Look, Up in the Air: It's a Bird, a Plane, Captive Affluent Print Readers

But Hemispheres, Other In-flight Magazines Challenged by Perceptions, Technology

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- United Airlines' Hemispheres is more than doubling its audience this month as it takes over the seatback pockets on Continental, a result of the merger between the two airlines.

Hemispheres' audience of 1.8 million readers will shoot to nearly 4.5 million if it absorbs all of Continental magazine's readers, according to the most recent round of research from GfK MRI, one of advertisers' measures for magazines. That will approach Delta Sky magazine's 4.7 million readers -- itself a product of Delta's merger with Northwest, before which Sky readers numbered 3.9 million.

The expanded reach ought to help Hemispheres continue its drive for high-end advertisers, a push in which it's already discarded some tacky direct-response ads and brought in better writers. But even if Hemispheres is countering in-flight magazines' low regard among readers and marketers, it faces the new challenge to onboard publishing: creeping web access, live TV and multimedia devices in the air.

There's also advertising's broader shift toward precise targeting, a goal that might seem unmet by magazines offered to whoever occupies seat 12A to Tulsa. "We've never been a huge fan of in-flight magazines, due to nonpaid circulation, nondiscrimination of readership, the very general nature of the editorial -- overall, the antithesis of the direction of communications," said Audrey Siegel, president and director of client services at TargetCast, an independent media agency.

Hemispheres' current fight against in-flight headwinds began in December 2008, when London-based Ink won the contract to publish it. Ink hired veterans of consumer titles such as Radar, W, Rolling Stone and Details and signed up smart contributors such as David Carr, Sloan Crosley, Tom Chiarella and Jason Gay.

"Our goal was to shed the stodginess, predictability and mediocrity we perceived in in-flight magazines," said Mike Guy, editor in chief. That's not unlike the editorial strategy Delta Sky magazine pursued after the Northwest merger, when Minneapolis-based MSP Communications took over the publishing contract two years ago.

Ink also needed to improve the optics for advertisers. In-flight magazines actually enjoy some of the best demographics in publishing: Hemispheres' readers have a median household income of $129,487, for example, nearly double Vogue readers' $67,024, according to GfK MRI.

But onboard publishers scare away premium advertisers by taking too many direct-response ads, reinforcing any perception that their magazines are cheap plays for undifferentiated audiences -- not much different than overnight TV.

"They're full of a lot of advertising that's low-rent," said a publisher at a terrestrial magazine for wealthy readers. "The luxury marketers don't want to be seen with that."

So Ink started turning those low-rent ads away and chasing luxury advertisers with promises of a more polished platform. "We chopped out quite a lot of the advertisers that were consistently carried by the sector and said, 'Look, we're going to slow this down,'" said Ink Publishing Director Simon Leslie. "The readership was good, the audience was perfect, the environment was nice -- and it was being spoiled by the scenery."

The eventual results have included new business from advertisers including Tag Heuer, Volvo, Bang & Olufsen, L'Oreal, Ritz-Carlton Hotels & Resorts and the German jeweler Wellendorf. Ink declined to describe the structure of its deal with United, but in-flight publishers typically pay airlines for access to their seatback pockets and seek to make money from ad sales.

Wellendorf knows plenty of passengers don't pick up airline magazines, and plenty of those that do don't match the demographic it's trying to reach, but says in-flight titles have an advantage once they reach the right readers. "There's nothing to disturb them," said Christoph Wellendorff, president.

The jeweler also advertises in The Wall Street Journal, where the demographics are perfect but readers are juggling everyday life, Mr. Wellendorff added. "The people that buy The Wall Street Journal are prequalified already, whereas an in-flight passenger might not have the same value, but with The Wall Street Journal you're just flipping through whereas with in-flight magazines you have the time and are in a relaxed situation," he said.

Credit: Source: GfK MRI Fall 2010 Magazine Audience Estimates
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