What Happened to Creative Subscription Marketing for Magazines?

By: John Morthanos

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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 Amazon.com, Magazine-Order.com, 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 AllRecipes.com (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.