Feature: The new magazines, part 2

In the second instalment of this three-part strategy magazine feature, writer Melita Kuburas examines recent redesigns at Canadian Business and Toronto Life, and what they mean to advertisers.

In this three-part strategy magazine feature adapted for Media in Canada, writer Melita Kuburas looks at how magazines are reinventing themselves in the face of a rapidly changing mediaverse. Today, a look at the brand-building strategies behind recent Canadian magazine redesigns.

Following a recessionary year full of juicy business news that, disappointingly, saw readership fall instead of rise, Canadian Business unveiled a redesign in fall of 2009 that featured a new editorial mandate aimed at expanding its target audience, explains Steve Maich, the magazine’s editor and associate publisher.

Now covering consumer culture, broader economic stories and analysis pieces and issues related to personal finance, Maich says the magazine is challenging what it means to be a ‘boring’ business magazine.

‘I think if you talk to your average person on the street and ask ‘would you be interested in reading a business magazine?’ a lot of people would say, ‘oh, no, I think business is terribly boring.’ And we’d like to challenge that idea on an ongoing basis. I feel like we’ve had a lot of success in doing exactly that and the advertising community seems to be coming along for the ride,’ he explains.

The redesign also created new ad inventory. A new franchise position within the magazine, opposite a Richard Branson column, is completely sold out for the year to Athabasca University, he says. Another key position that generated interest, according to Maich, is opposite a new section called ‘The Performer,’ which profiles individuals who have achieved success in their field. Not just for executives, it has included choreographers, golfers and actors.

A redesigned Canadianbusiness.com will launch in the last quarter of this year, and it will offer live-blogging and Q&As with experts, photo-driven multimedia packages, and more video and audio integration, says JP Fozo, GM, Rogers Digital Media, current affairs and business. All new features will have both standard and custom section sponsorship opportunities, including the option to brand a new portfolio tracking tool. The new site will also offer half-page units and pushdown ads that Fozo says CB clients are demanding.

By spring 2010, the Canadian Business readership had increased by 131,000, according to PMB, and the number of ad pages in June of this year (including inserts) was up 81%, according to LNA.

But while the expansion of the Canadian Business core mandate worked because it also reflected changes in the industry and readership needs, the mistake some publishers make is to move too far away from their core, says Christine Saunders, SVP group director, Starcom MediaVest Group.

‘It’s sort of the Canadian syndrome that magazines become too generic because they try to capture all advertisers. You’ve got to have a reason for being. They have to remember their brand basics,’ Saunders says.

Redesigns also signal to both readers and the advertising community that a magazine’s executives are continuing to invest in their product – after a year of cutbacks, this is a welcome change. ‘Last year was really a tough year, where they’ve had to take their eye off the ball, and many publishers let folks go. Not necessarily in advertising and sales, but in the writing and editorial staff, and that’s deeply concerning,’ says Saunders. After all, if they don’t invest in their printed pages and content, ‘how are they going to get this digital product right?’ wonders Saunders. ‘That’s their future.’

Toronto Life, a city mag that’s been around for more than 40 years, is one old-timer that has figured out its place in the online realm. Traffic on Torontolife.com jumped by 47% this April over the previous year to about 340,000 uniques per month. Although the traffic on Torontolife.com doesn’t necessarily reach the sky-high figures of web-only entities, it manages to maintain its brand voice and leverage it through a connection with readers. A posting about the minor Toronto earthquake this summer generated more than 60 comments within minutes.

One great example that could rival any Gawker.com article in terms of a sarcastic take on current events is a recent posting in a section called The Informer, titled ‘Hot Cops! Fifteen of the G20′s sexiest law enforcers.’ During the G20 summit, which set Toronto on fire (literally) with controversial protests and opinions, the photo gallery on Torontolife.com featured handsome police officers outfitted in riot gear, posing with steely gaze to camera.

‘There’s a sense of connectedness and that we’re there any time of the day,’ says publisher Sharon McAuley. ‘We’re not a portal with a commodity of eyeballs – we charge a premium because of the nature of who’s coming to our site.’

This online audience is also being leveraged to boost print sales. For instance, the September issue was launched with a dramatic, movie-trailer style video promoting the cover story on Ontario’s former attorney general Michael Bryant, who last year was involved in a deadly car crash with a cyclist. This type of innovation, recently adopted by book publishers, aims to draw in a wider web-denizen audience who will ideally pass it on to their social networks.

After all, in an age of iPads, mobile phones and free daily news online, what will make someone pick up a magazine? It’s precisely this question that the St. Joseph management team discussed when planning a redesign of the mag unveiled this past July, explains McAuley.

The result for the title was lengthier articles, a well-known (and somewhat controversial) new columnist, former Globe and Mail writer Jan Wong, and the introduction of a culture section and bold photo spreads that are strikingly similar to New York magazine.

‘In a magazine you can have very ambitious, big, juicy reads. It’s the kind of thing that you can really sink your teeth into,’ says McAuley, of the changes that resulted in a denser book. ‘It’s an object that people want to take time with. They’re very engaged with it. You’re not googling on your smartphone or watching TV – when you’re reading a magazine you’re enveloped into it.’

This kind of experience is one many readers still want to have with their favourite titles. Although paid subscriptions are down 5.55% for the period ending June 2010 according to ABC, newsstand sales are increasing and there are no drastic changes in readership according to the PMB. But buyers say print budgets are not bouncing back as quickly as they have for other mediums like television.

‘We’re still looking at a very conservative stance in terms of any kind of rate increases,’ says Tim Hughes, managing director, client leadership at Mindshare Canada, about budgets. ‘I would say that it has been a challenge for the publishers to get through the increases that they might like.’

But this doesn’t mean that publishers are just sitting back and waiting for the money to return – the move to reinvent, be more social and innovate around points of connection is not limited to editorial content.

Tomorrow: The new magazines, part 3 ‘Ad innovation’

Related stories: The new magazines, part 1