SUITCASE's Serena Guen: Our magazine subscription sales are growing 150% year on year

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With so much negative coverage of news publishing, we at Bibblio wanted to shine a spotlight on the many vertical publishers that are thriving. So we created an interview series called "Vertical Heroes".

In this second edition, SUITCASE Group founder Serena Guen discusses the success of her multimedia travel magazine, first published in 2012. Bibblio CEO Mads Holmen caught up with her to talk about profiling their audiences, being platform agnostic and her inspirations from the publishing industry.

Mads: Who are your publication's target audience?

Serena Guen, founder of SUITCASE Magazine
Serena Guen, founder of SUITCASE Group

Serena: Our target audience have a millennial mindset and are looking for trips where they can experience the best of local life, integrating with local cultures and doing off-grid activities. We are looking to cater to people who want to get under the surface of destinations rather than just having a superficial experience, and in that way give back to the communities that they’re travelling to.

Mads: What different types of content are you offering them?

Serena: Social media is often the entry point to our content for readers – offering short-form beautiful and educational ways to engage. The website contains quickly digestible content with destinations, hotels and other city guides that are easier to digest and practical to use. It acts as a toolkit for people who are just looking for inspiration or want to explore all these different places before they even go.

The Travel Planner is a piece of technology that we built that will help travellers navigate new destinations. The print magazine looks more like a coffee table book. It offers long-form content – timeless photography and stories that gives a flavour of each destination in a timeless way.

All of our platforms’ content is based on tips from locals and experts to make sure that we provide the best and most authentic experiences.

SUITCASE Magazine's Travel Planner
SUITCASE Magazine's Travel Planner

Mads: How large is your publication in terms of audience and staff?

Serena: SUITCASE Magazine is distributed globally and is available in the most important creative and forward-thinking areas in the cities of 90 countries, with over 400,000 readers across our platforms. We do all of this with a team of 18.

Mads: You’ve managed to grow impressively with that team. What has been the secret sauce?

Serena: Listening to our audience and also constantly reminding ourselves of our mission. Whenever we do something new, we ask ourselves if we’re bringing ourselves closer to our goals.

Mads: How do you prioritize attracting new audiences vs. engaging existing users deeper?

Serena: Our current priority is growth but first we made sure that our current audience is well catered for by continuing to produce high-quality content and valued by giving them perks or inviting them to events.

We attract new audiences by working with industry leaders across diverse interest sets from sport to photography and then once they’re on our page, they realise that we have a lot of useful and inspirational content for their travels, so hopefully keep them!

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Mads: What’s your social media strategy, and how important is it for you to be present on those platforms?

Serena: We’ve profiled our audience and we’ve got four content pillars that we try to center everything around: inspire (45% content), stay (e.g. hotels 15%), explore (25%), educate (15%). Instagram is our fastest growing platform but we’re about to start afresh with Pinterest too.

Mads: Are there new social trends you’re into?

Serena: I love the idea of Instagram hiding the likes button, which they’re currently trialling in a few different markets. I think this will help hugely augment creative expression on the platform and massively improve mental health.

Mads: Agreed! On a different tack: What’s your fastest growing area?

Serena: They're magazine subscription sales (150% yoy) and audience on the website (100% yoy). It’s really cool to see two supposedly contrarian platforms growing just as fast as each other. I believe it proves that readers truly want to consume different things via different platforms (all of which are not digital) and that they’re willing to pay for high-quality content.

Digital version of SUITCASE Magazine
The digital version of SUITCASE Magazine

Mads: Why do you think your model has been successful?

Serena: We’ve always had the approach of maintaining a strong brand and producing high-quality content first and then deciding the platform to communicate it on second. I think that a combination of building a brand that readers are loyal to and being platform agnostic puts us in a much stronger position for the future.

Mads: What do you think other vertical publishers could learn from this journey?

Serena: Don’t try to be all things to everyone at once, being niche and targeted is the future and helps build a much stronger brand.

Mads: Lastly, which other publishers do you look to for inspiration?

Serena: The New York Times (T Studio is also incredible), Financial Times and The Business of Fashion for their business models. Tina Brown for her content strategy when she was an editor for Vanity Fair. National Geographic for its photography. I also draw a lot of inspiration from brands such as SODA Says and Floom, content creators such as Olivia Lopez and art!

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Publishing in peril

Web users have enjoyed free access to content for years, which has meant some digital publishers are having a tough time of it. To make money they either put up a paywall or rely on ads and clickbait. Google and Facebook offer easy ways to share content, but these referrals are fickle, hard to monetize, and dependent on algorithms that can change in a heartbeat.

In this ecosystem, quality journalism cannot thrive, replaced instead by sensationalist content and filter-bubbled fake news. The experience for users is jumbled and distracting, putting customer loyalty at serious risk.

Help is at hand

Bibblio's discovery platform lets publishers increase engagement, build loyalty and improve how they monetize. Our AI understands the context of each content item, recommending it at the right place and time, recirculating the publisher's content and personalizing their audience's experiences across any touchpoint.

Using either light-touch self-serve tools or running deeper integrations with support from Bibblio's engineers, these successful publishers have found smarter ways to deliver value through their sites, gain a better understanding of their audience and return their focus to quality editorial.

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