How to Sell Magazine Subscriptions

There are two basic business models for publishing:

Controlled circulation – magazines are sent only to subscribers who meet certain criteria, often for free, established to meet an advertising strategy. For example, Boating Industry News is sent only to boat dealers, manufacturers and others with purchasing power or influence in the boating industry.

Paid circulation – magazines are sold to whomever wishes to buy a subscription.

There are many variations on these two types.

If you are launching or managing a paid circulation magazine, you need to develop a plan to sell magazine subscriptions.

Ideally, your plan to sell subscriptions is based on the following strategies:

Maximize the number of subscriptions you can generate from your most profitable sources.
Meet the established rate base goals so that advertisers receive the promised numbers of subscribers (of course, this doesn’t apply to the magazines that don’t carry advertising!)
Consider both long- and short-term strategy goals that take into account the renewal rates of the subscription sources you use to sell magazine subscriptions.

If you are launching a new magazine and starting from scratch, it makes sense to use tried-and-true magazine marketing techniques to sell subscriptions. Many a new publisher has wasted valuable resources (time, money and lost opportunity) failing with their new, unique ways to sell subscriptions.

New publishers often neglect to budget enough. Building circulation is very expensive, but investing in high-quality circulation is often less expensive in the long run. Novices are often shocked to discover that they lose money on almost every new subscription sold.

Selling magazine subscriptions for an established magazine is also challenging in the internet age. Gone are the days when there were sources available that generated thousands of new subscriptions at a profit. Now circulation managers have to work harder to sell magazine subscriptions.

What that means is that to be successful, you need to test lots of ideas. But, because time and staff resources are so short, you need to budget your time carefully—test aggressively, but don’t waste valuable time on things that are long shots.

This equation will be different for every publisher.

However, here are some theories that I believe have been proven by the majority of publishers:

Insert cards are still an important source for selling new subscriptions. Response rates are trending down, but publishers who decide to reduce or remove this source find that other sources (like internet orders) also go down.

One of the most important things you can do to protect your investment in new subscriptions is to make sure your renewal series is as strong as it can be. This means you need to know how each effort in your series is performing. It means you need to know how to renew each source. Other techniques that often improve a renewal series include starting the series earlier, adding efforts, presenting a strong offer, and working on all the creative elements (copy, design, benefits, etc.). Of course you need to include email renewal efforts, but they do not replace mailed efforts.

Tried and true marketing “rules” work on the Internet. You can’t bury your subscription offer on your web pages and think they’ll work. To sell more subscriptions on the internet, you need strong headlines, clear positioning statements and benefits. Don’t put anything on your landing pages that aren’t designed to get the order. Your landing pages need to work as hard as a direct mail order form—it’s not a second thought or a “template.”

Direct mail is not dead. It’s still a more efficient way to sell magazine subscriptions than many other sources, including the Internet, for most magazine publishers. But to find your working formula requires a smart testing plan and investment over the long term. The most critical factor in direct mail success is the lists that use in your campaigns. The next most critical factor is your offer. If your lists and offers are right, you’ve got most of the direct mail puzzle solved. But don’t blow it with a bad package. And unless you have proven it, don’t think your ideas about a revolutionary direct mail approach will work better than a “standard” direct mail package.

The quality of your magazine is the most important ingredient in selling subscriptions. If the magazine is not valuable to its target audience, it will be difficult to sell new subscriptions and even more difficult to renew them. That’s why it’s important for magazine marketers to support the editorial team and to understand everything they can about the target audience. For some publishing organizations, that means that circulation departments support editorial research. At the very least, circulation can report back on which issues sold best on the newsstand, or pass on customer comments.

Digital subscriptions present their own challenges. One of the biggest challenges going forward for magazines is not the technology to produce the digital editions. Rather, it will be how to sell digital subscriptions. How can your app be “discovered” among all the app choices in all the app stores? How do you bundle digital offerings with print offerings? This is something that magazine publishers are grappling with, and we’re all watching each other to see what will be successful.

Subscription agents can also be used to sell magazine subscriptions. But don’t sign up with every agent. There are pitfalls to avoid, and economics that need to be considered before you sign on the dotted line. What’s more, there are customer service, fraud and other issues to consider.

When you put together your plan to sell subscriptions, be prepared with analysis from past efforts, including all the costs.

For help and advice on selling magazine subscriptions, contact me.