The Global Media Weekly for executives and entrepreneurs

Is Aussie blogger the future of women’s magazines?

Media industry disruption is confusing as well as painful for incumbents. Each traditional ‘channel’ seizes moments of optimism that its audience and profitability can be reclaimed. Magazine publishers once talked of rescue by iPad editions. Book publishers were convinced that self-publishing was a passing fad. And, despite the remorseless growth of online video, TV broadcasters are again buoyed by recovering ad revenues. Newspapers and magazines have had no such luck. But the debate about the inevitable death (or not) of print misses the point. What we are witnessing – in addition to everything else – are the shrinking prospects of a traditional business model whose viability substantially depends on revenues both from consumers and advertisers.

There will always be exceptions. Major brands can sometimes hold back the tide and some digital media will eventually help to subsidise print, rather than the reverse. But continuing print media dependence on twin revenue streams exposes them to attack from new-wave, low-cost competitors. These digital natives increasingly concentrate either on delivering to advertisers a ‘guaranteed’ non-paying audience OR providing high-quality, advertising-lite content for paying consumers. Not both. For all the advertising credibility of paid-for readership, newspapers and magazines risk being under-cut by free media.

In the UK,  the London Evening Standard makes the point. The Lebedev-controlled newspaper is now making £2m annual profits from free circulation – after years of double-digit loss-making as a paid-for, under DMGT. The advertising revenue gains and the saved costs of selling (and not selling) copies have transformed the mid-market tabloid.

The trend is reinforced by the free-circulation success of DMGT’s Metro daily and Stylist, the young women’s weekly from ShortList Media.  They too show how print media can thrive – but sometimes only with a new business model. That’s a tough call for media companies trying to hold on to profits from traditional businesses.

Advertisers delivered profits

Nowhere is this challenge clearer than in women’s magazines where readers have traditionally been among the most loyal media consumers, but where profits have been savaged by the loss of advertising. Readers brought the passion to magazines but advertisers delivered the profits.

That is the context for analysis by KPCB’s Mary Meeker showing that US print media gets 19% of advertising spend despite having only 5% of ‘time spent viewing’, which implies there is even more print advertising to lose (and it may be similar in many other countries). But there are other challenges too.

In Australia (whose women’s magazines long had the world’s highest pro rata circulations and cover prices), a former star editor has the epitaph ready: “Decisions were taken years ago that meant those titles never became digital forces which is a travesty because those brands should have quickly followed their readers online. Or got there first. Instead, they remained as printed products. Publishers didn’t realise they were content producers, they kept acting like magazine makers, much to the detriment of those once powerhouse brands. Now it’s too late. How do you stay current and relevant in a 24hr news cycle when you’re publishing once a week or once a month? It’s a very uncertain time and I can’t see things improving.”

Those are the words of Mia Freedman who had become editor of the Australian edition of Cosmopolitan, age 24,  in 1997 when the magazine had a circulation of 300,000.  The magazine was published by Hearst in a joint venture with the fearsome Kerry Packer’s ACP Magazines (now Bauer Media). The magazine’s youngest-ever editor quickly made her mark by focusing strongly on body image and women of all shapes, sizes and skin colours.

‘Magazines unchanged in decades’

The quick-talking Freedman raced from editorial floor to management and became responsible for a clutch of ACP’s young women’s magazines. But, after eight years, she was ready to leave print behind to have her second child. She reckons women’s magazines have hardly changed since. “The way women’s magazines talk to women has not changed in decades while the way women speak to each other and the world has changed dramatically. When I was editing Cosmo and we had our 25th birthday, we looked back at the first issue and it was spooky how little the tone and content had changed during that time. Even the covers portrayed women in much the same way. Also, print is a one-way monologue where online is a conversation and thus far more attractive to women.”

A decade after she had become editor of Cosmopolitan – and, following an abortive spell in television –  Freedman launched a personal blog called (what else?) Mamamia. Seven years on, she and her husband, entrepreneur Jason Lavigne, have made it Australia’s leading women’s website with hundreds of contributors and a team of 40 people including several former magazine editors. The profitable super-blog, which is based in chic, plant-filled offices in Sydney’s ultra-cool Surry Hills district, has a clear tone of voice – Mia Freedman’s. And a turnover estimated to be some A$5m.

Mamamia tells the story: “Once upon a time there was a girl who wanted desperately to work in the media. She began doing work experience aged 19, became an editor at 24, had a baby at 25, another at 33, spent 7 disastrous months as a TV executive, pushed the eject button on her corporate career to start a blog which became a website which became an independent media company she now runs with her husband. Welcome to the place where all of my writing lives. Posts, columns, blogs, it’s all here.”

In some ways, Mamamia seems like the complete online magazine for women, with digital and video content across a much broader range than any print publication:  “On any single day we will run a story about the political issue of the moment, share one woman’s heartbreaking experience of losing a pregnancy, explore the new ways media is distorting women’s bodies, and interview one of Australia’s favourite TV personalities…We’ll show you some awesome fashion ideas from women who AREN’T professional models, have a comedian relate an anecdote you’ll guffaw at, bring all the mums together for some group therapy on a 4 year old obsessed with weapons, while also providing you with a cheat sheet to help you understand the conflict in Syria.”

‘What everyone’s talking about…’

Freedman describes it as “creating engaged communities of women”. She targets 20 to 55 year old women – more than half of whom are mothers – and covers topics as diverse as “seven vibrators that will frighten your vagina” to tips about working from home. Its catchline is “What everyone’s talking about …”. It is complemented by, licensed from US-based global media company NBCUniversal since July, and targeted at slightly older woman, most of whom are mothers. And now they’ve launched the mobile-first health and beauty site The Glow.

The Mamamia founder is the Aussie media star carrying the banner for three social trends: digital media;  “yummy mummies”; and the mainstreaming of feminism. And Freedman is everywhere: in bookshops, on radio on TV – flitting between feminist politics and the future of media. In the recent Australian elections, both Prime Ministerial candidates scrambled for a photo opportunity with her.

Some influence, but friends have variously described her as being “like a puppy, forever curious and in need of constant stimulation. She used to write her columns while watching TV, eating and browsing magazines in the nano-seconds while her computer was loading or saving.”  But that’s just another angle of the happy-radical-feisty-bouncy Freedman who seems like nothing less than heir to Helen Gurley Brown, who had reinvented Cosmopolitan magazine on the back of her astonishing 1962 bestseller “Sex and the Single Girl.”

Brown, who died in 2012 aged “over 90”, grew up in poverty and became her family’s breadwinner aged 17. A bit different to Freedman who grew up in Sydney’s posh Eastern suburbs, was educated at an elite girls school, and is daughter of a wealthy South Africa-born financier-turned-philanthropist.  Her juggling ‘have it all’ feminism comes from a mother who always expected her daughter to work and have children.

Freedman, who was interviewed by Brown for the Cosmopolitan editor’s job 17 years ago, worshipped the fearless American editor whose book, she remembers, was “Full of advice for single girls. The book’s most sensational premise was – wait for it – that a woman didn’t need to be married to enjoy sex. In fact, she didn’t need to be married at all. This idea was surprisingly revolutionary. Even though it was the free love 1960s, no one was actually writing about what that meant for women.  ‘Empowerment’ has become such a throwaway term but, in many ways, Helen invented it. It’s certainly what her philosophy was about.”

Millions of Cosmopolitan readers throughout the world were attracted by “the Mouseburger” (Brown’s curious self-description) and her attitude to sex, but also to the whole idea that women could change their own lives. She was a feminist pioneer 50 years ago and, to many Australian women, Mamamia now carries the flag for “popular feminism”. But these are different times and Freedman’s pronouncements on feminism, miscarriages, and rape have made her a target for online trolls, waspish TV presenters and death threats.

Some Australian feminists seem to resent Freedman’s mainstream promotion for the cause, sometimes derided as “social media feminism”. Others presumably just don’t like her smiling success. But it’s not only feminism that has splintered. Cosmopolitan is, more than ever, the largest global magazine brand. But circulation is plunging nearly everywhere, down by two-thirds in Australia in the years since the Aussie girl waited nervously outside Helen Brown’s New York office.

‘They just can’t compete’

Mia Freedman is clear about what is happening to magazines: “Social media has been the biggest game changer in women’s media. The best you can hope for in magazines is a readership figure that’s maybe twice the number of paid circulation. But an article on Mamamia can be shared 100,000 times. With the average woman having 250 Facebook friends, that means suddenly your content is appearing in an estimated 25million Facebook feeds. This scalability of shared content is astronomical and something we use to amplify our reach on every form of social media dozens of times a day.  Magazines just can’t compete or even compare.”

As if to illustrate how Mamamia – like Cosmopolitan magazine  – gently blends gutsy feminism with cosmetics, sex, frippery and celebrity gossip, she has commented on the way that even weekly magazines were “stuffed” by the 2012 news of Princess Kate’s pregnancy. Monthlies were weeks away. Mamamia scooped them all. Yes, really. But it is clear enough that magazines have to find ways of meeting the challenge of an ‘always-on’ audience.

For most, the answer seems to be a super-dooper, 24/7 web site packed with blogs, video and social media live streaming. But the content (let alone the style and tone) might need to be quite different to what made the magazine successful. Can it realistically even carry the same brand? Just like in their competition with digital services generally, magazines have to address the issues involved in defending existing businesses at the same time as building new ones, to compete with new-wave operators which have no such handicaps.

Mamamia’s business model – like BuzzFeed’s – is built almost exclusively on native advertising and the power of content shared on social media. Its ‘behind the scenes’ video showed the editorial team at work and was sponsored by Post-It notes, whose product was all over whiteboards in the office. Nice inventive selling for an entertaining video that readers love. And Mamamia is becoming an increasingly significant part of digital advertising budgets, as a result of dramatic audience gains.

According to Nielsen in September 2013, Mamamia was Australia’s fourth biggest web site, with more than 70,000 daily uniques. But, whereas the largest site Channel Nine TV’s 17-year-old 9MSN had more than double Mamamia’s uniques, the latter wins easily on time spent browsing, numbers of page views and sessions per month. The monitoring shows that Mamamia users are spending almost an hour per month on the site – more than five times that of 9MSN. It shows that online content can attract magazine-like levels of audience attention. The site – with its social media “army” of 300,000 – has almost four times as many “likes” on Facebook as the legendary Australian Women’s Weekly, the country’s most successful magazine.

Mamamia’s success is significant for many reasons. First, it has become a leading digital channel in a country where magazines have long been dominant. Second, this seven-year-old, online-only operator has been able to compete (and mostly beat) large sites managed by international joint ventures. Third, it has clearly become a brand and almost a ‘movement’ in a fraction of the time it took traditional media brands.

Brand Mia going global?

The plaudits and profits must be tempting Freedman to expand beyond Australia, perhaps to the UK, where she already has many followers. But rumours persist that Mamamia will be sold to one of Australia’s media majors or to private equity. Going global might facilitate a sale or vice versa.

This is a case study of how to create a modern media brand in times when traditional media decline is turning increasing numbers of journalists and others into bloggers. More than anything else, though, the high-activity, personality-packed Mamamia underlines what can be achieved with well-written campaigning content, a sense of humour, and BuzzFeed-like attention to social media sharing and to the needs of advertisers.

Mamamia’s strengths are its style, vibrancy, tone of voice. And a brand called Mia. It’s as much a rallying point as Cosmopolitan in its heyday. It probably also gets more of its readers’ time and attention – and does not ask for their money. In that sense, this most 21st century of media is the holy grail because it really does seem to belong to its followers. This media activism could be a bit of a challenge if the business is eventually sold to a voracious media conglomerate. Careful, Mia.

Many magazine-media will fail, not necessarily because they lack the personality of Mamamia but because they have a cost structure and business model which remain stubbornly dependent on revenues from readers as well as advertisers.

They might be able to ignore the fact that a very small group of savvy commentators can create sparky and influential media vehicles at low cost. But there will be increasing numbers of media communes, where editors and readers are activists all – and seemingly inter-changeable. Like Mamamia, they will find that such authenticity attracts advertisers as much as readers.

Mamamia describes itself as “the women’s magazine of the future”. Perhaps it is.