Teenzines - mags, marketing, messaging
SOURCE: Clive Edwards, Media Magazine 20 [accessed online]
Teen titles are changing hands, sales plummeting and old favourites rebranding themselves online. Why is the
market in such a state of flux, and what does it all mean? Principal Examiner Clive Edwards dispels a few
myths and highlights some key issues in preparation for your A2 study of the magazine industry.
I remember the one about the naughty boy who'd trained his spider to walk whenever he commanded. In a self-
styled science experiment, the boy callously ripped off his poor spider's legs, and, when the limbless creature
lay motionless despite his instructions to move, the boy concluded that he had caused the spider to go deaf.
This revolting anecdote has always served to remind me that fools experiment and observe, but come to wildly
wrong conclusions. With that cautionary tale in mind, I look at figures on the national statistics website, and
wonder what they can tell us about changes in social attitudes over the past century.
Take this for example: in 1903, the average age of first time brides in England was 24. One hundred years on,
in 2003, it had risen by four years to 28.
What does that tell us? That women are waiting longer than their great-great-grandparents before they get
married? Seems like a safe bet. That they are doing this because...? Well, the reasons are surely numerous:
empowerment in education and careers, financial and sexual independence, the fact that single motherhood no
longer taboo, and so on. Or, perhaps, that a shift of only four years in a century is insignificant, perhaps?
Studying social tends is interesting, but tricky. Consumer preferences in the media markets can provide us with
useful evidence. Put more simply, what we read and watch says a lot about our society.
Some common misconceptions
In the January A Level sessions, students writing about the magazine industry chose a variety of case studies.
As their case studies, some selected three magazines in particular, all from the teenage girls' market, and all
written about as though they were current. They were: J17 (owned by emap), Mizz (owned, according to the
students, by IPC) and Bliss (owned, again according to the students, by media giant emap).
Yet the students were wrong on all three counts.
The problem here is that J17 went out of print in May 2004. At the time, an emap spokesperson said:
Closing J17 enables emap Consumer Media to focus all of its efforts and resources on making Bliss the
market-leading title for teenage girls.
Well, that didn't work. By the beginning of 2007, emap had written off Bliss as a no-hoper, and sold it on to
another company. Nine months earlier, publishing giant IPC had done the same to Mizz. Sold it off.
Many of the students offered competent textual analyses of out-of-date magazines, but the fact that they had
not kept up with the industry developments had limited their ability to engage with key media debates, such as:
• how the magazine industry targets particular audiences
• what changes in audience consumption might tell us about prevalent social and cultural attitudes.
It would be easy to point the finger at teachers for failing to keep their schemes of work up-to-date. The
crusty old English teacher who studied Macbeth at university in 1970 has no need to worry that the text, or
anything important about it, will change. Macbeth is still going to be killed by someone not born of woman,
however contrived that denouement is. So those 37-year-old university notes and handouts can be
photocopied whenever the text comes up on the exam list.
But for Media Studies teachers and their students, the situation is different. The text, which may or may not
be less inherently worthy than Shakespeare's doodles, let alone his plays, forms only a part of the study. The
audiences, and the institutions who produce the texts are a central feature of Media Studies. A major reason
for studying the media is to understand current trends, social attitudes and cultural preferences. The near-
crisis in the girls' teen market provides us with such interesting insights into our society today that it is surely
worth an up-to-date study. In fact, the situation is so volatile that this article is likely to have been overtaken
by events before it reaches you!
Mizz and Bliss have both been bought from the major rival magazine companies by a much smaller company
called Panini. Boys who collect football stickers will be more familiar with Panini's brands - they are the
sticker kings. They also publish a lot of glossy comics like Spider Man and Action Man. Their main base is in
Italy - their UK subsidiary based in posh Tonbridge Wells. Will they succeed in the teen girls market?
Experts in the industry think they'll do okay with Mizz but might struggle to make Bliss sell.
Declining sales - what's going on?
The problem is a major one. Sales of magazines are down, generally, but in the teenage girls' market, they are
in freefall. Down by 24% in 2006. That, by any standard, is a huge drop.
What is the reason for the fall? According to insiders from emap, there are a number of issues. First, the
internet has taken over as the primary platform of media consumption - especially for teenage girls. Secondly,
and this is up for debate.... teenage girls are maturing at an earlier age and miss out the teen magazine years,
preferring to go straight for the adult mag (Cosmo, More, Company and weekly 'celeb' titles). Younger girls
who do find some companionship in the teen titles don't have the disposable cash to subscribe regularly to a
particular title, so they can make one of three choices: ignore the lot (and feel socially isolated!); go for the
internet version (it's free); or go for whichever magazine is offering the best free-gift on the cover.
The free-gift on the cover strategy is known as cover-mounting. Take a look at what's on in concurrent
editions and you've got: Mizz (a bracelet); Shout (foundation cream); Cosmo Girl (lip glosses); Sugar (lip
glosses and eyeliner); Top of the Pops Magazine (eyeliner and eye shadow); Bliss (surfer-wallet, mobile
phone-sock and highlights kit). The generosity of the Bliss deal seems like an introductory tempter, though
how long they can keep up that spirit of largesse is a key question. Cover-mounting is at an unprecedented
high and is not translating into corresponding sales.
Most of these products come in a cellophane wrapping that protects the gift and masks the real size of the
magazine. And size obviously matters. Mizz is the giant, Sugar slightly smaller, Shout reduced even further,
and the new Bliss is positively pocket-sized.
The online challenge
As for the internet, some magazines are accepting what many think is inevitable: the internet will completely
wipe out print editions like the meteor did the dinosaurs in a previous era. Elle Girl magazine is one title that
now exists only as an internet product, folding very suddenly in the summer of 2006 after five years as a print
product. In fact, the staff were allegedly working on the August edition when the news came that it would not
be printed. The Elle Girl website continues, promoting ring-tones and wallpaper via its brand, and featuring
mainly American teenage pop-culture stories.
The difficulty for the magazine industry in this situation is that they lose the income from a cover price. They
have to pick up their money by selling pop-up and ad spaces on their web-pages. For example, an always-
visible banner advert at the top of a web page on a Panini comic will cost the advertiser £1100 for a month; a
smaller pop-under half way down the page once per visit will cost £240 per fortnight.
One solution to this problem of readers preferring the internet to the print-based platform is to promote the
brand, the identity of the product. So it's Mizz the brand, not Mizz magazine, that you are buying into. In that
way, the title can promote its print magazine via its website, and vice versa, along with all the commercial
trade-offs that go with it - the ring-tones and the wallpapers, for example.
The sales experts targeting the teen market are acutely aware that their target audience is attached to two
media platforms in particular: the internet and its close cousin, the mobile phone. Not surprisingly, SMS text
messaging is a major part of the marketing strategy in the battleground for sales. Media Burst is an
organisation specialising in SMS text messaging sales. They were hired by Hachette Fillipachi (HF), the
parent company of the most successful UK teen girls magazine Sugar, who have 41% of the market share,
and, despite dwindling sales, still manage to sell 200,000 copies per month to promote their product.
Christine Della-Fera, H-F's manager of a number of titles, including Sugar, claims:
The mobile phone, along with your keys and wallet, is one of the things you always leave the house with and
carry on you 24/7. I believe this has amazing potential for getting your brand directly into the hands of your
target audience and is something we really need to harness.
The Sugar magazine website encouraged readers to text in for a free gift. They received over 1000 responses,
75% of whom subscribed to Sugar updates by text. So, with this database, Sugar sends monthly messages
informing the reader: 'Sugar is on sale now!' According to Christine Della Fera:
This puts the brand at the top of their mind. We time the SMS so it arrives at midday the day the magazine is
on the shelves, enabling the reader to buy Sugar at lunchtime when they go to the shop or on their way home.
The feedback from our readers is that they love this monthly message, believing Annie the Editor (Annabel
Brog) has taken the time to send them a text, and even better it costs them nothing to receive!
The Sugar team remain optimistic about their future in both platforms (print and internet), though emap are
mindful that they are all working in a crowded, homogenised market where each magazine is shouting for
attention. One by one, they may all lose their voice.
So, going back to that naughty boy and his spider, I wonder why the teen girls magazine market is in such a
period of change. Is it that teenage girls, more than any other section of society, are changing in their
attitudes? Or in their habits? Growing up sooner? Demanding the delights of the adult world earlier? A
change in values, perhaps? Or getting their lifestyle information, previously the domain of the magazine,
from televison and the internet? Is the market shrinking because the internet is forcing the print products out?
And like the dinosaurs, will they all go quite suddenly, leaving barely a trace behind them?
Over to you.