How a local magazine thrives in a digital world

Shooting the tenth anniversary edition of Westender

Shooting the tenth anniversary edition of Westender

Print media has had it tough in recent years as many businesses have moved their advertising spend to digital formats, or to social media ads.  It’s interesting then, that smaller, local, print, magazines can still thrive and add value for their advertisers. I met up with the owner and editor of the successful Westender magazine in Glasgow to find out why the free, local magazine, format works well.  I discovered that this is in no small part due to Suzanne’s tenacity and drive, and her genuine interest in the people she works with.

Suzanne Martin launched Westender magazine in 2008 after responding to an advertisement looking for local magazine franchisees. With a 2-year-old and a 9 month old baby, Suzanne was looking for flexibility, a job she could do from home, and to make use of the five year Open University course she had recently completed.

Launching a local magazine

Suzanne - I was walking around the west end of Glasgow with a baby, thinking what about this, what about that, what am I going to do?  Childcare is an issue, how will I get all of this to work out?  Westender was a franchise when I started out and I’d never seen anything like a local, glossy magazine, around the west end.  It's an affluent area and has a lot of students too. It has a really different, quirky vibe going on.

I bought into the franchise with no publishing background, but it was the one time in my life when I had nothing to lose.  I had no job.  All I had was childcare 2 days a week for my youngest to help me whilst my eldest was at nursery.  That was December 2007 and by March I had the first edition out. 

Was it nerve-wracking at the start?

Suzanne - I met an advertiser in the street when I was distributing the first edition and she said, ‘I hate to tell you that a magazine in Bearsden/Milngavie is putting out a west end version next month.  My heart sank, there’s been nothing for years and now there will be the two of us.  But it was quite a different product and I don’t think they do either any more.  Theirs was much more a newspaper in a magazine format, A4 size, not one thing or another.

For that first edition did you have to convince people to advertise or did you launch without advertising?

Suzanne - I'd given myself a good few months to launch. And because it was a franchise I had other people’s magazines to show advertisers.  But I knew I didn’t want to go down the route of using the franchises generic articles. At the start I was doing everything, including photography, before I discovered stock photos. I’d change generic articles by re-writing them to do with the west end.  It was a huge learning curve.

By the end of the year people realised I wasn’t a fly-by-night.  I had been here a whole year and it took a year of cold calling before advertisers started to phone me. That was just amazing when I got to that point.  And I thought I’ll never, ever forget how hard that first year of business was. No one tells you about the night terrors when you wake up thinking ‘why have I done this?’.  It’s really tough.  You have to have faith in your original idea.  You know it's a great idea and it is going to work.  And in the first year I was doing everything - copy, design, advertising.

That first year an envelope didn’t open in the west end without me being there!

How did you decide what direction to take in the early stages?

Suzanne - I think right from the start you go out with what you think you should do.  As it progressed 50% was that and the other 50% was led by what people wanted. So, feedback from readers, friends who are readers, and also from local businesses.  I found them so supportive. The vast majority wanted to see me do well - lots of ideas, some really good business advice also.  After my first Christmas and new year I had a really quiet edition.  I got people phoning me and then they stopped, and I took it quite personally.  Then a gift shop owner really helped and said ‘it's your first year, you don’t know when your quiet and your busy times are yet, you are just finding out.  Every business has their peaks and their troughs so what you’ll do next year is think, oh ok this is my quiet time’. So now when I don’t have time to do x,y,z I don’t stress about it, I think ok I’ll do that in January, in my quiet time.

Creating relevant content

So, did you find the people who advertise with you also helped you come up with content ideas because it related to their business and that works well for them and for you?

Suzanne - Yes, interiors business tends to be the ones that go in every edition.  Kitchen shops, slaters, roofers, trades, they are the ones that need to show up regularly.  If a reader needs a tradesmen, for example, they'll remember that they’ve seen them in Westender.  So, it they’re not in the next edition when the reader checks then someone else gets that business.  As a result, I’ve really built up the interiors content. I have Susan Robertson now who writes that for me. 

Gift shops are also very regular, either every edition or around key dates such as Mother’s day, Father’s day, Christmas. We do a 5-page Christmas gift guide every year which I'm actually starting fairly shortly. The next edition is November/December.

How much of your advertising is repeat business?

Suzanne - I do get a lot of repeat advertising.  I would say about 75%. And of the other 25%, probably another 10% are regular but not every edition. Twice a year when it’s their key trading period.

Is it generally people who are in the west end or do you get other people outside who want to reach customers in that area?

Suzanne - Generally, it is people within the west end but both Gleneagles and Crieff hydro are in the next edition as its their times to advertise. And I also have a national sailing company who are looking for customers in the Glasgow area.

Distribution and targeting

Where is the magazine distributed?

Suzanne - Mostly bars and restaurants, but my biggest drop is Crow Road, Sainsburys. They display for 2-3 weeks at the till end and then I run out. M&S and Cafe Nero also go through a big pile, as does Hillhead library.  I struggle to keep them stocked.  I started off with 10,000, which is a lot, but it is really, popular. I increased to 12,000 because I needed to get more in Sainsburys and I needed to do a repeat drop to Byres road at least once before the next edition came out just to keep the visibility up.

And do you find now that retailers really look forward to getting your magazines in?

I do. I go in to places and they have customers asking when the next one is coming. It gives customers an additional reason to go back to their shop. Customers know where they can pick it up now. I did always used to do all the drop offs too and it did keep me very visible.   And then people would say I meant to speak to you about advertising, so it was a good way to prompt those conversations. 

So, do you find that those that are distributing your magazines end up becoming customers?

Suzanne - Sometimes they do. They know the magazine. They know how long it’s been going. They know me, and instead of me selling to them, we’re just having a conversation.  People do business with people they like.  It’s you that sells it.  If you are genuinely interested in their business and want to know what you can do to help them, then I think that is huge.

And would you distribute outside of the west end?

Suzanne - I would have to change the name of the magazine.  It has been suggested to me but then it's not the same thing.  It is a hyper-local magazine and that’s the whole attraction for my advertisers.  They don’t want to advertise to people who are never going to be interested in their product. You wouldn’t pass 50 odd hairdressers on the southside to go to a hairdresser in the west end unless you already knew them.  And I would have to up my distribution and double the advertising cost at least and they might not see more out of that.

You make a good point that it is unbelievably targeted

Suzanne - Westender readers see a fashion shoot that’s two minutes from their house, or featured jewellery that is from a shop they buy from or a restaurant review for somewhere around the corner that they haven’t tried yet. 

Everything I cover is right on their doorstep.  I only put good reviews in.  It’s like you’re recommending to a friend, you wouldn’t tell people what you don’t recommend only what you do.

It gets you away from the daily grind, away from depressing news, something uplifting, positive.  City centre restaurants ask me to review them but if it’s not in my area then it takes away from the west end.  If they want to advertise then that’s fine.  Of course, people do go out of the west end to eat and shop.  And we do use clothes and shoes from high street retailers, but we do try and use local shops first.  As much as possible, the content focus is west end.

Building a team

Suzanne - All the photography is done by Gregor, I don’t do that anymore, and it is the single biggest asset.  Two years in we started doing fashion shoots which has taken Westender to the next level.  It's a lot of work, and it costs me a lot of money, but it completely sets us apart and I love doing it. 

We’ve got about 10 regular writers to provide a lot of different voices, male and female, quite young, I’ve got a new person helping with social media.

Dealing with challenges

Suzanne - The franchise went bust barely 2 years into it.  But by the time that happened I didn’t really need them. I never really used their content anyway.  It was me writing it from the very beginning and I maybe just used their templates.  I had had to learn how to use the Publisher programme so now I had to move on to Indesign.  I had to teach myself something new all over again.  I had no choice as I had the next deadline looming.  I had to find new suppliers, printers, everything!   I’ve never missed a deadline in 10 years.  I delayed by 24 hours once to allow an important advertiser to finish but still got it to the printer in time.

Understanding your market

How can local magazines succeed when so much print media is struggling?

Suzanne - I think they are ‘hyper’ local, and that’s the way things are going.  People still need and enjoy reading national newspaper and magazines .  But from my advertisers’ point of view, the national newspaper reach is just too big. Going hyper local gives me a really strong selling point, it’s easy for people to understand. Advertisers see the magazine, the see me out delivering the magazine and they see the returns that they are getting from it.  They become regular advertisers and they talk to other businesses who also become advertisers. I’ll usually find out that I already know them as well because we’ll have a common link such as being at Jumpin’ jacks together.  It’s amazing. 

People do still love print publications as well as online.  We have a digital version too but readers like picking up a good quality, colour, magazine that covers their area.  We keep it relevant and interesting by talking to local writers, artists and business owners.  People opening their own business is huge in this area.  We’re tapping in to all these different things. 

And readers see locations in there that they walk past every day or, hidden away locations that they didn’t know about.   We’re covering all of that and it makes it completely relevant.

Making it personal

And you often feature the story behind the local business

Suzanne - When we write the business article we will photograph the business owners in their environment.  Because when we write about a cake shop, it's not the cake that people are interested in as much as the person who is baking, who is the face of the business.  People are interested in people and the west end is a village in that respect. 

There are a lot of small businesses in the west end but even if it is a larger business, readers want to see some personality.  If you want someone to walk over the threshold of your door rather than your competitors then with your picture and your story in Westender, that first introduction is made

In the last edition we covered Tulipane cafe in Dumbarton Road, where we are sitting now. We talk about the food but also about the owner’s story, covering it from a very personal angle.  We include pictures of her in the environment, showing what she’s done with the space.  When people read this they are already investing in her.  Wanting the cafe to succeed and they want to go in and support this business.  They already feel like they know it.