IDEAS IN CIRCULATION
A blog for marketers of magazines, newspapers and newsletters who are determined to find, keep and make money from subscribers
NOW THAT THE INTERNET, the economy, and too many panicky pop-marketing decisions have eviscerated subscription sales, what can you do to stop circulation losses, rebuild audience, and respond to the new realities in direct response advertising?
Here are some thoughts and ideas…
From the first season of Mike Judge’s HBO comedy “Silicon Valley.”
6. INFORMATION WANTS TO BE
What kind of website should a magazine build? Nobody knows.
Give away your content and you’ll sacrifice subscriptions sales for traffic stats. But absent BuzzFeed-level uniques, adjacent banner advertising hasn’t proved successful in marketing to those visitors. And with the march of programmatic’s robots, it’s becoming less so each day.
Gate your content and you’ll stop traffic in exchange for a few paid subscriptions. But even the two constantly vaunted successes (Wall Street Journal and New York Times) have found paywalls to be a game of hide and seek with increasingly frustrated prospects. A slow race between porous and unpopular that produces subscribers who are remarkably resistant to renewals.
You could, join publishers who split the baby. Creating free appetizer-size content online. And charging main-course prices for the traditional print subscriptions that underwrite their efforts. Unfortunately readers are all too satisfied to graze exclusively at the all-you-can-eat-free buffet that is an internet crawl.
Or you could go native with your own 21st century remake of ’80s-era advertorials produced by suddenly creative in-house “branded content studios.” However this unholy marriage of church and state has not been a happy union. Native content is exhausting to sell, expensive to produce, and trust-bustingly deceptive while nearly impossible to measure or scale.
So now comes Facebook, enterprising to publish your editorial in exchange for—well—you report, they’ll decide. And Apple, who will gladly front your title on their newsstand for commissions that guarantee you’ll lose more money with every issue sold.
What else can you do? I have an idea…
As a subscription marketer, I think your website should work like an amusement park. Exciting and enticing as seen from the highway. With a gate that charges admission should you decide to pull in and go on a ride.
Let me demonstrate using Health.com, the website of Health Magazine. Here’s their home page. Like that of many magazines, it’s essentially a table of contents.
Here’s what I would like to see happen when a visitor clicks on a headline or feature or department...
Suddenly it’s an iTunes for magazines. An easily affordable 99¢ gate that opens instantly to give readers what they want in the moment. More important, it gives you an active prime prospect for a fully-paid subscription. Especially if you offer to credit the 99¢ toward a purchase before your reader leaves.
99¢ is just enough to deter visitors who only want something for nothing. And more than enough to be revenue positive. Plus the audience you build will be worthy of the higher CPMs your banners will command as the algorithms slave to recognize your site’s value.
Since your digital content is based on your print, you won’t have to waste money creating new click-bait editorial (unless you so choose). And even if your visitors are just one-dollar-for-one-week-and-done, you’ll gain an email address of a qualified customer who is far more likely to become paid subscriber when you promote them later.
5. WHAT’S A NEWSPAPER TO DO?
- “increase circulation”
- “find more readers”
- “stop cancellations”
The urgent search terms that bring visitors to this page reflect the existential crisis facing so many newspapers. Craigslist and Google have taken classifieds and advertising. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have taken content, audience, and attention. Even in one-newspaper towns publishers are left fighting for survival.
For years, newspaper circulation managers could simply look to leading subscription marketers like The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times and say, “Let’s just do what they’re doing.”
Now a better example to emulate may be The Morning Call, the small and venerated newspaper published in Allentown, Pennsylvania.
Back in 2011, The Call's answer to the question, “What’s a newspaper to do?” was “Let’s try everything possible!” And that led to a “kitchen-sink” direct mail promotion employing almost every known best practice in subscription marketing for newspapers.
Today as the economy recovers, the industry comes off bottom, and newspapers show more discipline — by protecting content, promoting benefits, and delivering demonstrable value to core audiences in print and online — The Morning Call’s intrepid, dreadnought continues to provide fundamental lessons worthy of study.
4. DRILL, BABY, DRILL
The 80/20 rule applies to magazines and newspapers too. Most have a core audience that considers a subscription indispensable. And these dedicated readers are ready, willing and able to pay the price for high-value content.
Successful publishers know how to maximize sales by creating highly-targeted editorial products that drill into these opportunities quickly, simply and efficiently. Here’s an example of how The Chronicle of Philanthropy did exactly that — generating new revenue from core subscribers using existing content and online marketing.
3. MERCHANDISE YOUR MISSION
Think like National Geographic where a subscription delivers more than a passive sit-back-and-read magazine. It comes with invitations to join guided expeditions and travel adventures across the map. Plus opportunities to shop the world — Irish wool sweaters, handcrafted Himalayan jewelry, Tunisian fish platters — in ways that celebrate cultures.
These kind of immersive experiences and distinctive products can merchandise your mission and brand your magazine as not only a must-read, but also a must-try and must-have.
It can be as simple as “Finds of The Week” — books and gifts curated by the editors of that magazine. Or “Split Decision” and “Intelligent Tees” — mind games and gear that make Mental Floss more than a trivial pursuit for its thousands of fans.
The idea is to capture the spirit of your magazine in tangible and authentic ways that passionate readers will pay a premium to experience and own. And because these subscribers are buying into the central idea of your magazine, they are far more loyal when it comes time to renew — making the gains both immediate and enduring.
2. FREE ADVICE ABOUT YOUR FREE OFFER
“If you want to dramatically increase your response, dramatically improve your offer.” Famously said by Axel Andersson, those words gave rise to a sea of free magazines offers.
But that was back when the idea of a free magazine was actually a dramatic, attention-getting offer. Before magazines had to add a “free gift” just to get you to send for the free issue. And another “free gift” to get you to actually pay the bill instead of canceling the order. (Is it any wonder insiders call this sales technique a “soft offer?”)
And of course all of that was well before the internet. Before “information wants to be free” caused magazines to lose their collective marketing minds and give away the whole of their content online. Only to late-make pay walls that are more porous than profitable.
So now what?
How can you dramatically improve your offer after we’ve trained generations of readers (and advertisers) to think a free issue of your magazine is essentially worthless? Especially knowing if you surrender your free offers you’ll lose to competitors who won’t.
Change the dynamics.
After all, people know “free” offers are not really free. And they know how to game your marketing. So don’t beg readers to send no money now and hope they’ll like your freebies enough to pay when you bill them later.
Do what The Week did. Send your magazine to top prospects announcing you’ve added them to your VIP comp list. Then invite them to stay for a few months free, but only if they take a moment to confirm their place. And reinforce their status by offering your inside price for a paid subscription after they enjoy an extended trial.
Suddenly “free” isn’t code for “tricky and deceptive.”
Instead it means “exclusive and desirable.”
The Week wrapped that idea around their issues, sent them to prime prospects, and soundly beat their control by taking control.
Why does it work so well?
- Readers feel respected and recognized, not pitched and patronized.
- Trial issues in the hands of good prospects ends the wait for first issue delivery.
- On-issue wraps eliminate the cost of an entire direct mail campaign.
- Advertisers appreciate the “bonus” circulation.
- Fusing product and promotion makes branding powerful and persuasive.
- Flipping the script from “free if you cancel” to “free when you confirm” builds better subscribers — who buy more, pay better, and stay longer.
1. WORK YOUR WEBSITE
How can you turn unique visitors into new subscribers? Start by recognizing that few land on your website looking for a sales pitch.
So don’t anger first-timers with pop-ups that push and promote as soon as they arrive. And don’t beg visitors to stay and buy the moment they hover to mouse away.
Instead, give them a little guidance. Build one-page guides to your title that open when vistors click on the “About” link in your core navigation.
Include an attractive trial offer and promote it at the top of your web page as part of your site’s core navigation.
A simple guide to the benefits of your publication — that leads to an immediate trial — is a fundamental tool for building circulation directly from your website. And the visitors it attracts are fundamental to subscription marketing success.