Magazine Circulation-Avant-Garde or Antediluvian

Posted on by Chief Marketer Staff

The economics of magazine circulation haven’t changed much in the last 70 years or so. Subscribers pay in advance for a set number of issues, the publisher has a financial liability to deliver prepaid copies and when the sub runs out, the publisher renews the subscriber, hopefully at a higher rate.

Now a mail order setup like this-an offer that requires advance payment-is pretty neat if it goes to the right prospects. It allows the marketer to play around with all sorts of fun offers that the average mail order company can’t use. Trial subs with free copies, for example, plus a variety of guarantees, including pro rata refund. (Cancel anytime and get your money back for the undelivered portion of the subscription.)

The free issue trial was introduced in the ’60s and rapidly became a favorite. (Sample one issue free. If you aren’t pleased, just write “cancel” on the bill and the issue is yours to keep without obligation.) The direct mail, print and broadcast treatments of all such magazine offers gave a clear editorial picture of the publication and its benefits.

Things have changed. Today, sweepstakes offers from both publishers and magazine agents proliferate but provide little or no sampling or editorial promotion, focusing instead on the sweepstakes prizes. Some publishers mail out a long list of magazines along with an order form, prices and no editorial, assuming every prospect knows their publications. Insert cards, once confined to newsstand copies, now can be found in everything from card packs to cereals. Barnes & Noble even offers 500 magazine subscriptions at up to 80% off on its Web site.

Now, as reported in DIRECT (“Continuous Sub Machine,” April), there’s a breakthrough. NewSub Services is selling subscriptions (via inserts in credit card invoices) charged to the card on a ’til-forbid basis. “We appeal to a different kind of customer,” says Jay Walker, one of the founders. “Stampsheets take 15 to 20 minutes to figure out. Our customers don’t have 15 to 20 seconds. They just check off the magazines they want and send it in with their credit card statement.”

Customers don’t have time for more than just a title and a price?

It might work for former readers or current newsstand customers, but many prospects (other than sweepstakes aficionados) are bound to be put off by an offer that lists only the name and a price-even when it may be a hot short-term price. Others may take a chance, of course, but many will be disappointed because the publication is not all they expected. This produces a high percentage of bad payers and non-renewers.

There are two basic ways to sell publications to a market that’s not totally familiar with a specific publication:

* A direct mail, print, broadcast or Web offering that gives significant editorial exposition and lots of big benefits (with whatever offer tests out).

* A free issue or sample issues offered prior to commitment if the medium allows little or no space or time for an editorial “sell.”

As I write this, I’m looking at a Business Week insert card from my daily New York Times that says little about the product. The front shows four covers and offers me four free issues as my introduction, followed by 23 additional issues for $23.95. And-of course-after receiving those four issues, I can mark “cancel” on the bill, return it and owe nothing.

The important part of this is not the price but the ability to sample something that a prospect may not be familiar with.

The combination of free issue offers along with good editorial benefit selling in direct mail has produced some of the best subscribers, but this seems to be too expensive for many publishers. Although subscriber focus group research and careful testing can do a lot to cut such costs, I’ve also come across a stellar creative example of the free issue offer with a new twist that could do much to enhance its profitability in direct mail.

It’s a “confidential opinion survey” with a “fast 50” ($50 to the first 50 respondents) from Automobile magazine, a Primedia publication.

The back of the envelope says simply, “Your opinion is important to us. Thank you for sharing it.” The automotive survey inside is brief, complimentary and credible, and identifies the prospect as a person who loves cars. Because of this, they are also going to thank him/her with a free issue of Automobile magazine and an option to subscribe at a low rate-plus a “fast” $50 opportunity.

The survey self-selects and involves as it flatters, allowing the prospect to participate. The “gift” of a free copy of the magazine seems logical for anyone bothering to fill out the survey. And response to both is, of course, automatic as the survey is an intrinsic part of the reply form! (There is even a line on the form allowing the respondent to refuse the free copy.)

If the right lists are used, this invitation should be a winner. It proves there are still creative ways to make sampling and editorial selling pay off together.

It’s good that publications are finding reasonable ways to get their messages around, from inserts to Web sites to new methods of agent selling and cheaper direct mail. But it’s smart to bear in mind that one of two things i s essential to circulation building: If you can’t give your magazine space for edit sell, at least give it a decent sampling offer. If you can do both, so much the better.


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