Horse & Hound: Hotter than The Sun

Believe it or not 'Horse & Hound' outguns even the biggest newspapers on Facebook. Ian Burrell explores its publisher's booming online strategy
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You might know of Horse & Hound from the 1999 film Notting Hill, in which Hugh Grant's character Will Thacker posed as a reporter from Britain's oldest equestrian magazine. And you might think that a publication founded in 1884 and dedicated to such pursuits as dressage and cross-country riding would have little truck with new-fangled concepts like digital media. You would be very wrong.

Horse & Hound boasts more than 81,000 likes on Facebook, outranking such media brands as The Sun, The Guardian and heat magazine. The site's users are heavily engaged, cooing over "Magic of McGuigan", a 15 hands hedge-jumping bay, and reminiscing over the achievement of equestrian champion Lucinda Green (née Prior-Palmer), whose personal Facebook page (a hefty 2,200 likes) is linked to Horse & Hound's page. It's impressive for a title that sells a modest 52,176 copies a week. Horse & Hound is published by IPC, Britain's biggest consumer magazine publisher, which like all print media companies is wrestling with the task of translating the public's growing digital engagement with their brands into hard cash. IPC has had a particularly difficult past year, selling off some 20 publications, from Loaded to Cage & Aviary Birds, to concentrate on its core portfolio of titles.

IPC digital director Neil Robinson sees Horse & Hound's Facebook presence as an example of how a traditional magazine can respond to the public's changing use of media.

"This is how digital has touched every family in the UK and how big it is now," he says. "This brand is just bonkers. It has got one of the most active communities I have ever seen online and they are constantly talking about this weekend's gymkhana or their daughter having come third in an event and won a yellow rosette."

Robinson needs to bring these people even closer to the brand, so that they might actually spend some money by buying the magazine or at least coming to Horse & Hound's own website, which has active forums discussing such matters as stolen horses and where to buy jumps. "We know from the Facebook site that there's a significantly larger active horse-riding community in the UK than there are people buying our magazine, so can we bring these people in to buy the magazine because they clearly are engaged?"

Using the web as a marketing device to drive print sales is easier said than done. Although he stresses that magazine businesses are in a different position to newspaper publishers, having largely resisted the temptation to make their content freely available online, Robinson is "fascinated" by The New York Times's hybrid model of free initial access and subsequent charging. "They haven't made the full step that The Times in the UK have, where they shut everything down and said it's either pay or get no access," he says. "There's no doubt in my mind that we will always be balancing an element of free with an element of paid."

So IPC has just enhanced free access to its online portfolio by introducing mobile-optimised sites for titles including Marie Claire, NME, Nuts and more niche brands such as Shooting Times and Motor Boats Monthly. Robinson says access to IPC sites via mobile had increased in the last year from less than 5 per cent to nearly 15 per cent of all visits. He says the content on the sites needed to reflect the fact that many users are viewing them on small screens. "It needs to be more snackable than when you are sitting at a PC browsing."

A star performer in IPC's digital strategy is Marie Claire's Beauty Genius app, which offers how-to videos shot with leading make-up artists and shows readers how to apply fashionable looks such as "Gilded Lids" and "Catwalk Hair", or imitate celebrities by creating "Cheryl Cole's va-va-voom waves" or "Kate Bosworth's perfect red pout". The app, which is filmed in IPC's studios, sells at £1.19. Further in-app videos, such as "Flawless Face Fixers", are offered at 59p each to keep the revenue stream flowing. "Having your mobile phone by the mirror with your make-up bag, and watching a video that you can stop and start when trying to get that look, it makes sense really – rather than watching on a PC," Robinson says.

IPC has yet to move into apps for iPad, despite its parent company, Time Warner, putting titles such as Time and Sports Illustrated on the platform in America. Robinson confirms that iPad discussions are underway in London but the company is not ready to go public with its plans.

IPC's most popular digital property is NME, which now attracts 4.5 million unique users a month to its website. The 59-year-old title is virtually a digital brand, with the print sale having declined catastrophically, falling 16.4 per cent year-on-year in 2010 to 32,166. In its Seventies' heyday it sold nearly 300,000 copies a week.

Robinson, whose ceiling-to-floor glass-fronted office is 10 floors up in IPC's Blue Fin building behind the Tate Modern gallery, tries to look on the bright side. "In terms of overall reach of music fans in the world and the UK, NME has never been bigger. Our ability to work with advertisers or people within the music industry is of a scale which I don't think any of us would have believed when we launched the site in 1994." The NME app was launched in August (also £1.19).

IPC has attracted 1.5 million unique monthly users to goodtoknow, the web portal it has created to serve a range of editorial brands including Woman, Woman's Own, Woman's Weekly, Pick Me Up, Chat and Now. "Two-thirds of women in the UK read an IPC magazine and we have this portal which is the No 1 UK mass-market women's site," Robinson says. "It has a strong advertising model because so many FMCG producers and retailers target mass-market women because they own the purse strings."

As well as pulling in advertising, goodtoknow offers a shop selling everything from "personalised hampers" to "adult goodies". Dozens of products and services are listed by directory. Robinson believes magazines have great potential for making money by sending product recommendations by mobile phone. "This M-Commerce (mobile commerce) fascinates everyone," he says. "The job of magazines from day dot has been about entertaining people but we are reviewing so many products and all we are trying to do is help people and guide them to what is the best thing to buy."

But doesn't this risk compromising editorial values by offering favourable reviews of the products of advertising partners? Robinson insists there is a church-and-state relationship between the commercial and editorial departments at the Blue Fin building: "There's always been a strong divide. One of the reasons our magazines have survived so many years is because the editorial voice is so clear. I don't think anyone at IPC would think it would be a good idea to influence editorial in any way. It's a pretty strict line here."