Suzy will be one of several leading speakers FIPP Middle East & Africa, taking place on 10 and 11 February 2016 in Dubai.
Here she tells FIPP ME&A contributor Jon Watkins what drives multi-platform magazine media success in the South African market…
Tell us about your role at Media24 and the magazines you run…
I’m the editor of two magazines. One is FAIRLADY, which is one of the oldest women’s titles in South Africa and is a general interest women’s magazine that has been around for 50 years or so. I’ve been editing that for a long time – in fact this is my 10th year.
In addition to that, at the beginning of last year I launched another magazine called Lose It, based on the LCHF (Low Carb, High Fat) diet and way of eating, which is huge here in South Africa. We launched that as a quarterly publication but it has became so popular that we’ve made it bi-monthly and launched online meal plans alongside it. So it’s doing really well.
So FAIRLADY is a publication that has a strong print heritage, whereas Lose It started in print but very quickly became multi-platform?
Yes, it’s still very big in print, but is also multiplatform. FAIRLADY is available in digital as well, because a lot of South African expats still like to read it and also because the postal service can be unreliable in South Africa, so some subscribers prefer the pdf version. Although, to my mind, consuming the content in that way is a fairly unsatisfactory experience – pdf is a kind of transition between a proper digital publication and print, and it doesn’t really work as well as it could. The interesting thing with Lose It is that we’ve got readers all over the world who, although they start on digital, want the print issue as well. They download it digitally first and then they ask us to send them the print issue too. There’s no additional content – it’s just that they want the actual physical version, which probably has something to do with the high recipe content. They hang on to every issue and request all the previous issues, too. They want the whole collection: because every issue has a recipe index cross-referenced to all the previous issues, they want to be able to access that content easily.
What are the circulation numbers looking like…?
It’s been very interesting. We were expecting the first issue to sell about 17,000 copies, which we thought was really optimistic. We ended up printing 25,000 and selling 27,000 – 25,000 in print and 2,000 digital. And we have never stopped getting requests for that first issue – but there are literally none left! We also had an instant subscription base. I’ve never seen anything like it in all my time in magazines (and that’s a long time!). I would walk into a newsagent and there would be a waiting list on the wall – where people had written their names, addresses, telephone numbers and email addresses to make sure they didn’t miss out on the next delivery of stock. The magazine was selling out in all the print outlets – it was crazy. Because the readers were so desperate not to miss out on it, many of them subscribed immediately.
Africa, even with its high mobile penetration, is not as well connected for downloading digital content as other regions. So do you feel you are bucking the trend there? What’s driving your digital uptake?
Yeah, it’s really tricky here because our broadband is so slow … the silver lining on that cloud is probably that our print magazines have fared slightly better than the international trend. But I think our digital audience on Lose It is down to three things: the fact that delivery can be unreliable, and people really want the magazine; the fact that there’s a rural community that is also interested in weight loss but doesn’t have access to the print magazine and finally, the online meal plans we designed. We launched the meal plan at the end of January this year, and there’s been a take-up of nearly 4,000 so far. Those online courses cost money – they are not free. We started with a six-week course in English, and due to the success of that we launched an Afrikaans version. More versions are on their way.
Does it feel like Media24 is leading the way here, or are others also using this strategy?
I think it’s indicative of Media24’s quick uptake. They’ve been pushing digital for a long time, as well as the deconstructing and repackaging of content to make it very platform-focused. The other media houses are doing it as well, but maybe not as quickly as Media24. What’s interesting for me about Lose It is that it’s almost designed as a pop-up publishing phenomenon: we identified a very, very strong trend that really tapped into the zeitgeist, and we just went to print very quickly. I first decided to do Lose It in November, and by the end of March the next year we were ready to go with the printed magazine – and that’s including the December [summer] holidays, which can grind down business for 6 long weeks.
What else can you share about the culture at Media24?
You know, the interesting thing about Media24 is that it is absolutely massive but still manages to be very innovative. Koos Bekker, who used to head up Naspers [of which Media24 is part], has been the figurehead of the company for years, and he is known for being a big risk-taker. His motto, like many other people in the digital space, is ‘fail fast’– and that means he is willing to try new things. Bob van Dijk, the new CEO, has a similar approach. The ethos of the company is that if you’ve got a good idea, they’ll go for it. Lose It is a good example of that. For a big company, Media24 is trying to be very nimble, which is important if you want to succeed in this market.
What else can you tell us about the magazines market in South Africa?
I’ve just come back from the FIPP World Congress in Toronto and what I saw there of magazine media brands was very reflective of what’s going on here. For example, one of the talks I attended was about a Canadian magazine called Cottage Life, and there’s a magazine here in South Africa, called Platteland, which is a very similar model – urban people buying into the fantasy of living in the country, but in a very practical way: not that rural ideal kind of fantasy, it’s more a guide to fixing up your house or growing your vegetable garden and so on. It’s very small, very intimate, but also really practical. So it seems to me that niche publications with a very distinctive voice are the ones that are doing well. General-interest magazines in our market are taking a knock, but they are all also busy reinventing themselves to offer events and experiences as part of brand immersion, and that’s working well. In the niche market, there is better news.
I understand that, as well as editing the two magazines; you’re also an award-winning writer?
Writing has always been my first love. Editing gives you a macro view of something, with writing you really get into it – it’s something you do from the inside out, and it’s always been what I love most. The two are completely different disciplines, and although I’ve been an editor for years, I’ve always tried very hard to hang on to my identity as a writer. I used to write investigative as well as opinion pieces, and I did win a couple of awards. But then I started focusing on columns because they were shorter and, to be honest, easier for me to write, because I just didn’t have the time to do the research for the investigative pieces. So I’ve been doing that for the past few years and I really enjoy it, and I’ve also won a couple of awards for them, which means a lot to me. Recently I also started writing a regular wine column – mainly because the wine writer left and we didn’t have the budget to replace her, you know the story! – and let me tell you, that is the best gig I’ve ever had in my life! I don’t know why it took me so long to discover it. It’s a source of great joy.
More FIPP ME&A interviews to read:
FIPP Middle East & Africa takes place in Dubai, from 10-11 February 2016. FIPP ME&A will be a truly international event not to be missed if you have an interest in media trends around the world in general and in the Middle East and Africa in particular.
In addition to Media24, delegates will also hear stories from the likes of 7AWI, Bloomberg Media, Carat-ICA, cvent, Dubai Lynx, Edelman Dabo, GN Publishing, Google, Hearst, Immediate Media Co., India Today Group, MEED, Motivate Publishing, PwC, Ringier Africa, Saudi Specialised Publishing Company, Time Inc., and more.
Some of the themes that will be explored at FIPP Middle East & Africa are:
- The future of mobile and content players’ place within this world
- Developing digital businesses in MENA and in Africa
- Developing media brands to take advantage of the full market opportunity
- Key themes in content-driven media innovation around the world
- Industry transformation and revitalisation: magazine media today
- How to build a successful events business from a traditional print brand
- How to make print work in a digital age
- Why creativity matters
- Building international media brands across borders
- A look into Saudi Arabia, Iran and Sub-Saharan African media markets
Visit fippmea.com for more and book your delegate passes today.