Women’s Service Mags Trade Housekeeping for Style

Shift tone without losing their identity

Traditionally the purveyor of recipes and cleaning tips, women’s service magazines have come a long way, but apparently not far enough. More than a decade ago, Real Simple and O, The Oprah Magazine packaged service as lifestyle, forcing the category to pivot en masse. The Web also has made free service content easily accessible, and young women are more inclined to search online than pick up a magazine.

So, in the past year, Good Housekeeping, Redbook, Family Circle, Ladies’ Home Journal and Woman’s Day—all facing long-term advertising and newsstand sales declines—further downplayed their bread-and-butter housecleaning, parenting and relationship advice in favor of fashion, beauty, shopping and entertaining.

While service titles indulge readers with style and home decor and put stars like Lauren Conrad on their covers, looking too much like fashion and beauty titles risks alienating loyal readers.

Avoiding that trap means delivering the content in a way their readers expect. So instead of serving up fashion trends, Woman’s Day gives women tips on dressing for their body type and saving money by shopping their closets. Unlike the typical fashion magazine, it also shows women of varying sizes and ethnicities.

Redbook, rather than confining plus-size style tips to their own page as fashion books often do, sprinkles them prominently throughout the style department.

Meanwhile, Better Homes and Gardens’ beauty writers are foregoing long pieces and going straight to action steps, said Gayle Butler, editor in chief of BHG as well as executive vp/executive creative content director at parent company Meredith's National Media Group. “I don’t see lifestyle and service as mutually exclusive,” she said. “No matter what type of content category you’re in, service is helping her move forward in her goals.”

Not by accident, this shift comes amid a rocky economic and political climate. “Everybody’s dealing with things they never thought they’d be thinking about, and you feel safe when you go back to the idea that ‘If I look good, I feel good,’” said Ellen Levine, editorial director of Hearst Magazines and onetime editor of Good Housekeeping, Redbook and Woman’s Day.

Not for nothing, the subjects popping up in women's magazines are also where the money is. While overall ad pages across all magazines declined 4.7 percent in 2012, according to MediaRadar, apparel and accessories ad pages  in women's fashion magazines grew 6 percent and toiletry and cosmetics brands grew 15 percent.

Slapping more makeup and fashion pages in their titles is no guarantee of a positive response from ad buyers, though. “It’s going to be critical for their success for them to really talk to the consumers all the time and make sure that they stay relevant,” said Brenda White, an svp of Starcom. “Now that all of them have gone through a refresh, what I want to see is how the consumers are relating to that content.”