SA case study reveals that traditional paper magazines are beating their internet counterparts hands down
By Mlenga Jere and Susan Davis
Publishers are up in arms, print journalists are panicking and at least once every few months, one reads of another magazine shutting down because it just isn’t bringing in enough profits. The global recession, combined with a spike in online media consumption, has been blamed for the apparently terminal condition of magazines. And in a last desperate scramble to survive, many printed publications are opting for internet-only subscriptions or offering exclusive content via social networking sites.
But can print magazines be written off that easily? John Marr wrote in his 1999 article “Zines are Dead” that “The quirky spirit of zines hasn’t died. It’s just migrated to the web. If I were starting out today, no way would I mess with hard copy – I’d go straight to the net. It’s cheaper, easier, and faster…everyone knows this.” But, 13 years down the line, it seems Marr spoke too soon – and other scholars are also warning that print media won’t go down without a fight.
Lisa McLean writes in the Guardian, for instance, that print media have been warned of their impending doom more times than they can count, from the turn of the 20th century – which brought the first motion pictures – to the advent of radio and network television and, most recently, the internet. And yet they survive.
In fact, new research from the UCT Graduate School of Business which looked at consumption patterns in South Africa has revealed that, if anything, it seems more likely that online magazines are under threat. Despite the rapid growth of web consumers in South Africa (and the number is set to double within five years), even the most popular print magazines are battling to attract readers to their online counterparts. One of the most popular women’s magazines – Cosmopolitan – attracts 6 000 website visitors per month, but sales of printed copies are almost double that (bearing in mind that circulation figures are typically much higher than sales figures). So, in a nutshell, the real challenge facing South African magazines has not been migrating to the web in time, but rather getting consumers to migrate alongside.
The logical question, then, is what print magazines are offering their readers that websites do not. But this also has to be weighed against what is most important to readers. Undoubtedly the web does have some advantages in terms of cost, the freshness of news, etc. But if this is not what readers care about most in a magazine, then it does not add up to a competitive advantage – so it’s essential to understand the readers’ motivations and what they are looking for.
Traditionally, print magazines have followed a reasonably simple formula for making a profit: using journalistic content to segment and target consumers and, in turn, attracting advertising revenue. And it has worked for almost a century. Unfortunately for local magazines, however, South Africa doesn’t have a culture of loyal magazine subscription, and most sales can be put down to “impulse buys” at the till – which means magazines cannot rely on regular sales, but must compete afresh for consumers’ attention with each new edition. Many magazines have responded to this potential pitfall by positioning their brands as a specific personality which readers will want to engage in many areas of their lives on a regular basis – a perceived friendship, if you will.
Relationships are not the be-all and end-all
But forming relationships with readers is not the be-all and end-all. A relationship will still be terminated summarily if the consumer’s needs are not being met, and for this reason, the abovementioned research relied mostly on the uses and gratifications theory. For the non-communication theorists out there, this is essentially the idea that audiences are not passive receivers of messages, but active participants who decide what to consume and absorb based on what they get out of it – which in turn is informed by their social and psychological makeup and, of course, their individual needs. Put simply, it’s about looking at the use they have for the media they consume, and the gratification they get out of it – or, more crudely, what’s in it for them.
The survey questions
From this starting point, the study set out to answer three questions, namely:
• What are the motives of South African women for using the internet?
• What are the motives of these same women for reading women’s magazines?
• In what areas would the internet provide superior gratification to magazines and vice versa?
Questionnaires consisting of 30 statements measuring the motivations for magazine and internet use were given to participants who could agree or disagree with them on a sliding scale. Simple enough. The results, however, were surprising.
The overwhelming majority of women said they used the internet primarily for chatting (perhaps less surprising) or banking (more surprising). Less than 70% used the internet for work and, in an uncomfortable reinforcement of stereotypes, far more used the internet for cooking and recipes than news or other information. The primary factors influencing satisfaction with their surfing time were, in order of importance: interpersonal utility (the internet as a means to connect with others and maintain relationships); information seeking (the actual process of finding information); surveillance (keeping up to date with current events); self-development (creativity, development and self-growth); exploration (their enjoyment of just surfing the web); diversion (relaxation and entertainment); and, lastly, career opportunities.
Information-seeking tops the list of importance
These results differed significantly when looking at the factors motivating women to read print magazines. In order of importance, these were: information seeking; status (which includes improving one’s social position, shopping and even finding romance); diversion; career opportunities; self-development (an inspiration to do something new or change their lives); and exploration (where it also came out that the respondents enjoyed discovering new print magazines).
Interestingly, careers were a salient factor in print consumption, despite the relatively low amount of career content in most women’s magazines. However, this might have something to do with the level of depth women expect from articles: many respondents agreed strongly with statements describing the rich content of print magazines – i.e. in-depth, interesting stories – and perhaps expect even one article to pack a punch.
The reality is that magazines still have a culture of their own. They are not only used to keep up with trends and lifestyle issues, but even function as important shopping tools (which one might at first have expected to come up more strongly in web magazines). Furthermore, magazines are seen as credible sources of information and, perhaps even more importantly, the strong responses on magazine reading as an entertaining diversion underlines what an important source of leisure our print magazines remain. With the large amount of women’s magazine content dedicated to transformation, self-improvement, trends and escape, it is perhaps not surprising that self-development and status featured high on the list as well. And perhaps unexpectedly, despite their use of the internet for social purposes, women nonetheless seem to associate a strong sense of community with their favourite print magazines.
Ultimately, the study revealed that internet use provided superior gratification in fewer areas than magazines did. The internet lost by a wide margin, outperforming magazines in six areas, versus the triumph of print in 20. The internet only trumped print in terms of process, i.e. quick, easy access to information or affordable and free content. But considering that women are not motivated most strongly by these factors, it is perhaps unsurprising that the old adage still holds true – content is king.
Print reigns supreme
Print magazines are still the queens of the newsstands, reigning as the primary mechanisms for diversion and keeping up to date with the world’s happenings. So for publishers, it might be worth looking at what the web can learn from print, rather than vice versa – for instance, providing richer content in terms of life advice, expert answers and instructional content.
With women’s reading habits being as firmly entrenched as they are, it may also be more logical for magazine publishers to invest in strategies that would protect their print business in the long term, and keep it lucrative. And if publishers really want to make a go of the internet as a viable medium, they need to remember which needs the internet meets best – and work with that.
Mlenga Jere (PhD, University of Cape Town) is a senior lecturer in marketing at the UCT Graduate School of Business. Susan Davis (MBA, University of Cape Town) is a publishing manager at Media24.
Source: UCT GSB Newsline (http://www.gsb.uct.ac.za/newsletter/v3/story.asp?intArticleID=1895)