Media Analysis: Reader's Digest - a mass opportunity

Following the sale of Reader's Digest last month for £850m, Robyn Lewis asks its executive editor how PROs should target its two million UK readers.

One of the world's best-known consumer magazines, Reader's Digest, was bought last week for £850m by ­private-equity backed group Ripplewood Holdings.

Printed in 21 languages in 50 ­different editions every month, the New York-based title boasts a global circulation of 80 million. In the UK the magazine has a circulation of 737,345 - and claims a readership of 2.1 million - billing itself as ‘Britain's best-selling monthly'.

Ninety-one per cent of the mag­azine's sales come via subscription, although it is also distributed through newsagents. Yet few PR people admit the title is on their media lists. ‘Wasn't it big in the 60s?' asks one consultant when PRWeek calls.

Broad readership
Indeed, most PROs consulted for this article were generally of the opinion that the title - often found in dog-eared mounds in surgery waiting rooms - is not worth targeting.

Such sentiment should be a wake-up call for PR agencies Midas, which has been promoting the magazine's
content for the past eight years, and Eulogy!, which was engaged last week on a B2B account to attract advertisers (PRWeek, 24 November).

PROs' dismissive attitude is surely out of sync with the fact that the mag­azine claims to have more high-income readers worldwide than Fortune mag­azine, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal combined.

Originally containing condensed versions of articles from other publications, the foreign editions of the magazine have developed their own content and separate editorial teams.

Simon Hartley, executive editor at Reader's Digest in the UK, says: ‘It's a misconception that the UK and other editions are a translation of the American version. In fact, each individual edition has its own editorial agenda, although we can use articles from other editions if they are of interest.'

The UK edition targets 35 to 65-year-old readers and has an editorial staff of around 13 - including a squad of dedicated ‘fact-checkers'. ‘That is quite an American idea,' admits Hartley, who has been with the magazine for 15 years.

‘But it is a big part of the Reader's Digest offering. One of the things that comes up in focus groups and surveys is that people say they trust what they read in the magazine - so it is vital we are factually correct.'

The monthly UK edition typically comprises several issue-based articles - ‘How doctors gamble with your life' and ‘ID thieves' new tricks' are recent examples; one or two celebrity interviews; profiles of ‘real' people; a book extract; and the RD Living section at the back. ‘The latter section is probably the one that offers the most opportunity to PR executives,' says Hartley.

RD Living covers products and services in sectors such as health, personal finance, travel, and food and drink. Hartley says: ‘The emphasis is on things our readers find useful. I wouldn't, for example, feature a camera or a vacuum cleaner unless it had something new and unique about it.'

He adds: ‘It's also important for PROs to remember that we are not a specialist mag, and the question we ask is "why would an ordinary person be interested in hearing about this?".'

In terms of competition, Reader's Digest compares itself with the Sunday supplements, but Hartley ­believes the magazine does not have head-to-head rivals. So why are PR professionals so quick to dismiss the publication?

‘It isn't on our agenda at all,' admits Jim Hawker, founder of PRWeek's New Consultancy of the Year, Three­pipe Communications. ‘None of us at Threepipe have heard anything about it or seen a copy for about five years. Also, none of our clients has ever mentioned Reader's Digest or asked to be in it.'

PRWeek received a similar response from most of the agencies consulted for this article, although some organisations did speak highly of the role the journal can play in promoting campaigns. The Energy Saving Trust, for example, has certainly targeted the magazine over the past few years.

‘It is absolutely part of our media strategy as its readers are one of our target demographics,' says media
relations manager Sara Neame.

Human-interest angle
Neame explains: ‘Reader's Digest is well read by mature, environmentally aware people who are likely to warm to our subject. Most tend to be ex-City types who have a lot of influence in their communities. We "pitch in" tips on how to save energy at home, statistics, survey results and case studies. We find that using our green ambassadors as a human-interest angle works particularly well.'

Hartley agrees, describing the title as ‘based on story-telling and looking at the human side of a story'. He adds: ‘We also have lots of boxes with statistics and tips, so they are always welcome.'

To target Reader's Digest, however, PROs need to be alert to the lead-times involved - features are commissioned nearly four months in advance - and would be wise to familiarise themselves with the magazine in advance of picking up the phone.

Promotions and competitions are another way of targeting the magazine, though Hartley stresses these must be tied in with features.

Hartley says: ‘A lot of what we do get from PR executives misses the point entirely. For example, we wouldn't be interested in something that is aimed at very old people.'

He adds: ‘Another thing that people often don't realise is that we have a very strong tradition of humour. The true-life humour, jokes and letters pages are far and away the most popular parts of the magazine.'

PROs should also be aware that Reader's Digest tests most ideas on reader panels - even featured celebrities are tested for their reader relevance, for instance.

Reader's Digest clearly offers a vast  resource for PR people willing to look beyond its dated image. The fact it is apparently under-utilised should act as a fillip for more PROs to consider it seriously as a potential avenue for their clients.


Katherine WALKER, Editor-in-chief

Simon HARTLEY, Executive editor (general features and celebrity interviews)

Tricia MALLETT, Senior editor (health)

Jane BRADON, Assistant editor, RD Living

Veronica PRATT, Books editor

T 020 7715 8000 (switchboard)

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