How to Reach The Next Generation of Readers
Like seemingly every other magazine category, teen and young-adult titles have taken a beating in the past decade, with consolidation and the print advertising downward spiral forcing the closure of renowned brands -- 16, YM, Teen, Teen Beat, Teen People, just to name a few. As retailers cowered or went dark across the nation, print magazines lost some of their best distribution allies-especially teen titles, many of which rely on those single-copy sales.
Publishing Executive asked publishers and editors about the challenges of publishing for this audience-to print, the web, and mobile devices-and how they've been able to compel young readers to love to read magazines. While the content in this category runs the gamut from celebrity insights to science and technology, there are some important commonalities among this target demographic: This generation of young readers is smart, articulate -- opinionated even -- and tethered to their smartphones.
Publishing More with Less
It hasn't been an encouraging year so far for teen titles, according to Scott Laufer, publisher of Laufer Media, which puts out popular teen titles Tiger Beat and BOP. Laufer confides that revenues for the company are down by approximately five percent from last year. Much of that has to do with the downfall of key retailers, and the overall decline in retail foot traffic. Laufer intends to "beef up" promotions with the large retail partners that remain.
With that said, digital publishing has become essential to further engaging print fans and reaching prospective audiences. "Over the past few years, we've learned so much," says Laufer. "And what we've done digitally has been trial and error. But the experience they're looking for-whether online or in a tablet version, or on mobile-is a different experience than print. They want to play with it a lot more. So we have far more games and contests and things to involve them on the digital platforms."
Watching young readers' behaviors and preferences, Laufer has concluded that they're less intrigued by desktop access to the website, slightly more interested in tablet apps, but especially interested in smartphone apps. "We've had to gear things toward the phone, simplify things, and format it for a smaller screen. And now that we've done that, traffic has picked up on that end tremendously," says Laufer.
Publishing to print, the web, and to various mobile apps requires publishers to staff up at a time when people power is at an industry low. Laufer remarks on the so-called Catch-22 publishers are facing: "We have to staff it, but we also have to bring in revenue to fund that staffing."
One of the ways Laufer Media won't be funding its teen titles is with content marketing-the predicted saving grace of print publishing. While others may be looking at these types of creative partnerships between magazine editorial and advertisers, Laufer dismisses it. "We've always stayed away from advertorials. We won't do it in the magazines. We have not yet done it digitally. The way we see it, this audience is young, and it's their introduction to being a consumer, and we feel like we owe it to them to be as straightforward as possible. If it's content from us, they know it's from us. If it's content from an advertiser, they know that it's advertising content."
A 360° Publishing Approach
National Geographic Kids magazine continued to be popular, even during the recent economic downturn, according to editor and vice president Rachel Buchholz: "We have a 1.1 million rate base, and that has held steady for several years."
Buchholz credits the content for the magazine's health and longevity. "There's so much that goes into the photographs we choose, the design, the colors we use, the fonts we use, and the playfulness of the graphics, which I think is very compelling."
Complementary to its print publication, National Geographic Kids also publishes PDF editions for Android devices and the Nook. But it's the magazine's iPad app that National Geographic Kids hopes to increase engagement in the future. "Although those circulations are helping, too, it seems like there hasn't been a huge migration from print to digital," says Buchholz. "I'm not sure that parents are ready for their kids to read on the tablets. They like to watch videos on them, but as far as reading together and learning, I think a lot of parents are still more comfortable with the print product. [However], we want to make this a 360-degree experience, so we have all the products besides the magazine. We have books, videos, the website; we have the app."
Individually, the print magazine, the mobile apps, and the website may all perform well, but the trick is to create an ecosystem in which all platforms promote and fuel one another. "If we're doing a story about lions in the magazine, we may have a teaser there that reads, 'Hey, do you want to see a cute video of a lion and a porcupine having a tussle,' and they can watch it online. That takes them to the website where they can experience all sorts of other content, too."
Buchholz offers another example of content crossing platforms: "We have, for instance, our funny fill-ins-stories that have blanks for nouns and verbs, and you fill in your own and have a funny story at the end. This is a feature in every issue of our print magazine, and we also offer it in our iPad version -- and you can play it as many times as you want there, just by clearing the screen. So in the magazine, we'll be sure to point readers to the iPad version of the magazine, and to get them to enjoy the other assets that we have."
Conversations from the Social Media Sphere
Scott Laufer recalls being an early skeptic about social media's value proposition, feeling as though it detracted from the print and digital publications. Now, he sees its value not only for audience development, but for strategic co-marketing, as well: "We're finally starting to see where we can drive people to the print magazine, back to social media, back to the website. We're just starting to figure out how to get these pieces working together."
For as long as they've been around, teen magazines have inspired loyal and opinionated readerships. Ask an editor from the heydays of 1970s teen titles, and likely he or she will notably recall the truckloads of letters to the editor, contest entries, pleas and appeals for meet and greets with their favorite teen idols, celebrity heartthrobs, and inspiring public figures.
Now, in the era of online commenting and social media threads, those conversations have forums to flourish. "It's not a different conversation," says Laufer. "We've always had a conversation with our readers. They've never been bashful about sending us letters. People are amazed by how many letters we used to receive from the readers. Tubs and tubs of mail!"
"The kids, I say, they're my boss," quips National Geographic Kids' Buchholz. "They are the ones I answer to, and I'm very fortunate to have a 2,000-member kids team -- kids who apply to be on our team -- who every month get a survey about features, departments, games in the magazine, and they rate them...It's a very engaged audience, and we use their feedback to create content. We don't just ask whether they've liked this story or that one; we ask about covers, and future cover art or future story ideas. Sometimes we show them when we're thinking about a new department, and ask them to compare two different designs, and tell us which they prefer."
Buchholz notes that though National Geographic Kids has an impressive one-million-strong following on Facebook, the social media pages are not intended to message readers, for some may be younger than 13. Rather, social media sites have proven a great way to reach readers' parents and guardians. "We also have the National Geographic Kids Community Insider, which is a group of parent bloggers we've selected to be our champions and ambassadors, to let like-minded parents know about all of the great things we're doing."
Like those who have come before, this generation of teens and young adults gets scrutinized for how different and alien they seem to their elders -- their eyes perpetually downcast in the direction of some omnipresent electronic companion. But far from being self-absorbed, anti-social or apathetic, these kids are wired (wireless, as the case may be), have a point of view, and aren't afraid to express it.
Hervey Evans is the executive publisher for Ranger Rick and Ranger Rick Jr. magazines, published by the National Wildlife Federation. Published for more than 50 years, Ranger Rick's targeted readership skews younger, mostly kids ages seven to 12. These are the teen-magazine readers of tomorrow.
And endearingly enough, some are teen and adult readers of today. Evans says that it's not unusual for readers to be such fans of the magazine that they have a hard time giving it up, in some cases still reading it as they head off to college and beyond. He credits the content, tone, and accessibility. The image-rich storytelling blends with scientifically sound writing, and never "talks down" to kids.
Particularly popular are Ranger Rick's iOS mobile apps and games, including Raiders of the Lost Aardvark and Click the Birdie for iPads. "Our apps have received great critical acclaim, with several Parent's Choice Gold Awards for the past two years," says Evans. "Kids have love them, and they complement rather than replace the magazine purchase."
Having held management positions at other kids and teen titles prior to joining Ranger Rick, Evans saw readers quickly "graduate" to adult magazine titles because they were savvy, eager readers who wanted to be challenged by the content. And that's the key to appealing to kids today-the teens and young-adult readers of tomorrow. "The real trick is to provide solid content that has some depth, and opens the door to further exploration."
That 2,000-kid-strong team of advisors to National Geographic Kids seems like a good sample from which to draw some conclusions about them and their relationships with magazines. "One of the things they've told us is that they'd rather be smart than popular," says Buchholz. "It's cool to be smart, and that's the kind of content we're producing-cool, smart content that's not solely educational, but also fun at the same time. When you combine those two, you can get kids really excited about reading, but also excited about the world around them."