“The mid-sized, tightly-run media businesses are possibly better placed than others to gain market share in these times – our problems are smaller, and once managed, we are more agile in addressing our opportunities.” Universal Media Co. Publisher Janice Williams talks about the impact of COVID-19 on its business and Australia’s niche magazine publishing sector.
Founded in 1985, Universal Media Co. (Umco) has grown to become one of Australia’s largest magazine publishers, producing over 50 B2C titles in addition to B2B magazine brands (via its Westwick Farrow Media publishing arm).
Known for producing quality content focused on driving purchase intent and thinking outside the box to reach new readership, its consumer publications span the topics of cars and bikes, craft, health and wellness, home and outdoor, lifestyle, and pets.
Publisher Janice Williams has been with the company for over 20 years and has a keen understanding of how to communicate in high-value niche markets. NPN Editor Lyndsie Clark caught up with Williams to chat about the challenges and opportunities that the impact of COVID-19 has had on Umco’s B2C titles, readership and clients.
Lyndsie Clark: How are you making sure your content is relevant right now?
Janice Williams: The headlines moved very quickly in 2020 and like many publishers we had products out there talking about bushfire recovery in the market when coronavirus became the big story. Everything had to change.
We were able to change our digital assets first and the WellBeing team led the way in adopting the more caring and empathetic tone that was required at the time.
Our hobby brands quickly moved to looking at entertainments during extended lock-down or work-from-home periods, and this has proven fruitful, especially in the craft and food markets.
Every brand has had to warm it up, and find ways to be the brand that they are while speaking to common human experiences.
LC: How are you working with your advertising clients to get through the pandemic?
JW: Our advertisers have had incredibly mixed experiences. Some have had to shut shop, others can’t cope with the orders they have.
As we are essentially a marketing company with media assets, we do get quite close to our customers, and are often quite involved with any changes in strategy.
In some cases that has meant a complete pivot from brand marketing to e-commerce sales generation. We do those campaigns every day so these changes have not been too difficult – for many customers it is a relief not to have to go and find another supplier in these difficult times.
LC: What is your message to your readers and clients during these times?
JW: We are simply trying to communicate more, care more, and be present to whatever they are going through.
If you are a reader going to magazine media for escapism, connection, ideas or inspiration we want to be there and provide those things that you know and love, but with a tone that reflects an awareness of what you might be going through now.
If you are a business using magazine media to communicate with a market, distinguish brand, or generate leads, then we want to make sure that you are getting those experiences to the level that best matches the business in its post-coronavirus form.
LC: What are the short-term goals that you want to accomplish for your brands during the pandemic?
JW: I really just want to make sure that our brands continue to have exposure to market, and have aggressively made efforts to ensure we are out there.
The normal movements of population, and spending, have completely changed. Once we could rely on the 44 million passengers who passed through Sydney Airport each year to front up to a number of retailers and buy magazines. They are not doing that now – but they are doing something different and this is our opportunity.
As more Australians work from home, more Australians are fronting up to main street newsagencies to buy computer peripherals, games and magazines. A surprisingly high number have purchased home magazines and have started planning for long-overdue home renovation projects.
Now nobody is commuting, there are a billion extra hours of time available in the market. In the home market we constantly hear from consumers who “have the money but never had the time” and these consumers seem to be getting on with things oblivious to the unemployment figures around them.
If we are out there, then we can acquire this audience.
Some of our brands are also advancing long-planned digital assets at this time. We have a number of businesses who are stuck paying for warehousing of products that can’t be sold. We’ve built a discount portal which will sell their product to databases of customers that we have developed through our publishing operations.
There are times it is advantageous to be a publishing company with audience assets.
LC: Where do you think the B2C niche magazine sector is heading beyond COVID-19?
JW: It is clearly a very tough market out there and while we can all handle short periods of restricted trade, longer-term periods will become very difficult to manage. We have all trimmed our costs and are calling the shots needed to stay in business.
I fear that the collapse of Virgin Airlines is the start of many bad headlines that we will see in the coming months, and that may well include some bad headlines for media businesses. These things erode confidence.
That said even this market represents an opportunity.
The mid-sized, tightly-run media businesses are possibly better placed than others to gain market share in these times – our problems are smaller, and once managed, we are more agile in addressing our opportunities.
LC: How do you think the relationship between print and digital channels will change?
JW: A media brand is a media brand – the platform is irrelevant. It’s the relationship between brand and consumer that matters.
As a reader, I don’t care if your media brand is in my inbox, on my phone, or spread out on the dining room table – as long as you have something of relevance and meaning to me.
In 2019 we saw digital brands launch print products because they wanted deeper connections to their customers.
Most eCommerce players talk about the importance of content in acquiring sales.
Content forms relationships with audiences, regardless of platform, and once you have those relationships there are a number of businesses that can be built around them.