The world of print — and the magazine industry in particular — continues to rise to the challenges it encounters. And this is all due to the hard work of editorial teams, who push out relevant content and keep their finger on the pulse of their niche markets. It’s because of them that print publications are able to remain in the hearts of their audiences.

But to be able to do this, publications need to use digital tools and social media, even for print-first titles.

Perhaps it is more accurate to start seeing the print and digital spheres as a two-sided coin to the same industry.

To gain more insight into this, media update’s Maryna Steyn sits down with Jason Aarons, publishing director at Isikhova Media, to chat about the opportunities and survival of print magazines.

What are the key factors that contribute to the survival of print publications in the digital age?

Viability: Ask yourself if there’s a market in the gap. If there isn't, don’t go there. If there is, ask why and research. Print has lost market share in the last 18+ months — some titles permanently, others temporarily while some have even made a return to shelves. The latter is due to a thorough viability assessment. If you’re going to survive, make sure it’s financially worth it.

Having an easily recognisable brand voice: Smart and savvy magazines that establish and proactively manage their brand identities are quickly recognised, have higher in-store engagement rates and loyal subscriber bases. [This is] music to advertisers’ ears, a symphony for publishers!

Design is a vital part of this too. If your content design, style, grid, font and visuals don’t deliver on the ‘promise’ your cover makes, your title will lose credibility, readers, advertising revenue … and so, the downward spiral begins.

Distribution channels: As a magazine lover [of] both print and digital, nothing irks me more than a subscription title arriving late — or not at all! Publishers need to have a workable and extremely reliable distribution strategy in place that takes care of the when, where, how and with whom. They need to ensure that their selected distribution channels and mailing houses have a proven track record; and supplying outreach options is crucial.

Providing effective reader ownership: The ‘warm and fuzzy feeling’ one gets from taking ownership of something tangible — and making it visibly known — is one of the main reasons I believe print magazines still play a role.

They reflect the aspirations of their readers and reinforce lifestyle interests. I remember saying to colleagues and friends over the years that “when I really grow up I want to be both a ‘VISI’ and a ‘House & Leisure’ magazine. It was with great pride when I lifted copies off a retail magazine rack — it meant ‘I’ve arrived’! And I always ensured a copy of these was visibly displayed on my coffee table!

Credible and relevant editorial: One of the crucial factors is knowing your readership. If your title veers off the mark literally from the get-go and doesn’t ‘walk the talk’, it’s going to be a disaster. Whether it is magazines on shelves or digital publications, eyes can wander very quickly to something else that grabs their attention. People will always choose the publication with the best content.

How have digital tools contributed to SA magazines thriving?

Digital tools contribute to printed mags by promoting printed formats online and including, for example, instant personal and gift subscription services that are available worldwide. Social media platforms also play a role in expanding brand reach and endorsement.

E-commerce and online purchasing sites provide terrific added-value offerings to print advertisers. Services, quotes and detailed product information can be requested instantly through email hyperlinks, bots and VOIP — offering a myriad of purchase methods through online portals.

Other noteworthy contributions digital has made are:

  • referral marketing initiatives
  • content hubs
  • promotions of door-to-door delivery services
  • fast and easy updates
  • a way to showcase teasers to stories that might only be found in the printed issue
  • electronic newsletter subscriptions — daily, weekly or monthly, and
  • loyalty programme monitoring.

What are the positive impacts that the pandemic has had on print?

Pre-Covid-19, magazine racks were being overwhelmed by a tidal wave of titles, of which many were international. All vied for prime shelf visibility. This has changed.

I feel [the pandemic] has given the South African magazine print industry the opportunity to regroup, reassess and reframe what worked and what didn’t — cultivating more exciting, homegrown titles, as well as ‘Local is lekker’ thinking.

Brand reinforcement and previously untapped innovation is driving products and services on social media. I don’t see this changing at all in the future.

Video conferencing tools such as Zoom have lifted the worry about how to see, service and maintain clients. Its single platform for meetings, phone, webinars and chats has become a welcome modus operandi in combating fuel and travel budgets for print publishers.

Digital publishers have seen a decline in advertisers over the past year. How has this affected print magazines?

Honestly, I’m unsure if the digital spend decline contributed in a majorly substantial way to an increased print spend across the board. I’m not convinced it did. Some titles seem to have retained their base and maybe have grown it, but more from strategic vision, content credibility and staying true to their brand — while still adapting to circumstance.

In our case, Isikhova Media launched two new purely online publications in 2020: SA Homeschooling Magazine and JZA – Your Jewellery Magazine. Our company has experienced quite the opposite. The take-up in online advertising is great!

We strategically planned to work with the traditional ‘I need to see three issues’ advertising model but were thrilled when major support came through from the get-go. Although not a pure digital experience yet, these have a proven and sustainable presence. So much so, that taking these to print is definitely on the future agenda.

What were some of the biggest challenges that magazines have encountered over the past year and how can they be overcome?

These would include reaching new readers and keeping the old ones, distribution, increased competition for ad spend from social media platforms, search engines and websites, as well as reader affordability.

To overcome these challenges, and others, publishers need to:
  • stay relevant
  • have the ability to adapt quickly
  • be solution-driven
  • use suppliers who live up to your expectations
  • research, and
  • always know their market.
It is also important to consider the difference between being proactive versus reactive.

What does the future of the South African print landscape look like?

At the end of 2020, the Business Research Company in the UK commented that the print media market will recover from the shock of COVID-19, as it is a 'black swan' event and unrelated to ongoing or fundamental weaknesses in the market or the global economy.

The landscape looks good. The core of making it better lies in digital/online creative collaborations, ever-increasing social media offerings and bold initiatives. One driving the other. It will take time and it will be different.

Out-the-box thinkers will be the ones to really rebirth print in an impactful way. Look at how Vogue Italia reacted in April 2020 with its completely white cover for the first time in the magazine’s history.

It’s editor-in-chief, Emmanuel Farneti, said: "It represents space and time to think, as well as to stay silent. White is for those who are filling this empty time and space with ideas, thoughts, stories, lines of verse, music and care for others.”

“White recalls when, after the crisis of 1929, this immaculate colour was adopted for clothes as an expression of purity in the present and of hope in the future. Above all, white is not surrender, but a blank sheet waiting to be written; the title page of a new story that is about to begin.”

Honestly, I think the landscape is like a season of Survivor where we’ve had to ‘outwit, outplay and outlast’ everyone! The print future is uncharted territory but it’s there.

What opportunities are arising in print media?

Niche markets are an opportunity, which often gets overlooked due to their size and perceived reach. Rebirthing titles with pre-Covid nostalgia is not going to cut it — you need to reinvent your brand.

Other opportunities also include partnering and collaborations; for example, Isikhova established media alliance partnerships last year with Solitaire Magazine, Asia Pacific region and CoNNect Agency in the UK.

The reciprocal global exposure of our brands and marketing awareness has given us wonderful editorial content and advertising reach. The same may be said of our editorial teams, which expanded locally and internationally to the USA, France and the UK.

Do you feel that print and digital aren’t opposites, but rather allies working towards the same goal? Let us know in the comments below.

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Creativity, digital tools and social media have proven to be vital assets to publishers. Don’t just take our word for it! Take a look at Why publishers are relying more on readers than ad revenue in 2021.