Health matters: How Men’s Health UK is finding new ways to engage with its readers during the pandemic

At Men’s Health UK magazine they know the importance of reaching out to readers during difficult times. For years, the title has raised awareness about mental health issues, especially the shocking statistic that suicide is the leading killer of men under 50.

Yet, despite dedicating a lot of time and space to the problem, their efforts started to feel, as editor-in-chief Toby Wiseman puts it, “Like shutting the stable door when the horse had bolted”. To effect meaningful change, one of the strategies the magazine came up with was to shine a spotlight on young adults, an age group severely affected by mental health battles. Their chance to do just that arrived early last year when Covid-19 forced people indoors.

Toby Wiseman, Editor-in-Chief, Men’s Health UK

“When the first lockdown kicked in, it became evident to me that those between 17-23 were one of the groups hit hardest,” says Wiseman. “School leavers were finding their exam results invalidated and prospects dashed. And at a time when they should be pushing boundaries and finding themselves, they’ve been confined to their parents’ kitchen tables.

“I genuinely believe this generation have had their lives displaced more than any other since wartime. This is a demographic that has already experienced a disproportionate rise in suicide over recent years.”

Our livelihoods have become a social, cultural and political issue. Our approach will be more holistic than ever.

A fresh approach

Not content with addressing the impact of Covid with features generated in-house, Men’s Health asked those affected to tell their own stories – consulting a wide range of 17–23-year-olds to write, edit and advise its April issue.

Contributors include the likes of Bryony Gooch, Editor at Exeter University’s Exeposé newspaper, who looks at the difficulty of completing a degree from home; journalist Alex Mistlin, who writes about how social media can be harnessed as a tool for meaningful interaction; and Ibrahim Aires, an advocate for youth mental health services.

“In terms of assistance, of course we steered these young charges, mentored them, provided support – but the important thing was also to let them have their own voice,” Wiseman points out. “The standard of work and the dedication to it was very impressive.”

Beyond its April issue, Men’s Health is keen to keep the conversation going about the damaging lifestyle effects of Covid. While the magazine has for years been petitioning for physical and mental health to be given parity of esteem, the message has largely fallen of deaf ears. Covid has changed all that.

“From ingrained societal attitudes to inconsistent governmental funding, there’s been a chasm between the way in which physical and mental health issues are viewed, understood and supported,” says Wiseman.

“And yet, over the past 12 months, the nexus between physical and mental health has become instinctively apparent to all. Confinement has made people appreciate the importance of exercise as medicine. We’ve all come to appreciate just how much the physical impacts the mental.”

While a lot of focus at Men’s Health has been placed on the 17–23 age group, the magazine will continue to cover the wellbeing of all age groups in the coming months.

“It’s not lost on me that the last year has turned many if not all of us into hermitic teenagers – in the sense that we’ve been locked in our home offices, glued to screens, and with not enough distinction between work and play,” says Wiseman. “If WFH is here to stay then we need to address how living cloistered lives, mediated by technology alone, can negatively affect both our physical and mental health.

“I think the events of the last year have fundamentally changed who and what we address, and how we do so. Our livelihoods have become a social, cultural and political issue. Our approach will be more holistic than ever.”

Fitting into a new landscape

Men’s Health has adjusted its strategy at a time when the fitness sector has been transformed dramatically by the pandemic. While wellness has become more important to people, the health industry has, ironically, taken a huge hit during lockdown with many gyms and personal trainers fighting for survival. Despite the doom and gloom, demand for content and product has never been greater, says Wiseman.

“Our online performance in 2020 testifies to this, with website traffic up 55 per cent year-on-year, peaking at the six million mark for unique monthly users. Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the demand for home gym equipment and e-comms sales through our website have increased by over 400 per cent in the last year.

“Meanwhile, streamed exercise services – from Peloton to Apple Fitness+ – are flying. The most successful players in the market will be the ones who can pivot their offering to meet the new flexibility and agility that consumers now demand.”

A crucial part of Men’s Health’s most recent success has been it’s effective use of video, which is a perfect platform for the dynamism of working out. Particularly popular has been the ‘How I Build my Body’ franchise featuring stars like Chris Hemsworth and Ashley Walters giving training tips to audiences.

“In 2020, boosted by the success of ‘How I Build My Body’, Men’s Health UK’s YouTube revenue increased by around 600 per cent compared to the previous year, which is a quite staggering feat,” says Wiseman.

“It’s not just about moving images – it’s about interactivity, community, competition and support. As both delivery mechanisms and ecosystems, video and social are very well placed to recreate the kind of environment that otherwise could only be supplied by a club or live event, and to nurture a following. They’re essential to the future of fitness brands.”

Virtual events have also proven to be a winner for Men’s Health, with the brand launching Weekenders, free digital fitness festivals featuring workouts, cooking lessons and advice from inspirational figures.

“As with many things over the past year, what was perhaps born out of necessity has proven to be a good idea in its own right,” says Wiseman. “ Virtual events will continue to play a part in what we do. Will they replace the physical? Not a chance. But as an additional method of content distribution and consumer interaction, they simply add to a publisher’s toolbox when it comes to building a brand that exists 24/7.”

Print is still the most flexible and interactive medium out there: it can be consumed anywhere, pages can be saved, content can be shared, and the battery life is unbeatable.

Print is still king

While Men’s Health has branched out in new and exciting ways, Wiseman remains “a staunch promoter of print magazines”.

“In many ways print is still the most flexible and interactive medium out there: it can be consumed anywhere, pages can be saved, content can be shared, and the battery life is unbeatable,” he adds. “These days everyone’s favourite metric is engagement, and yet there’s nothing more engaging than a well-made magazine – an argument backed by the 59 per cent year-on-year increase in Men’s Health UK print subscriptions last year.

“It’s about what you do with it. Different platforms engender different kinds of consumer behaviour – the challenge of an editor is to work out what kind of content suits which one best. I believe that the best brands are the ones with the ability to serve its audience wherever they are, whatever they’re doing and whatever their appetite. To do that, all platforms have an essential role to play.”

Just how creative and committed Men’s Health are when it comes to serving its readers is further underlined by a forthcoming cover shoot for the magazine, where, due to social distancing rules, no one will be present except the talent, his publicist and a close friend. The publicist will be holding an iPhone equipped with CLOS – an app that enables you to conduct remote photo shoots. The friend will be holding another phone and speaking to the photographer and the Men’s Health team via Zoom.

“We’ve never done this before. It’s a step into the unknown,” says Wiseman. “There will be limitations to what we can do, obviously; but at the same time, it’s incredibly liberating and empowering. And this, in a nutshell, is what the whole pandemic has been like for people making magazines: frightening yet exhilarating, frequently inhibiting yet game-changing.

“While much of life has been put on hold, the magazine industry has simply accelerated. The key is to strap yourself in, avoid the potholes, and try to keep a racing line.”

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