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February 2, 2021updated 30 Sep 2022 9:59am

Magazine publishing post-Covid: How publishers are turning subscriptions into membership programmes

By Charlotte Tobitt

Magazine publishers are increasingly launching membership programmes to build on the growing subscription numbers many have seen during the coronavirus pandemic.

Both Bauer, one of the UK’s biggest magazine groups, and Bath-based specialist health and wellbeing publisher Anthem launched membership schemes in January.

At Bauer, film magazine Empire has launched a VIP subscriber club that combines subscriptions to the print title and its Spoiler Special podcast (previously a separate paid-for option) with access to live events with Empire staff and a Picturehouse membership, which will be activated once cinemas reopen and includes free cinema tickets..

Empire editor Terri White said: “Covid has emphasised for us the importance of community and specifically of the Empire community.

“Readers have looked to us for support, immersion and escape through the pages of the magazine, the podcasts and social. We see VIP as a way to deepen the bonds with our community.”

[Read more: Empire editor Terri White says mag ‘still has a purpose’ and will always’ be in print on 30th anniversary]

Bauer’s Country Walking magazine has launched two new membership packages: the first, CountryWalking+, offers 13 editions of the magazine with 350 route cards mapping walks across the UK, a neck tube and half price to Ordnance Survey Maps online for £49.99 a year.

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Meanwhile, a separate £9.99 package linked to Country Walking’s annual Walk 1,000 Miles campaign allows participants to plot their walks on a virtual trek from Land’s End to John O’Groats, receive encouraging messages and have a completer medal sent to them.

Bauer appointed Sam Gallimore as subscriptions director in April last year with a brief to grow subscriptions revenue across all Bauer titles in both print and digital.

She said the new Country Walking offerings give readers “even more added value and opportunities to engage with the brand”.

She told Press Gazette: “We are really lucky – we could have chosen a number of titles, and we chose Empire and Country Walking because of the commitment and the engagement that they have with their readers.

“They are incredibly strong brands and they are highly engaged communities that we wanted to interact with and we also know that they both have considerable subscriptions scale already.”

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The average Empire subscriber has been signed up for more than ten years. The magazine ran a “year of the subscriber” to mark its 30th anniversary in 2019, holding free events and involving subscribers in generating editorial ideas.

White said this experience made clear Empire subscribers “valued more engagement from us and there was appetite for a bigger offering”.

Gallimore said Bauer already has a list of its other titles where memberships could be a success, with plans to roll out more in 2021.

She said the vital elements required to make it work are subscriptions scale, a high level of community engagement, and an audience that wants to engage with the brand in more ways.

“That’s such an opportunity for us because of that access, that exclusivity and that ‘money can’t buy’ element which is intangible.

“But for a lot of our audiences, who are incredibly passionate about a hobby or an interest, to further connect with the experts and to have that access can be seen as a real opportunity,” she said.

The launches come hot on the heels of a successful 2020 which Gallimore said was a “fantastic year from a subscriptions point of view” despite Covid-19.

[Read more: Strong subscription growth softens Covid-19 advertising blow for UK publishers (including Bauer)]

Sign-ups through Great Magazines, Bauer’s main online subscriptions portal, were up 70%, she said, and the publisher’s Christmas campaign resulted in 40% year-on-year growth.

This growth was seen across the board but Gallimore pointed to genres such as gardening, automotive and women’s magazines as particular examples, adding: “It was quite unprecedented because every title was in the green for subscriptions.”

Despite this Bauer closed several magazines it deemed unlikely to be sustainable after the pandemic, including music titles Q and Planet Rock, “true-life” magazine Simply You, Modern Classics, and Practical Photography. Several others were sold.

[Read more: ‘Iconic’ Q magazine closes after 34 years as Bauer fails to find buyer]

Gallimore said: “…while some of those titles had incredibly strong subscriptions bases and really engaged communities unfortunately that in itself wasn’t enough to offset the other challenges we had on those titles.”

Planet Mindful subscriptions up 148%

Anthem Publishing has launched “Plus” membership schemes for its three flagship brands Colouring Heaven, Vegan Food and Living, and Women’s Running following what it described as “major” subscriptions growth in 2020.

Magazine subscription packages get covid benefits boost

Vegan Food and Living Feb 2021

Its subscriptions were up 32% year-on-year with growth of 148% on Planet Mindful and of between 50-60% on Classic Pop, Colouring Heaven, and Vegan Food and Living.

The Plus schemes add benefits on top of the existing print subscriptions, at the same cost, including unlimited digital edition archive access, discounts with retailers and gyms, exclusive additional content and home delivery of the print magazine.

Anthem said the cost would stay the same as it wants to “reward and retain the readers that embraced the brands in 2020 and turned to the convenience and security of home delivery during the pandemic, as well as welcoming new members to the much-enhanced offering”.

Anthem head of marketing Verity Travers added: “We noticed a change in tone last year when we were communicating with our readers, in that they felt part of their magazine and wanted to help it while the shops were shut.

“We began a more collaborative dialogue with them about how to work together to keep giving them the magazine they love for years to come despite the impacts of Covid. The new membership schemes create a sense of belonging with more reasons to commit to being part of each magazine’s community.”

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