather than a food magazine - though it is bought for the recipes - is flourishing, as are the Tesco, Safeway and Asda magazines which, though distributed free to customers, have tapped into the cookery niche.

And it comes back, yet again, to lifestyle. There are very few things we know women do regularly; they wake up, go to bed, want to have more money and be better understood, and they go to a supermarket. It makes sense that they will expect their supermarket, where, after all, they buy their food, to supply them with all the cookery magazines they need. Unlike gardening, cookery is a function of life; gardening is an extension.

There are already vast quantities of magazines fighting for attention on the news-stands - some would argue too many - and vast quantities of potential readers with less and less time to work out just which one is right for them. For any magazine to succeed, it must instantly attract the attention of its potential customer by clear signposting, plus enough "triggers" on the cover to prompt purchase. All in the space of about 30 seconds. Is it any wonder sales of women's magazines are suffering? Try sorting out one from another at the station news-stand when you've got about three minutes to catch the 6.32. Readers aren't going to bother to analyse the difference between one title and the next, it's up to the magazine to tell them. If your cover looks almost identical to the one next door, no wonder you've got problems.

The exciting news for publishers is that there is so much potential; hoards of dissatisfied female magazine junkies out there, looking for a title to call their own. The challenge is catching them before they give up their faith in magazines altogether. There are plenty of other leisure time temptations, even before the Internet kicks in. As publishers, we have no time to lose.

Sally O'Sullivan is Chief Executive of Cabal Communications and former editor of 'Good Housekeeping'