What Happened to Creative Subscription Marketing for Magazines?

By: John Morthanos


As an outspoken advocate of newsstand sales and someone with experience in circulation marketing, I find there is a correlation between the loss of newsstand sales and the reduction in creative direct response subscription marketing.

Sure, today there is a heavy reliance on internet sales … whether it is going through online subscription agents including,, or the publisher’s home page. But the effort to reach out and “touch” real people is lost completely on these digital channels, and in doing so, selling the concept of a magazine and its contents is also lost.

Magazines Aren't Selling Themselves Well Online

Go to a website of interest … let’s say you’re looking for a leek soup recipe as I did this morning. I found over 6 million potential sites that have this recipe. Go to any of the sites and if it is not a specific magazine site like Martha Stewart for example, there is no obvious promotion to a specific magazine or a site to subscribe to. One site had ads for a furniture company, a national chicken brand. The Martha Stewart page did have one ad for three magazines for “just $10” … but no promotion for specific titles or how they will help make you smarter, thinner, happier, more satiated, or whatever.

At the bottom of the site there is a listing of approximately 10 titles sold by Meredith and (part of the Meredith Women’s Network), but no pizzazz, bang, direction to the wonders of the magazine or its contents. Just a listing of 10 titles. The site provided no reasons to go to a store to thumb through an issue and see if it is for you. Nothing to impel you to buy the magazine, or in the words of the classic 1973 National Lampoon subscription ad, “If You Don’t Buy This Magazine, We’ll Kill This Dog.”

The National Lampoon ad created a great deal of buzz. It got rave reviews and a great deal of hate mail. It was publicized in daily newspapers and national magazines, and in the end, it drove consumers to newsstands to see what this magazine was all about. It also sold subscriptions -- a big win for the creative circulation team.

Looking Back at the Creative Subscription Offers of the Past

When I was hired in 1983 to be on the circulation creative services team for the newly formed Ziff-Davis Computer Division, Karen Weinstein, the art director, and myself were given the task to create ads that would spur interest in the new line of personal computers that sat on a desk top. The purpose was to generate excitement for a new industry, new magazines, and develop the groundwork for the future of personal computing. This was the vision of Larry Sporn, the president of the Computer Division and Carole Mandel, the VP of circulation.

Karen and I created the ads. As we called it she was the music, I was the words. These campaigns opened consumers’ eyes to personal computing and created a buzz that made Ziff-Davis the leading computer publisher in the U.S.

In 1984 IBM was planning to release PC Jr. computer for the home. Larry and Carole tasked Karen and myself to come up with a direct mail and print campaign for the magazine product that would accompany this computer launch.

Little did we know that we would be opening a crystal ball to the future by doing a simple visual ad with limited copy predicting home networking, banking from your bedroom, recipe collection, or game playing. We created the buzz, sold the magazine, and got paid subscriptions for a full year.

Successes like this were not only limited to the ingenuity of the Ziff-Davis computer magazine management, but to most domestic magazine publishers.

Direct mail campaigns, print ads, and cross promotions built title awareness that reached across all demographics. Whether it was the cross-promotion with Maxell Video Tapes and Video Review magazine in 1988, where each Maxell VHS tape had a “mini-mag,” offering a trial subscription and a promo code for selective retailers that sold the magazine at a discount. This worked so well, and demonstrated to Maxell that women were also buying VCR tapes, that it opened up new avenues for Madison Avenue to run video tape ads in magazines like Ladies’ Home Journal and Redbook. It also increased our circulation for Video Review.

A promotion in 1978 with Campbell’s Soup and Marvel Comics helped the newly reformed Marvel to reach new audiences, and was the germ of a growing business.

An End to Direct Response Subscription Marketing?

I’m sorry to say we don’t see these types of promotions anymore. I cannot remember the last direct mail package I have received for any magazine. Only a few bother to send renewal notices via snail mail. They depend instead on the internet and auto-renew programs.

Open any webpage and you’ll get hit with pop-ups (if you have your ad blocker turned off), and either you click around them or ignore them until the 30-second display has turned off. We see that reliance on digital media has cut into print sales – both for subscriptions and newsstand. I don’t think the reduction in newsstand sales is solely because of digital media. There are people reading in-depth analysis of new urban artists in Juxtapoz Magazine or in-depth critiques on the Battle of Normandy in World War II Quarterly Magazine. These magazines are selling on the newsstand and in their subscription programs. Other magazines are crying foul and it may be because of their reliance on the convenience of the internet marketing and the absence of being creative daredevils.

The loss of creative direct response marketing and the new “breed” of publishing execs who value short term growth and quick decisions to reduce or eliminate print are slowing down growth in today’s print environment.

We see retail venues like Barnes & Noble in the U.S. and Chapters-Indigo in Canada increase the number of print titles, and in some cases, represent the majority of sales for niche publishers. I say this and use the word “niche” because in 1983 PC Magazine was a niche magazine, only to become one of the top selling circulation magazines (both newsstand and subscription), until the audience of PC Magazine used the digital technology it touted and devoured itself.

But digital cannot devour History, Art, Sport and other magazine categories – it can help these categories grow in print by using creative platforms to direct consumers to retail and print subscriptions.

Remember Direct Mail? It's About to Become A Disruptive Marketing Tool

By: Lewis Gersh


Maybe you’ve heard Megan Brennan, the 74th Postmaster General of the U.S. Postal Service, discuss the agency’s efforts to modernize and meet the challenges of the 21st century. If you haven’t — and let’s face it, postal mail flies well below today’s tech-targeted radar — you might be surprised to learn that the Postal Service partnered with to deliver groceries in San Francisco, built an augmented reality app to enhance what’s in your mailbox, and created an online hub that allows customers to give their carrier specific delivery instructions. In other words, neither rain, nor sleet nor technological disruption will interfere with the mail, and that’s good news because as Brennan put it, direct mail is “the most direct pipeline to the consumer.”

The question is: What can retailers do to make sure they’re capitalizing on this new, tech-spirited innovation at the Postal Service and lead the charge to marry digital technology with direct mail? As it turns out, there are plenty of opportunities. Direct mail is at the beginning of a renaissance that’s already begun to transform shopping.

Catalogs Gone Wild
A few years back, the conventional wisdom was that the internet would kill the catalog. The catalog didn’t die, however, and retailers like J.C. Penney, which had given up on a physical mail presence during The Great Recession, have actually resurrected the catalog, citing both consumer preference and an omnichannel strategy.

Of course, the catalog’s renaissance isn’t just about rehashing an old concept. Retailers have had to evolve the medium in order to speak to today’s connected consumers. Anthropologie, which calls its catalog a journal, views its catalog as an opportunity for content marketing that’s on par with, or better than, what you would see in a magazine. A growing number of retailers take a similar editorial approach to their catalogs, with Ikea going so far as to produce a tongue-in-cheek video for the company’s “bookbook.” And then there’s Restoration Hardware, which is legendary for its 17-pound, 3,300-page catalog that takes content marketing to encyclopedic proportions. But the catalog isn't only getting better, it’s getting smarter.

A number of retailers are using web analytics to customize catalogs. L.L.Bean is just one example. As the company’s chief marketing officer recently explained, L.L. Bean can create multiple versions of its catalog based on a consumer's online browsing habits. Therefore, instead of sending every customer the largest book, Bean can send a custom edition targeted to each customer’s interests. Meanwhile, online retailers like Bonobos are discovering that a physical catalog gives the brand more latitude to grab shoppers’ attention while at the same time deepening the data around customer purchasing habits.

Mail-to-Store Conversions
Like the catalog, physical retail was also supposed to die, thanks largely to the threat of showrooming. As it turns out, the fear of showrooming was overblown. A recent IBM report showed that while the number of consumers who go to the store and then use their phone to check prices on the web ticked up slightly, the amount of money those shoppers spent dropped drastically. At the same time, retailers have seen the rise of a trend known as “webrooming,” which is when consumers start the shopping experience online but go to the store to complete their purchase. What’s going on here? We’ve arrived at our omnichannel future, and it looks nothing like we predicted it would, largely because of direct mail.

A few years back, when everything was supposed to be about mobile, there was this idea that direct mail would go away because retailers would use real-time data to shoot customized coupons to shoppers’ phones as they moved around the store. It was geo-targeting on steroids. Eventually retailers came to understand that the concept was probably a better fit for "The Jetsons" than a real life brick-and-mortar store. What happened instead was that direct mail turned out to be the ideal tool for geo-targeting, not to the specific store or aisle, but to the ZIP code. Instead of driving consumers crazy with offers in-store, retailers figured out that they could use direct mail to drive their customers to the store in a given area. More importantly, retailers discovered that they could use direct mail to achieve "presence."

What do I mean by presence? Look at the experience of a retailer like Nordstrom: customers who have a multichannel relationship with the brand spend four times more than those who don’t. Direct mail in the form of a catalog can drive consumers into the store, but direct mail post store visit can also retarget consumers back to the website. Direct mail is the conduit retailers use to move customers between channels, and as such it's the method by which retailers remain present in their customers’ lives between store, home and digital.

‘Smart’ Cards (and Envelopes)
Intelligent Mail Barcode reporting technology makes it possible to sync up direct mail with online channels and capture attribution between online and offline. Meanwhile, new tools like Real Mail Notification allow retailers to align email marketing with direct mail campaigns. And, of course, improvements in printing technology combined with CRM and other real-time data tools have dramatically reduced lead times to the point where it’s possible for retailers to deliver a customized direct mail offer immediately after a store visit.

While some of these applications are new, the technologies that drive them have been around for several years or more. In that sense, what's old is new again. And just as the first iteration of direct mail disrupted retail, so too will direct mail 2.0 disrupt and transform the future of retail.

Author: Lewis Gersh

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Printers Find Success in Omnichannel Marketing Campaigns

By: Patrick Henry

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Some printers may find the notion of “omnichannel marketing” unfamiliar and off-putting. They shouldn’t. They’re already taking part in it — or could be, as the PSPs profiled here are doing with impressive results.

If printers feel the chill of alienation instead of the warmth of recognition when they confront the concept of “omnichannel marketing,” they’re failing to appreciate their own stake in it.

What printers do is integral to the success of omnichannel marketing campaigns — it can be indispensable, in fact, to getting them off the ground in the first place. In the eclectic business of omnichannel outreach, moreover, there are no false distinctions between “old” and “new” media. All that matters is making sure they join hands as guides in the all-important “customer journey:” the marketing industry’s term for the endless map of media-facilitated touch points leading to brand loyalty and lasting relationships.

Print’s place in all of this increases in importance the more “omni” the ingredients of omnichannel marketing become. Debora M. Haskel, VP of marketing and corporate communications for Chanhassen, Minn.-based IWCO Direct, recalls the “aha moment” that occurred when a customer wanted to see what would happen if direct mail were left out of the promotional mix. Response rates plunged, reminding everyone concerned why “direct mail is still the backbone of our business.”

Demand for Print Is Up 'Exponentially'

It’s ironic, says Rick Sands, president and co-owner of The Fenway Group in Boston, “that since we stopped selling print in 2008, the demand for print has risen exponentially.” That was the recession-darkened year when he decided to reposition the company as a provider of integrated marketing solutions consisting of both print and non-print channels. Sands says that this strategy got the company out of the commodity trap and into a “holistic pricing structure” where the print portion essentially takes care of itself.

The success of the omnichannel marketing campaigns executed by SG360° “makes it easier and easier to integrate print into the entire conversation,” according to Julie Rinard, the Wheeling, Ill.-based company’s senior VP for marketing and product management. These campaigns aim to “expand the print experience into the digital realm” by using print at the touch points where it can add the most momentum along the consumer’s path to purchase.

Alin Mihalcea, director of national programming and development at DATA Communications Management (DATA) in Brampton, Ontario, says the company prides itself on being able to modify its omnichannel presentations “within a fraction of a second” as it gathers fresh information about the consumers it is reaching. But, there’s still a need for the permanency of hard copy in this split-second environment: “Depending on the audience, a physical copy of something could be worth more than a digital one, because it’s tactile,” Mihalcea says.

About More Than the Toolkit

It’s easy to think of “omnichannel marketing” simply as the collection of tools and resources that today’s marketers use: direct mail, email, PURLs and landing pages, SMS, social and mobile media, and so on. But, looking at it this way misses the point.

Most organizations, Rinard contends, have more marketing channels than they can use — or at least use in a coordinated and an effective way. To find out what omnichannel marketing means in practice, SG360° supported research by the Winterberry Group into the omnichannel strategies of about 100 thought-leading marketing professionals.

Winterberry’s report, published in November 2016, stated that the essence of omnichannel marketing is recognition: consistently and correctly identifying individual audience members at all relevant touch points, and taking full advantage of the data that the touch-point interactions generate. Most respondents felt that they could be doing a better job of recognizing their audiences across multiple channels and integrating the marketing technologies used to reach them.

What’s Next? What’s Best?

The key to accomplishing that, according to Rinard, is making certain that everything that happens at the touch points is behavior based: triggered by what the ongoing dialog with the consumer is saying, and always pointing to the “next best action” that will deepen the engagement and keep the journey on track. “Integrating the moving parts” of its campaigns in this way is what makes SG360° successful at orchestrating complex customer journeys with many touch points, Rinard adds.

Integration, according to Alan J. Sherman, VP of strategy at IWCO Direct, applies as much to the data a campaign generates as to the content it deploys. Any marketer, he says, can run a “siloed” multichannel campaign that never turns the sum of the parts into something truly result-getting.

A well-executed omnichannel campaign, on the other hand, connects from a targeted direct mail file via “matching tools” such as IP addresses, social IDs, email addresses, cookies and telephone numbers to hit its targets simultaneously across all channels being employed. Then, explains Sherman, data mining and predictive analytics are applied to the original mail file, which is then leveraged across channels. In this way, marketers can improve the outcome with a “multiplier effect” of better targeted, more frequent messaging that reaches people wherever they happen to be in the omnichannel universe.

Print service providers that grasp the fundamentals of omnichannel marketing find that they can do a brisk business with them. Sources interviewed for this article declined to say what share of their overall revenues they owe to omnichannel campaigns, but all agreed that the percentage will go up as customers learn the value that integrated cross-media marketing offers them.

Customers of The Fenway Group have been struck by what can happen when they target their audiences “with more than one arrow in the quiver,” according to Sands. He notes that a campaign for a local public radio station combining direct mail, email and personalized landing pages “blew their minds” with the results, which included a 12-13% increase in response rates over direct mail alone. “That’s the best part of it — they see that it actually works,” he says.

“It has become obvious that omnichannel marketing will become the standard going forward” for customers of DATA, Mihalcea points out. They’re seeing that as audience members absorb repeated impressions in carefully structured campaigns, “the brain has that sense of familiarity” that prompts the kind of responses marketers hope for.

Customers Are Catching on Quickly

The discipline of omnichannel marketing is still relatively new — none of the sources has been practicing it for longer than five years. But, they’ve made believers of consumer products companies, financial institutions, insurers, retailers, automotive clients, and those in the educational, healthcare and not-for-profit sectors. The success stories speak for themselves.

In an IWCO Direct campaign for a property-casualty insurance company that matched prospect names to digital channels in combination with an outreach by direct mail, the conversion rate increased by 26% as the cost of acquisition dropped by 12%. The Fenway Group has persuaded alumni groups to donate more to their alma maters by personalizing the appeal across multiple channels.

DATA helped an automobile roadside assistance club build membership by dynamically generating content when visitors responded to PURLs they’d been sent in personalized direct mail pieces. What the landing pages displayed was tailored to the individual attributes of the visitors. This was followed by six months of increasingly specific membership offers. At the end of the campaign, says Mihalcea, “there were smiles on the faces” of club officials.

SG360° provided the print and fulfillment in an omnichannel campaign to help a consumer packaged goods company get a better handle on the content and the timing of its messaging and the impact of the incentives it was using to captivate its audience. Customer data from a variety of sources built profiles that generated personalized direct mail and emails addressing recipients’ preferences, behaviors and other personal information. The results were a 125% increase in new customer engagement, better data and efficiencies gained through process automation.

Underneath the Hood

The campaigns are alike in their mastery of data at every stage, from design and execution to measurement and reporting. Software — commercially provided, self-developed or a combination of the two — gives omnichannel marketing the agility and realtime responsiveness that are the sources of its power.

“Everything we do is responsive design,” Mihalcea notes of the architecture of DATA’s campaigns. This includes being able to instantly reformat a message for optimal presentation on whatever device — smart phone, tablet or laptop — the recipient is viewing it on. DATA, according to Mihalcea, manages all campaign functions from a unified platform built upon Microsoft SQL Server, Quadient applications for mailing and CCM (customer communications management), and Xerox’s XMPie for personalization.

PlanetPress software from Objectif Lune is The Fenway Group’s choice for automating and personalizing its printed and digital communications. SG360° relies on proprietary software, as well as solutions provided by Kitewheel, the creator of Kitewheel Hub, which Rinard describes as “a centralized rules engine” that monitors activity in the channels and points to the next best action to take in the customer journey. IWCO Direct’s omnichannel software solutions are mostly the proprietary products of a sophisticated internal content development group as well as key partnerships with certain digital providers.

As significant as the data management part of the task may be, print isn’t at risk of being overlooked in omnichannel marketing scenarios.

The Winterberry study pointed out that marketers are increasingly casting aside “old misconceptions about the value of digital and traditional media” as they seek to combine them in the most appropriate ways. This is very good news for print, with 79.2% of survey respondents stating that they used direct mail and 66% endorsing print advertising in magazines and newspapers. Direct mail was selected by 50-69% of respondents as well qualified for acquiring specific, uniquely qualified customers — ahead of email, online social advertising and search.

None of this comes as any surprise to print service providers that have built their own omnichannel marketing capabilities. Sherman contends that because direct mail has a tactile element and a “trust level” that isn’t present in other media, it’s an ideal starting point for other campaign elements to align with. Millennials and other “digital natives” like print, and even “pure play digital companies” are learning what it can do to help them attract new customers.

Where to Go from Here

If it’s true, as the Winterberry report says, that marketers want to work with supply chain partners that can help them use all channels at their disposal in unified, well-coordinated campaigns, it’s advisable for printers that aren’t equipped for omnichannel to take some first steps in that direction.

Sands advises that the process should begin by identifying “a champion within the organization:” someone who can evangelize the concept to customers and co-workers by showing them omnichannel opportunities they didn’t know they had. Always look for ways to create value that customers are willing to pay for: “otherwise, it’s a click charge,” Sands admonishes.

Rinard advises against trying to tackle the entire omnichannel ecosystem at once. It’s better to look for smaller problems to solve in individual channels, learn from the experience, and expand from there.

“First, find great people; second, find great partners,” Haskel says. When printers ally with experts in digital strategy and execution, they can focus on accuracy, quality, deadline fidelity and other “basics” of print production that are just as essential for success in the omnichannel world.

Author: Patrick Henry

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