Special Report: The Positioning of Magazines: Making the mag relevant to readers

In this report, the editors of a half-dozen consumer magazines - Clin D'Oeil, Cottage Life, Saturday Night, Shift, Toronto Life and TV Guide - explain what they are doing to better understand their readers and how they are positioning their product...

In this report, the editors of a half-dozen consumer magazines – Clin D’Oeil, Cottage Life, Saturday Night, Shift, Toronto Life and TV Guide – explain what they are doing to better understand their readers and how they are positioning their product against other media.

As well, reporter David Chilton looks at the effect on the Canadian magazine industry of proposed decreases in postal rate subsidies.

Evan Solomon

Shift Magazine

Q. What methods do you use to identify and understand your readership so that you can tailor articles and editorial content to their needs?

A. The first thing that I had to understand was how our readership view themselves.

While they are known by different names such as Slackers, 13th Gen, or, most famously, Generation X, group surveys show that over 90% of ‘Gen Xers’ despise that and other labels like it.

In other words, they don’t feel united by a demographic at all.

So thinking about this group as a demographic was a mistake.

But one central idea united this group, and that idea is media.

During their lifetime, they have witnessed the rise of computers, the explosion of television and the birth of music videos and video games.

Of course, other revolutions like desktop publishing and the Internet are still going on.

It is impossible to think of our readership outside these events.

So we decided to call this group a Mediagraphic, a segment of the population united by the diverse media they consume. (The term Mediagraphic was developed by [Toronto-based media planning firm] Harrison Young Pesonen & Newell).

So the challenge for me is to find ways to connect with people with such eclectic media habits.

The most ongoing way I do this is through e-mail.

I have a personal e-mail address that all readers can – and do – contact.

That address is published on Shift Online, our World Wide Web site.

We also maintain a discussion forum online – called Shift Magazine – where we exchange and discuss our magazine with many readers.

I participate in these discussions to get feedback about the latest [issue of Shift] and to find out what events and issues are meaningful to our readership.

The second way I connect with readers is through our release parties.

Every four months, we rent a large space and put together a multimedia performance to coincide with the release of our latest issue.

We include everything from music, to dance, to computer art to opera.

These events have been held in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, and we invite all our local subscribers.

The parties provide an excellent place to meet face-to-face with readers. The feedback is invaluable.

More importantly, we make reader surveys available at the parties, so those attending can give us written as well as oral feedback.

Reading these surveys provides an excellent way to stay in touch with readers.

Of course, we also hold frequent formal focus group testing.

We randomly gather up both subscribers and non-subscribers and bring them to the office for discussions about the magazine and the role of media in culture.

Through these, I get the basic demographic information about the readers as well.

For example, by and large, our readers are 20-30 years old, both male and female.

They are highly educated, media-savvy, motivated, and have a high disposable income.

Focus group testing we conducted both on our own and with [Toronto-based advertising agency] Young & Rubicam told us that 81% are university-educated, 91% use computers every day, and over 70% earn at least $25,000 a year.

On a lesser level, I speak frequently to university journalism classes, career seminars and even high schools.

Our magazine also participates in large conventions such as the Music and Multimedia Show, MacWorld, Word on the Street and the Digital Media Awards.

I work at the booths selling the magazine because meeting real people is important.

You see how people make buying decisions, what covers catch their eye and what stories twig their interest.

It’s like spending a day hanging out in front of a magazine rack getting feedback on our magazine.

Q. How do you stay relevant, given increasing fragmentation and the predicted decline of print?

A. For a magazine covering media culture, the issue of fragmentation is critical.

Every editor is facing the same questions: how will my stories compete with tv, or the Internet, or the hundreds of other magazines?

For years, editors have viewed other media as competitive to magazines.

I view them as complementary.

In fact, the plethora of other media helps to define our mandate, which is to be the essential guide to media in the information age.

Q. What characteristics must an effective editor possess?

A. In my mind, an editor has to profoundly understand the subjects covered in the magazine.

It is not good enough to have a generalist’s understanding of a subject.

A good editor has to have hands-on understanding of the subject matter. For me, that means constant contact with the changing technology.

Using the technology every day to do business and personally developing key sources in various areas is crucial to an editor’s task. That is, an editor has to always act like a reporter.

The other key thing an editor must do is listen to readers.

By keeping in close contact with readers, editors never lose touch with the people they are trying to reach.

Q. What manner of input or guidance do you get from publishers and salespeople in determining the editorial direction of the magazine?

A. Although Shift keeps a clear distinction between editorial content and advertising, I do use my colleagues in publishing and advertising to try to identify trends in the marketplace and to design special issues.

Every Tuesday morning I meet with the publishing and editorial staff to exchange ideas about the direction of the magazine.

We also organize think-tank weekends every two months.

The editorial, design, publishing and salespeople all spend a few days together to pool our knowledge and try to keep the magazine fresh, innovative, and, most importantly, relevant.

We understand that if our magazine is relevant to our readers, it will be relevant to our advertisers.