Time to ditch the covermounts? It's what's inside that counts. Could Psychologies' self-help formula be the answer for monthly magazines trying to build readership? The Guardian's Liz Hollis reports.
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To a freelance, calls from commissioning editors are always welcome. But when my phone kept ringing with discreet enquiries about one particular magazine that I'd contributed to, and how its readers could be lured away elsewhere, it was clear that something interesting was happening.
The magazine? Psychologies - Hachette Filipacchi's "thinking woman's glossy", which ditched shopping, gossip and covermounts for self-help with a serious tone. It's a formula that resulted in double-digit growth - Psychologies' circulation rose 21.5% year on year in the second half of 2007. Unsurprisingly, the rest of the industry has been trying to recreate its success.
Originally a small journal for therapists, Psychologies had already become a successful mainstream women's title in France when the British edition launched three and a half years ago."It's been a triumph of innovation and risk and has changed the basic recipe of magazines," says its editor, Maureen Rice. Certainly publishers have wondered if Psychologies could hold the answer for women's glossies looking for readership growth.
"Psychologies attracts this new reader who wasn't buying magazines before," says Jenny Biggam, an analyst at the media agency The7stars. "Research shows she spends more time reading it: 77 minutes compared to 45 minutes reading She and 47 minutes reading Marie Claire."
Those minutes are important: a lingering reader can be more attractive to advertisers of less fashion-orientated products. But Biggam also believes that the magazine has a wider significance. "Psychologies is part of a trend where readers want deeper, greater understanding," she says.
Other analysts are not so sure. The magazine's latest circulation figures are respectable, but less than spectacular: February's ABC report showed a 0.2% year-on-year rise. And, while Psychologies' former growth was impressive, the magazine started from a low base - meaning a few thousand extra sales made a big difference. Despite that growth, its circulation now puts it 16th in the market. Some - but not all - analysts see Psychologies as a niche success, rather than a model for women's magazines.
"It has probably almost reached saturation point in its niche and will need to tweak the format if it is to continue to grow now," says Vanessa Clifford, industry analyst and managing partner at MindShare Media. Clifford suggests the magazine can seem overly earnest and worthy at times but says that its editorial content championing personal growth remains attractive to readers - and is increasingly being adopted by other publications.
Titles such as IPC's Woman & Home - which has had a 5.1% year-on-year circulation rise - are including more emotional intelligence content, while elements of the Psychologies formula are also in evidence in the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday. Other monthly glossies are following suit. "There's a demand for more advice-led emotional content, an extension of the problem pages," says Jasmine Headley, a media analyst at Fuse8. "So I am surprised that Psychologies' readership isn't increasing at this time."
Rice points to other print products that are seeing circulation slow or fall, and says Psychologies is now part of that general trend. And this doesn't stop her from thinking of expansion. A Psychologies for men will "probably happen", she says, adding that 20% of readers are male. However, "I'm not sure if it would sell well enough yet."
Chris Bagnall, media analyst and managing director of DWA, agrees. He says that vanity still sells men's magazines, and for now, men are still interested in getting a flat stomach in 30 days rather than searching for the inner him.