Magazines: From Mayday to Payday

The magazine industry is shouting “Mayday!” In a recent New York Times article, David Carr, using several sources, reported, “Last year, for the first time in decades, total circulation for magazines fell to 305 million subscribers from 319 million in 2000. . .For two years in a row, unit sales and dollar revenue dropped.

But the magazine industry could be poised to leap into a new era of strength and depth. And that’s good news for print buyers.

Fortunately, there are signs that despite its own instincts, customs, and preferences, the industry is dragging itself out of its doldrums. In fact, magazine publishers can go from mayday to payday by rethinking three critical areas: editorial focus, cover and subscription prices, and consumer marketing.

Stay in Focus
A magazine defines its importance to the marketplace with its content, attitude, and tone. These are the assets that publishers can bring to the enterprise. Magazine professionals celebrate the nuances that tightly bond a publication to its readers, but outsiders wonder why more editors don’t apply more focus.

“Magazines should stay relevant and stay true to tone and mission,” says Carol Pais, print buying director of Minneapolis-based Fallon. Some publications err, according to Pais, when, in an effort to be contemporary, “they stray from the mission statement that resonated with their core readership.” Mademoiselle, for example “couldn’t figure out what its editorial mission was. They simply weren’t consistent.”

John Stanton, professor of marketing at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, says publishers who “point to all sorts of reasons for the lack of success of their magazines” should admit they “are not relevant to the targeted readers.”

“They become complacent,” adds Stanton, “as if their readers owe them something. If editors want loyalty, tell them to buy a dog.”

Chris Bonner, president of Bonner Consultants in McLean, Va., says magazines should use market research to keep looking forward. He talks about two broad areas of study. “Keep an eye on an increasingly fickle customer,” he says. “Learn about the customers, how the customer perceives the publication, what the customer thinks about what the magazine stands for and its reputation, and how all those assets can be leveraged.” But Bonner also wants publishers to do market research in the fields they report on. For example, he would hope that automotive magazines look at “questions of consumer confidence, fuel economy, size safety, those external factors.”

And there are ample demonstrations that editorial focus works. There’s Maxim’s continuing success (Felix Dennis once told an audience of New York editors that a then-recent issue of Maxim generated 55,000 subscriptions via blow-in cards); the circulation jump of Fuller-brushed US; the New Yorker’s return to profitability under the stewardship of David Remnick (the magazine’s first foray into the black in more than 15 years); the welcoming of O and Real Simple, and the doubling of newsstand sales for Atlantic Monthly’s WTC story.

Take a Price Hike
“If there were a magazine that looked like it was written exactly for you,” asks Professor Stanton, coauthor of Making Niche Marketing Work (McGraw Hill) and Success Leaves Clues (Silver Lake Publishing), “would you pay more for it, or would you say, ‘Even though I really don’t like the other mag’s articles, the other mag costs less’?”

Cover price and subscription price are not only about revenue. They send a message about the magazine’s worth. “Discounted circulation and discounted subscription via brokers shout desperation and cheapen the product,” says Bonner.

“I think a title could argue a higher degree of reader involvement because its readers pay more for the publication,” says Pais. “Value — though wildly open to interpretation — is most certainly something that we look closely at, especially given the new rules of disclosure on ABC statements.”

Publishers talked about the disconnect between cover price and subscription price at the Oct. 20–23 MPA conference in Phoenix. Thomas O. Ryder, Reader’s Digest Association CEO, said, “This is so ass-backwards it hurts. It hurts.” And there was a sense that various publishers would take action on the issue.

Market to the Market
Magazines are a consumer product. And publishers have some experience with consumer marketing. The pre-launch Talk buzz produced a newsstand sellout that the editorial focus ultimately couldn’t support. But publishers haven’t mastered marketing to consumers.

As Carol Pais, puts it, “Print differs from other media in so many critical ways. It is portable and invites a level of involvement that is absent in many other media. It opens the lines of communication and germinates a relationship with the reader.”

Keeping the buzz going through properly timed publicity and advertising to consumers is essential. So are other proven marketing tools, such as coupons, displays, and events.

To help the publisher’s marketing message, Bonner advises, “promote the stable of writers, be edgy, be consistent. Cross-sell television, Internet, and print.”

Pais likes magazines “that have a seamless message, but with multiple brand extensions through Internet, consumer promotions, and offsite events.” Real Simple is one example.

“The most difficult concept for most executives to realize,” says Stanton, “is the difference between an objective and a strategy. Getting readership up cannot be the goal. Doing something that leads people to read is the issue.”

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