Targeting the right audience at the right time: The story of The Big Issue

Image, Dame Anita Roddick, DBE.

Dame Anita Roddick, DBE. Image by openDemocracy / CC BY-SA 2.0

One of my favourite activities during the quieter period of early January is to explore the books in Write’s office library. While browsing through the collection recently, I was pleasantly surprised to find Anita Roddick’s autobiography, Business as Unusual: The triumph of Anita Roddick.

Her name is very familiar to me. Anita founded The Body Shop cosmetics company in Brighton, England in 1976, but that isn’t the context where I first learned about her.

Anita Roddick’s role in launching The Big Issue

Image. A vendor for The Big Issue.

A vendor for The Big Issue. Image by Tony Smith / CC BY 2.0

I initially read about Anita in the early 1990s, when I began researching for my journalism master’s thesis about The Big Issue magazine. If you’ve visited London or other major British cities since the mid-1990s, you’ve probably seen street vendors selling The Big Issue. This weekly news and entertainment magazine is sold by homeless and long-term unemployed people, who receive a portion of their sales.

Anita, her husband Gordon, and their friend John Bird co-founded The Big Issue in September 1991. The Body Shop Foundation provided seed capital for the venture, with the understanding that John would edit the magazine and that it’d eventually become independent from The Body Shop.

The Big Issue’s rapid success

The Big Issue began as a monthly magazine in London, with an initial run of 50,000 copies. It quickly expanded into a glossy weekly publication with independent international and regional British and Irish editions. By 2000, The Big Issue had a circulation of more than 200,000 readers in Britain.

Freelance writers, paid journalists, and volunteers write its personality profiles, political commentary, and arts reviews. A central feature is ‘Street Lights’, which includes several pages of poems, short stories, and articles written by homeless and ex-homeless people.

The British Government gave The Big Issue charity status in 1995. The organisation then separated into a business and a charitable foundation. All profits from the business (the magazine) are funnelled into the charity, which operates counselling, housing, and vocational training programmes.

I volunteered at The Big Issue’s headquarters in Clerkenwell, London in 1996. I wrote news and features articles, but also sometimes volunteered for the organisation’s charity. Working at the magazine and interviewing staff helped me better understand its history and operational challenges.

Targeting the right audience at the right time

I hadn’t thought about The Big Issue for several years, but Anita’s recollections reminded me of the courageous vision of its three co-founders.

I was intrigued by Anita’s reflections about the magazine’s launch in her book. Anita says, ‘It was a big risk. It could have gone badly wrong and there was always the danger that we would be accused of exploitation, or promoting drug abuse, violence, alcoholism, welfare fraud and heaven knows what else.’

A street newspaper was definitely a risky venture at that time in Britain. However, The Big Issue succeeded in part because it targeted the right audience at the right time.

The Big Issue’s context in the early 1990s

Image, Someone sleeping rough in Britain.

Someone sleeping rough in Britain. Image by Cuddly Little Owl / CC BY 2.0

Britain was ready for The Big Issue in 1991. The country’s homeless population sharply increased in the 1980s because of economic recession, decreased government spending on social housing, and the closure of mental hospitals. As a result, many residents in Britain’s cities were increasingly frustrated by the presence of people sleeping rough.

As a magazine, The Big Issue appealed to urban professionals who read print media for local news and entertainment. Its sharp political articles and profiles often covered controversial issues.

The Big Issue’s goal to be a business solution to a social problem also fit well into the capitalistic environment of the early 1990s. My multi-year study found that journalists and others were willing to buy the magazine because its vendors were selling a product rather than begging for money. As a journalist from The Guardian told me, ‘Rather than just seeing people begging and looking grim, they are actually saying, “Have this magazine.” So it has probably given them a bit of self-respect. And if people have self-respect, you can accept them a bit better.’

The importance of connecting with your audience

At Write, our workshops cover the importance of connecting with your audience at all stages of the writing process. This process ideally involves five distinct steps: think and gather, outline/plan, write, edit, and proofread.

Image, An example of an empathy map.

An example of an empathy map. Image by visualpun.ch / CC BY-SA 2.0

Writers must identify and understand their targeted reader when beginning a project. A good first step is to create a reader profile that answers questions such as who your main reader is, what your reader’s views are, and how the reader will use the document.

Many organisations do market research to construct reader profiles. Some research techniques include interviewing potential readers and creating empathy maps. Tracking trends will also help organisations make sure that their document has well-timed exposure to the right audience.

The Big Issue’s co-founders knew they had a creative idea, but they carefully did their audience research first. The co-founders widely read media coverage of homelessness and asked people if they would buy a street paper.

John also went out onto the streets, asking homeless people what they would think about selling a street newspaper. ‘The message that came back was that anything was better than begging,’ Anita recalls in her book.

The Big Issue today

I stopped closely following The Big Issue in 2003, but I’m still inspired by the co-founders’ vision and activism. Many of its street vendors moved on to paying jobs and found permanent housing. As Anita says, ‘Selling The Big Issue helped put the vendors back on level ground and restored their dignity.’

Image, John Bird, one of the founders of The Big Issue.

John Bird, one of the co-founders of The Big Issue. Image by Impact Hub / CC BY-SA 2.0

Connecting with its audience helped the magazine succeed despite many challenges. Following financial mismanagement and the economic downturn in the late 1990s, The Big Issue reduced its staff size and moved its primary editorial offices from London to Manchester. The magazine adapted to its audience’s changing habits by launching a website and offering digital editions.

The Big Issue was re-launched in early 2012 and now includes more content on campaigning and political journalism. It currently sells around 100,000 copies a week in Britain.

The Queen appointed Anita a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in 2003, in recognition of her charitable work. Anita died in 2007, but her role in launching The Big Issue is a testament to her activism and keen awareness of the audience. According to The Big Issue’s website, the publication is still the world’s largest street paper and inspired other street papers in more than 120 countries. The Big Issue reflects how all successful projects understand their readers’ needs, questions, and perspectives.

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