INTERVIEW 

Motor Sport: doubling down on reader revenues

Publishers have been trying to work out the formula for publishing success in the digital age. Over the past six years, Motor Sport has created a coherent, joined-up, reader-focused publishing framework. The challenge now, as Gerard O’Brien tells Meg Carter, is to more aggressively exploit all the new opportunities.

By Meg Carter

Motor Sport: doubling down on reader revenues

Motor Sport magazine, the world’s longest-running motor racing publication, is the living embodiment of that old phrase that when you’re over the hill, you pick up speed. Launched in 1924 as Brooklands Gazette before acquiring its present name on its first birthday, it’s today one of the leading titles on both modern and historic racing and a must-read source for fans of Formula 1.

Now, having established and monetised a gated paywall, successfully established a single customer view and created a tiered subscription product strategy – all since turning 90, it is readying for further innovation, Marketing Operations Director Gerard O’Brien reveals, including an imminent print re-design, further evolution of its subscription model, and the roll-out of an expanded events strategy.

The day we meet, in Motor Sport’s headquarters in a north west London mews, almost the entire full-time staff of 25 plus freelancers are out attending the magazine’s inaugural track day. This is the culmination of a strategy introduced and driven by O’Brien, who joined Motor Sport as head of subscription marketing in 2012, to broaden its appeal amongst younger racing fans, deepen its digital footprint, and further build loyalty.

“The biggest challenge we face is how to keep building on the monetisation of our audience,” he says. And this is arguably made even tougher by the significant advances Motor Sport has already made in this respect over the past six years.

Motor Sport had long enjoyed a loyal audience – mainly amongst ABC1 men aged 45 to 60 – with its print circulation peaking at around 164,000 in the late 1960s. Independent for many years, it was briefly owned by Haymarket Publishing and then Chelsea Magazines, during which time its focus ebbed and flowed between historic and contemporary motor racing before settling on its current mix of both after it was privately bought-out in 2009.

Gerard O’Brien: “It’s about being where the audience wants you to be.” Pic: PPA

When O’Brien joined the business from the world of B2B, where he had worked at – amongst others – Haymarket and Informa, Motor Sport comprised the monthly print magazine, a website, archive-focused paid-for CD-ROMs of past decades, and a two-year-old annual motor sports awards event called The Motor Sport Hall of Fame. Over the next six years, a number of significant developments occurred.

Key milestones

The website was re-oriented around the digital archive, for which a premium paywall was built, and a new tiered subscription product strategy was introduced. Also part of the re-launched online proposition was a stats and analysis area offering driver profiles, data and comparative data – the aim being to create a must-visit premium destination for data-hungry motor fans from across the globe and also act as a shop window.

Content quality and authoritative – at times, opinionated - comment are sacrosanct.

Additional investment went into video, social media and podcasts. A mobile-friendly app was created which as well as offering a monthly content package, regularly updates by pulling through content from the website, to which three or four new stories are added each day. This app is also used for building subscriptions with a ‘first issue for free’ in-app purchase proposition.

A data capture strategy was built around a portfolio of newsletters and the Hall of Fame event, which was re-invigorated to boost audience engagement with the introduction of a public vote component. Hall of Fame has since evolved into a year-round brand in its own right and provided an opportunity for Motor Sport to capture 10,000 new names of potential subscribers.

In addition, Motor Sport significantly expanded the range of merchandise it sells, from fewer than 30 items in early 2017 to more than 500. It has now established itself as a gift platform and, by doing so, grown its female audience – 18% of its ecommerce customers are women, compared to the 3% of its regular web visitors. And since 2016, its ecommerce revenue has risen by 60%.

The net effects of all this are a lowering of the average age of the Motor Sport audience, to 30-50; some 35% of print subscriptions have been converted to ‘bundle subs’ – print plus digital – since 2012, with the bulk of new readers now digital-only with significant numbers paying for access to the new digital content archive. Online traffic has risen annually for the past three years by 15 per cent, and the site is now generating 1.3m-1.4m page impressions each month.

Overall, the title has an ABC of 31,541, of which newsstand sales are 9,726; subscriptions (and paid multiple copies) are 17,532, with the balance being monitored and sample free distribution.

“Print is the heartbeat of the Motor Sport brand and we don’t see that as disappearing,” O’Brien says. “If anything, we want to introduce people to print via digital now. That said, our future success will depend on ensuring our audience gets the quality content they want from us wherever they are. It’s not about assuming print has to be dominant, it’s about being where the audience wants you to be.”

Next phase

Moving forward, the focus once more is on how to monetise. And since taking on his current role in December 2017, O’Brien’s focus has been preparing for the next phase of Motor Sport’s growth which, he hopes, will roll out in a number of ways.

First will be the print redesign scheduled for launch in early 2019 which is underpinned by detailed consumer research undertaken earlier this year.

“The greatest marketplace challenge for us is the state of the newstrade, which is tough. Getting into more supermarkets is key,” O’Brien explains. “Total ABC figures are a constant issue in the sense that while important, so too is our subscriber number and reminding advertisers of that is a constant communication.”

Print advertising remains a challenge but is stable when compared with other titles in the motor sports field while digital is tougher thanks to the volume Facebook and Google now take, he adds. For this reason, the hope is that by diversifying its product portfolio, new opportunities will draw in commercial partners – lessening the need to rely solely on growing digital advertising to grow digital revenue.

“Our priorities for the redesign are to make the cover more accessible, to improve our article design, the overall image and look and also fill in any gaps where we have identified reader demand,” O’Brien continues, stressing that the re-design is not about trimming costs but enhancing content to strengthen its premium proposition. Content quality and authoritative – at times, opinionated - comment are sacrosanct.

“The aim is to reinforce the magazine as being right there at the heart of the action – an active engager with the world of motor sport, not a static observer - and a title that really gets under the bonnet of stuff,” he adds.

Second is a plan to further grow Motor Sports’ subscriptions and related revenues following a review of what contributed most to achieving its recent subscriptions growth. And O’Brien hopes to achieve this in a number of ways. For a start, there will be a further evolution of Motor Sports’ tiered subscription model.

Monetising web content

“One of the big challenges we face when it comes to how to further monetise our web traffic is the fact that a lot of our stories written for the web are available for free,” he explains. “One thing we are looking to change is to start charging (for web-specific content) as we believe people will want to pay for some of that content.”

Another likely next step is to further evolve the online archive, which has previously included every back issue except the latest five.

“By including more up-to-date issues, the editorial team could access more content to run on the home page and we could charge for some of that. As we grow our events, we create new data capture opportunities,” O’Brien continues.

And there are also plans to further upscale Motor Sport’s ecommerce and events propositions. Each offers a significant revenue-driving opportunity in its own right for the year ahead. But both also provide additional ways to drive new subscriptions rather than simply rely on traditional subscription marketing, he says.

“We have an affluent and engaged motor sports community – a community some brands out there can’t reach easily,” O’Brien adds, pointing to the potential for selling more third-party product via an upgraded ecommerce platform. On the events side, meanwhile, a further six new events are now in development for launch in 2019. Data captured from both business activities will be used to further build Motor Sport’s single customer view and power subscription marketing.

Meanwhile, deliberations about how best to optimise internal processes and systems – including the CMS platform, the potential for one-click publish, and how best to build further skills and expertise within the business’s workforce – are ongoing. New appointments have recently been made to strengthen in-house subscription marketing, digital analytics, ecommerce and web content creation. But as a small company with a tight team, retraining to build expertise from within will now be an important focus.

“It’s an exciting time for the publishing world with the likes of The Economist and the FT demonstrating the shift with people now willing to pay for good content,” O’Brien believes. “Whether it’s passion or facts, or both, there is finally a willingness to pay. So, like every publisher, we need to make sure we are not left behind and that despite our small size we can deliver what our audience wants in terms of content and quality and do so to the best of our ability within our budget.”

As it powers towards 95 and beyond, Motor Sport is anything but looking forward to a cosy retirement.