Magazines: Unfulfilled Fulfillment?

When I worked on the agency side, I gained a reputation as being a friend of the magazine medium. This was due largely to an analysis that compared the 25 most popular magazines to the 25 most popular TV programs. It positioned them in a favorable way, and the Magazine Publishers of America (MPA) still updates and uses it. I continue to be an advocate and a strong believer of the inherent strength of the medium. With that established, there is one nagging concern.

For those who plan and buy magazines for a living, rate negotiations, merchandising deals and monitoring closing dates are part of your daily responsibilities. On the publishing side, meeting rate base, pitching new accounts and controlling paper and postage costs are paramount. However, because of the focus on catering to clients and dealing with media suppliers, perhaps you've lost sight of what the consumer experience is with the medium. This came to mind after I glanced at the fine print on one of the subscriptions cards imbedded in a typical issue of any magazine.



When I ordered a number of subscriptions for myself, I was discomfited by the inordinately long time it takes for the first issue to arrive. Depending on the title, it's generally four-to-eight weeks before the first issue arrives.(Perhaps because they are weeklies, Time Magazine, People & Entertainment Weekly are faster, coming in one-to-three weeks.

Why such a slow, drawn-out process?

We're not talking about custom-made furniture here. Nor are the issues being individually hand-stitched by monks, the exception may be Martha Stewart Living. What's going on at the fulfillment centers? Are they doing background checks? You can get a firearm in your hands quicker than your first issue of Good Housekeeping!

Perhaps we'd be a lot safer if Conde Nast, Hearst or Meredith were in charge of firearm purchases, and we let the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms (BATF) approve magazine subscriptions.

I don't care it there are good reasons for this lengthy wait.

In today's world of overnight delivery services and with and eBay purchases arriving in days, this consumer unfriendly aspect of the magazine industry is inexcusable. Why is there such a lack of urgency to get the product in new subscribers' hands? I don't know about you, but that tiny hard-to-read type on the subscription card screams to me in boldface: Magazines are stuck in the simpler times of rotary phones, black-and-white TVs, transistor radios and The Saturday Evening Post.

Invariably, what happens is that when the first issue finally arrives, the impatient subscriber has probably already purchased it at the newsstand. This is considered subscription fulfillment? Maybe new subscribers put up with it because of the give-away subscription rates they are offered. And perhaps, publishers don't give it much attention because they feel low subscription prices don't warrant the cost or effort.

Granted, this may seem like a trifling matter when you consider the various issues the magazine industry faces. But I find the dissonance between this lag time and the industry's strides in regards to its online presence striking. Magazines have been adapting to the importance of the Internet to compete in today's media environment. Cutting the time for a subscription to start should also be addressed.

It's not sexy, but neither is watching paint dry, and that's what it's like waiting for a subscription to begin.

In an age of channel/communications planning, where every aspect of the consumer experience is worthy of consideration, the lengthy wait for a subscription to begin is a detail that needs attention.

Rob Frydlewicz, former research director at Carat USA and FCB/NY, is a media research consultant and can be contacted at

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