Interviewer: Esther Kezia Thorpe
Paul: I’m the Brand Director of Future’s Home Interest division. And my role as Brand Director is essentially to set the strategy for the business, to make sure that strategy is delivered, and perhaps most importantly, of all to generate growth across all of the brands that make up the Future Home Interest Group, which include Home Building and Renovating, Real Homes, and Period Living. Those are our three key brands.
Esther: So it’s almost a bit of a Publisher role, you’ve got a bit of a commercial element in there as well?
Absolutely. So I’m sure in today’s day and age, we call people like me, all kinds of different things at different organisations! But I think Publishing Director is probably a good way to look at it if that’s helpful to people.
And Future’s Home Interest group, it’s a pretty new acquisition for the business, which I think you were involved in. Can you outline your role in bringing that into the business and how that interest group has actually been established within Future?
Of course, happy to. So just a bit of background, I think probably would be helpful to start with. So Future acquired the home interest part of Centaur’s business back in late 2017. And once the initial integration was completed, I came on board in 2018 to help develop the brands.
And it’s a great business unit actually, with strength in events, magazines, and online. So, nicely diversified, and a really good base to work with.
What will success look like for the division? If we’re looking five years down the line?
Oh, that’s a great question. So there are a number of ways that you can define success. You can look at audience growth, for example, are we reaching more people? You can look at revenue and profit growth, so are we making more money and returning our shareholders investment to them? You can look at the success of culturally integrating a new businesses and its people. And I’d like to think that we’ve achieved all of those things so far.
But I think most importantly of all, we have to ask, did we satisfy our audience in doing those things? And at Future we set out to connect people with their passions everywhere, that’s a really important mantra for us. And if we do that successfully, we believe that we will make money in doing so.
So in terms of how that pans out over that five year period which you referenced, I think success for me would be a really stable set of brands that are growing and continuing to reach and surprise and delight people in new and innovative ways each year, I guess.
I like that idea of surprising and delighting, it’s not a word we use often enough!
No, I think that’s right. It’s probably something that comes from that kind of magazine background, that magazine heritage that’s in my DNA, really.
But I think it’s really important that the products that we create, and the way that we create them retain the ability to give people unintended kind of discovery, pleasure, or however you want to describe it, something that raises a smile in the mind, or makes them feel, yeah, that was £4.99 really well spent on a magazine, or I’m really glad I clicked on that article, or came to that event.
Well, that leads beautifully into my next question, which is, you’ve actually managed to increase circulation on, I believe it’s the print titles of Period Living and Real Homes, which is quite an achievement in today’s market. Can you give away all your secrets about how that’s worked?!
Well, I certainly can’t give away all those secrets! But you’re absolutely right. It’s a very challenging environment today in print magazine publishing. So we’re very fortunate that we’ve managed to achieve that success.
I think probably I should start by pointing out that Future culturally is all about the team rather than the individual. So many people have contributed to that success. But in terms of how we got there, what we did was look at the strength of the business that we had acquired. And that strength was the multi channel setup that it had. Therefore that presents what I would call a diversification of opportunity if you like.
So what we did, was we start by building a holistic business plan where events, print, and digital could all support each other. In terms of how that that looks in a tangible sense, we use our home building and renovating events as a shop for our magazine.
So we have eight events around the country each year. And our magazines can provide content for our websites. So we have a lot of content sharing between our print and digital expressions of the brands. And our websites can promote our events and magazines too. So helping deliver new audience to them.
I think once you take that core premise, specifically in terms of magazine publishing, we looked at Period Living and Real Homes and we saw some real opportunities there actually. Both titles have really great USPs that we can build on.
So we looked at how we could put the best value package out each month onto the newsstand, and that involves being competitive in terms of the product offering. So the quantity of content that you produce, and cover mounts that might go with that core proposition, the pricing that you offer, making sure that you’re competitive in terms of pricing.
And then we built out further from there really by experimenting with what we call ‘event issues’ on the newsstand. And these are special editions of the magazine where we include an extra gift, so we’ll raise the cover price of the magazines to accommodate those extra costs.
So Period Living is a really good example of that. We had a Waitrose exclusive last summer where we partnered with the homeware designer Sophie Allport. We gave away a shopper bag with the magazine, we put the price of the magazine up to £7.99 that issue.
There was an element of risk to doing that, but it was hugely successful, and it was more successful than any other issue we published in Waitrose that year. And it showed us that actually if we create a great product, then the market is there, people will buy it, even in today’s world where print is under so much pressure.
And at a practical level actually in the office, do you have separate teams for print, events, digital, or do the team share skills, are they quite integrated with each other?
Yeah, that’s a really good question. It’s a bit of both, is the truth of that. So we have some people who are specialists and will be focused primarily online, and some people will be focused primarily on print.
However, what we’ve done is we’ve created a culture where both of those teams work together. So all of the content that we create for our magazines is written directly into our CMS on our websites, which means that we can therefore reuse almost everything that we produce by the magazine, in addition to the content that the digital teams make, so we’re definitely working in a channel agnostic way.
Events is slightly different, our events are very specialist and focused on building projects, and the kind of self build and renovation space. And so there’s not quite as much synergy in terms of the content that the events need, in the way that the websites need that content.
However, we do have members of those teams contributing to the events in some way, whether it’s manning our Ask the Expert stands at the Home Building and Renovating Show, or whether it’s delivering seminars on how to start self build projects.
So we’re very interconnected, and I think that’s the real strength behind what we do.
I’m just quite curious about the audience for these titles, because people who own homes tend to be a little older, certainly these days. Is there anything you’re doing to reach a younger, aspirational audience who might not own their own homes? Or is that not really where the market is, are you more interested in people who are actually willing to spend money on their houses?
Yeah, it’s a really perceptive question actually. It is incredibly difficult to target a younger magazine buying demographic, as I’m sure many of your guests have probably explained previously! So there’s no doubt that the audience is getting older. And the point you make about homeownership is almost certainly supporting that.
So people are getting on the housing ladder later, they are acquiring wealth via property later in life than was traditionally the case. And I have no doubt that that aligns with the purchasing patterns that we see in terms of consumer magazines.
What’s great about having a diversified business, of course, is that you can reach that younger audience that might not be ready to commit to buying a magazine today, but still wants to consume the content because they want to aspire to owning a home or doing a renovation project once they managed to get out of the house share that they’re in, or when they’re no longer a student, and therefore we have brands like realhomes.com, and all of the social media channels that go with that, which enable us to reach a much broader demographic.
And you’ve actually got a video series recently, the Real Homes Online? Can you talk a bit about that, and why you chose to run it?
Yeah, happy to. So again, I think this all goes back to having a really diversified product strategy at the core of your business. And one of the things that we identified after we’d acquired the business from Centaur was that the one area where perhaps they hadn’t developed it as much as they could have done was in video. So we saw a clear gap where we could apply Future’s expertise to help them to develop that.
And the Real Home Show, which for those of your listeners who aren’t familiar with it, is a fortnightly online TV product, which you can view by YouTube or by realhomes.com, has been a huge success since we launched it last April. We generated hundreds of thousands of views of the show. It’s proved incredibly popular with commercial partners. And we’re now on series four, and approaching our first anniversary.
So the video side of it, I think is really important and something where I think we can develop a lot further.
A pivot to video that’s been a success. That’s a rare feat!
Well, I mean, it’s disappointing if that’s the case! I mean, I’d like to think that certainly at Future we proved very adept at being able to find a way to turn video into a credible business model.
I think the important thing is just to start with a good solid business plan, and to understand why you’re creating video, rather than just creating video because you think you should, or because somebody in senior management thinks, ‘Oh we haven’t gotten the video content, maybe we should get on with creating some.’
I suppose you’ve got the advantage as well that it’s so visual, everything that the magazine is about is visual. So it helps to have I suppose a different way of engaging with people that way.
Yeah, I think that’s right. And that’s definitely played to our advantage in terms of the print magazine too. So if you think about the people that you know – and you might be one of them – who buy magazines about homes, they tend to leave them on their coffee tables, or they tend to display them on their kitchen worktop.
You’ll visit some people who’ll have literally every magazine that’s published every month from every publisher, and some people have every edition of a certain magazine that they really aspire to. So certainly that visual medium really plays to our strengths and helps to give us some protection to the business.
The other thing a number of publishers have gone into quite recently is ecommerce, affiliate revenue and that sort of thing. Has that changed how Future’s Home Interest brands are doing things, or does that not really apply to you?
Oh, it’s absolutely huge for us, in terms of ecommerce. I wouldn’t say that it impacted print so much for us, but it’s certainly been a huge element of the digital development of the brands.
So I guess for the benefit of listeners, we should probably explain that ecommerce happens on a Future website in the form of a price comparison tool. And that tool appears alongside buying guides and reviews.
So essentially, the reader might go on to Google and search for something like ‘best vacuum cleaner’. And they’ll then discover our article that explains which is the best, and compares the products in the market. They select the product that’s right for them, and then they see the price comparison widget underneath.
If they then click through to the retailer and make a purchase, we take a cut of the revenue.
Okay, that’s really interesting. Is that just for the smaller vacuum cleaners, sideboards, that sort of thing or could you buy a staircase or home renovation project?!
I think it’d be difficult to buy a home renovation project online, but there are ways of approaching that, that will probably be more of a lead generation play than perhaps an affiliate ecommerce play.
But absolutely, any product that you can buy online, and that there is a price comparison available for, we can effectively cover, as long as it’s relevant to our audience.
But you know what the really funny thing is about all of this, is that once you remove the price comparison widget, it really illustrates how little the media and readers have changed in the digital era.
So magazines were solving the question of ‘Which one should I buy?’ long before websites came along. It’s just now that we can go an extra step and help them find the best price too.
Do you think that price comparison widget makes a big difference to conversions?
I don’t think it makes a difference in terms of the audience that we generate from search. So if people don’t want to buy, and they’re simply doing their initial phase of research, or they don’t want to take advantage of the price comparison, they then want to go and buy a product on the high street, they can still do that. They can still get all the information they need from our article.
And if they do want to buy, then, obviously that makes a big difference to our business model.
You’ve been at Future for quite a while, and it’s one of those businesses that, from the outside, it seems to be a really very, very different business from what it was a decade ago. What do you think some of the reasons for that are?
So that’s a good question, which could have a very long answer that might send some people to sleep, so I’ll try and be really concise. I think what Future has done is, it’s been on that continuum from being a magazine-centric publisher to becoming a much more diversified media business where digital products and exhibitions and other revenue streams have come in and helped to evolve the direction in which we’re heading.
And what I guess we ideally want is, we’d like strength in all of our key areas like Home Interest, Technology and Photography and so on. And we’d like to have strength across all of the different media platforms and channels that people are passionate about, and have as diverse a businesses as we can. Because that way we can really serve exactly what people want in the way that they want it, and when they want it.
And I think therefore the really big change for me has been, and probably particularly in the last five years, really discovering what our role is in the media landscape in today’s multi channel era.
I think that’s probably the big difference because 10 years ago, we were still really trying to figure out how we would become a digital publisher and how we would evolve our business in that way.
Today, I think we’ve got a much more holistic approach and a much greater understanding of how and why we need to reach the audience.
And is that a case that what works for maybe technology, you can take in a cookie cutter way and apply to home interest, or are there quite a lot of differences, and it’s just a case of getting the right skills in place?
I think yes and no is the answer to that! I think there are definitely things where we can kind of cross-pollinate, and we can learn things from what other verticals are doing. It would be great if everything was as simple as kind of copying and pasting and changing the words from ‘gadgets’ to ‘homes’ or whatever it might be.
But the truth is that you have to be really understanding of why the different audiences behave in the ways that they do, how the demographic is different, what those needs are. And then you can take an underlying platform, which might be a technology platform that works across a number of different websites, or it could be a model for creating magazines, and then you can layer up for the things that are specific and tailored to those individuals.
And the other thing I was curious about, home interest is an area…I look at myself and my peers, and we’ve all got our Pinterest boards about our dream homes, and you’ve got a lot of brands that are increasingly moving into that area and trying to capture that market. So what are you doing to make the print and digital side of your brands relevant, maybe not necessarily in competition with Pinterest, but alongside things like that?
Yeah, it’s a really good question. I think the start point for us has to be to understand what each channel can do for us as a brand and as a business.
So we have a very active presence on Pinterest, which you mentioned, on Real Homes. It’s a great source of referral traffic for our website, so we’re there already. I think we could probably always do more. But it’s a great converter for us in terms of audience.
And I think what we have to do is we have to ensure that when we create print products, that we understand what the drivers are for people going to Pinterest. And I think what we talked about earlier in terms of how people like to display homes magazines, on their coffee tables with pride, there’s another reason why they buy them in the first place, it’s that fantastic canvas that you get when you open up a magazine and you get effectively two sheets of A4 next to each other with a beautiful picture that’s full bleed, and the inspirational quality of that I think is very powerful.
So you can obviously engage with that content all day long on probably a smartphone, and absorb that content. But it really comes to life and goes to the next level when you see it in print.
So we need to be conscious of how those channels are informing the behaviour of our audience. But we also need to make sure that we also stick to the core principles that make things like print what they are.
Yes, I suppose they’re not in competition. They’ve just got different aspects to how you’d use them.
That’s right. Yeah, I think many people down the years have talked about, would it be great if we could convert all of our digital and social users into into print magazine buyers. I’ve yet to find the magic formula for doing that.
But we certainly use Pinterest and Instagram very intensively, and Facebook and Twitter to promote magazine subscriptions. And in fact, going back to one of your earlier questions about how we managed to grow the circulation on Period Living and Real Homes, one of the reasons for that is that everybody in the content team, whether they are working on a print title or a digital product, takes responsibility for helping to promote the magazines and sell subscriptions.
We are very active on our social media channels in terms of explaining that there are magazine versions of the digital brand that you’re engaging with, and ensuring that we serve people competitive and regular offers as well. And that’s been a huge driver to our circulation growth.