Audience Engagement Top Stories
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How QR codes are helping reinvent print magazines in South Africa

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While there are a growing number of publishers dipping into ecommerce online, print magazines have largely remained static in their approach to shopping. But one publisher has taken the idea of magazines as a shop window to a whole new level using QR codes.  

Associated Media Publishing (AMP) are the publishers of Cosmopolitan, House and Leisure and a number of other female-focused titles in South Africa.

They launched a campaign back in September 2018 which attracted a lot of industry attention; five of their titles would carry QR code covers for the October editions to kick off their ‘Ready to shop’ campaign.

The Media Voices Podcast caught up with Associated Media’s CEO Julia Raphaely this week to get an update on how the QR code campaign had been received, and why they’re transforming their magazines to enable a more transactional strategy.

Why QR codes?

To many in Europe and the US, QR codes are seen as a dated, underused technology, despite rising numbers scanning them for some purposes. But in South Africa, they’re much more widely accepted, especially as a payment solution.

“We started with a QR code because, in South Africa, that is the payment gateway that’s very well recognised,” Raphaely explained. “We partnered with a QR code technology that was powered by a bank, and we started testing it.”

The October issues were wrapped in large QR codes, which linked the readers directly to AMP’s ‘Ready to Shop’ portal, with a video clip exploring the new experience.

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The shoppable element marks a shift for AMP around how they keep the magazine brands relevant. Raphaely explained that they have done a lot of work around transitioning to a much more transactional strategy when it comes to talking to their audience, and understanding how they can add value.

“In South Africa, e-commerce is still relatively small. But I think that a magazine medium has an incredibly important part to play in curating products for consumers.

“And if you look at our audience, they still want the same things…They still want to be empowered. They still want to be informed. They still want to be kept up to date. They want to be entertained.

“So, essentially, what we call ‘ready to shop’, is an extension in terms of our strategy of keeping our brands and our mediums relevant to our audience, and understanding that this is such a valuable consumer, and you have such a deep-seated trusted relationship with this consumer as a medium.”

One of the employees at the bank gave Raphaely some advice when it came to experimenting with the codes. “If you change one person’s behaviour when they engage with your brand, you’ve actually managed to do something. So, just start somewhere with an MVP [minimum viable product].”

“It was actually a wake up call,” Raphaely said. “We just got going with it.”

The strategy has seen rapid results. Between mid-December 2019 and mid-April 2019, QR scans across AMP’s brands grew from 7,000 to 17,430, with the online side almost doubling as well.

“Our page views in our shops grew from 47,000 to 84,441. And the products that we’ve loaded in the shop, which is our back end, which we call ‘ready to shop’ have grown from 1,500 to 3,174.”

Keeping an editorial balance

Like many publishers in ecommerce, Raphaely’s team has had to balance experimenting with a ‘shop window’ mindset with staying true to the editorial focus of their brand.

“We started placing it around the magazine but in a very integrated way, because you don’t want to suddenly become a catalogue.

“We also had to upskill our editors who were curating the product, because you can’t just plunk any product in your inverted commerce shop window. So, it’s taken us two years and everything we do now we test, and then we analyse the feedback from the consumer.”

One area that this has required them to adapt their strategy is when it comes to fashion. “In South Africa, 80% of merchandise that’s actually sold is basics,” she explained, ‘basics’ being what we would call fashion ‘staples’. “It’s not runway, but you obviously want your runway and your high end fashion products because that is part of the narrative, and part of the story, and part of the inspiration.

“But you’ve you’ve got to almost think like a buyer, and that’s a totally different skill set from editorially what we were producing and curating when we only had print in one medium…So, for us it’s been getting our teams to understand the role that we would play working with retailers.

“It’s quite a different mindset to go from being very reader-focused, to consumer-focused but still remembering that you always need a balance in terms of your medium and your stories and your narratives, because otherwise you’ll become a catalogue.”

Making QR codes pay

One other important point of difference in these markets is in the way shoppable content can be monetised. In Western countries, affiliate links and commissions are well-established revenue sources for publishers, thanks largely to Amazon.

But the opportunities for affiliate commission are limited at present in South Africa, and Raphaely believes it is likely to remain a small revenue driver in the short and medium term.

“We will continue to place affiliate links in editorial content in order to drive what revenue we can, and because, in our mind, [making editorial digital content shoppable for your audience] is part of being a relevant publisher in 2019,” she explained, despite it not yet doing enough to recover the resources required.

Instead, the QR codes are monetised by selling shoppable content articles, newsletters, bundle mentions and sponsorship sections.

“We’ve also had advertising support from the biggest online retailers, as well as the bricks and mortar retailers, to grow this sector of the retailer economy,” Raphaely said.

“As magazine media brands, we want to be driving this journey forwards together with retailers, but always with a consumer-first mindset.”

Whether QR codes would work in other markets around the world with their current perception remains to be seen, but what AMP have been able to prove is the uplift in engagement from making their magazines transactional. Even if the individual transactions aren’t enough by themselves to pay back the investment, there is plenty of room to experiment with sponsored bundles for retailers keen to reach an audience willing to shop.

Listen to the full episode here.