When the pandemic hit, there were very few brands that had a level of in-built resilience, but Bauer Media’s Country Walking was arguably one of them.
For many people, as lockdowns reduced our interaction with others and limited our scenery to the same four walls, walking became a lifeline.
At this session at the PPA Leadership Summit, Mary Hogarth, Managing Director of The Magazine Expert, spoke to Editor Guy Procter about how the title has built its thriving community, and how the past year has cemented the relationship between the magazine and its audience.
Things started for Guy in 2015 when he set about tackling 11 years of successive circulation declines. However, it was not necessarily that straightforward.
“When I looked at the magazine, I couldn’t honestly see what the reason for it was. It was beautifully shot and designed, the features were wonderfully written – it wasn’t like there was a glaring problem I immediately had to fix.”
The team decided the problem was one of marketability. There was little about the name that excited readers enough to make them share their passion. This led to the creation of the Walk1000Miles campaign, described by Guy as a real “breakthrough moment” that has redefined the relationship between Country Walking and its community.
8 Perspectives on Community Building
From readership to readers
The audience are now identified as individuals rather than judged by gut feel and represented through broad-brush demographics. Guy referred to the community as a “rainbow nation” of all kinds of sexualities, ages, colours and backgrounds. As editor, he is on a journey to “truly become friends and peers” with them.
Avoiding ‘them and us’
The role of editor has evolved, said Guy. No longer is there a need to occupy the role of gatekeeper in charge of precious content. Instead, the title has created “a clubhouse, a fanzine, a central point where they can meet and feel that the company they keep reflects well on them. They can share their interests, and it’s got aims for them”. If cultivated in the right way, the brand can become a positive force within members’ lives.
A safe place in difficult times
Because the pandemic restricted movement, there was a risk it would curtail interest in walking, based on the idea that people need to travel to grand destinations. However, walking the three miles a day required for Walk1000Miles meant that, in reality, walking only grew in appeal. It galvanised and extended the community, providing them with a shared space to escape coronavirus. As Guy said: “They cherish the safety of the environment and now it became even more of a group-hug affair because we were all going through this anxious phase. We were all doomscrolling outside of the group but when we came into the group, we weren’t talking about COVID and the things we couldn’t do, we were talking about the things we could do - the birds we were seeing and the walks we were still doing. It was just so healing and protective for our community.”
The subs switch
As for other titles, newsstand sales were negatively impacted as retail closed its doors, but there was a significant switch to subscriptions, with the title registering its biggest growth in five years. It is not exclusively down to the pandemic, however, as the title had previously looked to address the fact that it had been losing numbers of ageing readers from the top of its subscription file but not necessarily replacing them at the bottom. Walk1000Miles has been instrumental in reversing this downward trend, with a particular push around helping people make positive life changes every New Year.
Taking the money
The idea of community does not need to sit uncomfortably with commercial gain, argued Guy. While journalists may want people to revere their words, there is value – economic and emotional – in other points of connection. Merchandise such as medals, for example, proudly marks people out as members of the Country Walking community. “That money is a little love note to our bottom line, which says ‘what you do means a lot to me’.”
Joining the club
Country Walking has developed a membership scheme, providing a means to deepen relationships with the community through access to exclusive content and merchandise. “The power of community has really trickled over from Walk1000Miles into our whole mindset of how we can make readers feel valuable and valued,” said Guy. It also facilitates new ways for advertisers to explore ways to connect with readers beyond on-page advertising, such as exclusive access to products in return for authentic reader reviews. This can, said Guy, also be used as the stimulus for more extensive commercial partnerships.
Picking the right platforms
Supporting the community on social media is about balancing effort with reward. Guy said the Facebook group has become the community’s “engine room” after quickly realising that creating video content on YouTube was more rewarding for the platform than it was for the brand. “I don’t want to get into that position with my brand where I’m just pushing out all this free, hard-won content down a slope that does nothing for me in return,” he said.
Keeping faith in quality content
Guy said the title is committed to invest in the best writers and photographers, enabling readers to revel in the content and immerse themselves in that world. Just as digital watches haven’t been wiped out by their super-accurate digital relatives, he argued, people don’t just want information, they wish to take enjoyment from the information-acquiring process itself. “There will always be a need – a demand – for expertly produced, wonderful content, and if that’s not the relationship for a long-term relationship with audiences then I’m out of ideas!”
TWO QUICK LESSONS IN THE ART OF COMMUNITY BUILDING
1. Scaling with care
Despite initial concerns it might become unmanageable as it grows, a reader community can scale safely through a ‘soft policing’ approach, nudging and rewarding behaviours you want to see. Monitoring and listening is important but it becomes largely self-regulating, with Country Walking employing six moderators for 41,000 people.
2. Staying authentic
Communities are organic environments, built on shared interest. They will sense it when you say things you don’t believe, and they value seeing frailties and human flaws. This honesty builds trust, but it can quickly be lost so it’s a relationship that must always be authentic and never exploitative.