Why Is Marketing for Print Magazines So Outdated?
This year’s American Magazine Media Conference was all about “media” with hardly any attention paid to the actual “magazines,” but I did come across two revealing quotes:
- “We carry higher CPMs for our brands that are first in print and then go to digital versus those that are only digital,” said David Carey, president of Hearst Magazines. “The print product makes it more premium in digital.”
- “The people that are left on the print side are just manning the wheel, and they’re not asked to come up with any ideas,” said an anonymous “ad sales finance director” when Digiday asked, “Is anyone even trying to think in an innovative way about print anymore?
Ouch, that second one really hit home. Right after I read the Digiday piece, as if on cue a truly awful, horribly out-of-date direct-mail piece from TIME magazine was excreted into my mailbox. This Creature from the Pre-Internet Lagoon reared up to remind us that solicitations for print subscriptions are as mindless as ever – and increasingly out of touch with the realities of the business.
(Don’t tell me this is an isolated case. For half the industry, innovation in subscription campaigns means, “Let’s copy what Time Inc. did.”)
The letter came packaged in a nondescript envelope with a “DO NOT BEND” warning and no markings to indicate the sender – as if it contained a credit card.
Inside were four slips of paper of various sizes and colors, touting the special “Senior Citizen” (Ahem!) offer – 53 issues for $20, plus an additional six months if paid up front. But, wait! There’s more: a “free gift” (with paid subscription) of a weather station clock.
Buried amidst the marketing copy was a brief description of the magazine itself – e.g. “Comprehensive coverage of world news and politics” and “TIME Person of the Year and all other Special Issues”.
But nowhere was there a single word from the magazine itself or a peek at how it looked, other than an illegible image of one of the title’s less inspiring covers. And, hello 21st Century, not a link to where us oldsters could use that Interweb thing and get a sense of what’s actually in the magazine.
Let’s do the math: If you assume that TIME pays at least $4 to buy, store, and ship each weather station clock, that leaves it $16 for a subscription covering nearly 80 issues. Or about 20 cents per issue – not nearly enough to cover even the cost of a copy’s paper and postage. And we’re not even talking about the cost of the direct-mail solicitation.
There was a TIME, maybe 20 years or so ago, when that kind of math made sense. Keeping the circulation numbers up was so crucial to the flow of big advertising bucks that consumer publishers were happy to get new subscribers almost no matter what the cost.
But a peak at just about any recent issue will tell you that TIME has long passed. You can see why analysts estimate the print product is losing millions of dollars annually. And the trends are not favorable, with ad pages for U.S. consumer magazines apparently declining by a double-digit percentage last year.
Why, the analysts wonder, should Time Inc. continue pouring money into TIME?
The David Carey quote suggests the answer: Being associated with a print magazine – especially a respected, iconic title like TIME – has an immensely favorable impact both on a web site’s traffic and its ad rates.
TIME.com, by all accounts, has a robust web business. The site does well in Google and other search engines, indicating that people who would never dream of paying for the magazine nevertheless turn to the magazine’s web site for news and insights. And that no doubt makes them more responsive to ads than are people watching cat videos.
My fellow denizens of the print side, the glory days of printed magazines aren’t coming back. But printed consumer magazines can still thrive by doing two things well:
- Assembling niche audiences of people who are passionate enough about our magazines to pay for them, and who in turn attract advertisers eager to reach those niche audiences. (Note: “Senior citizens” who happen to receive a magazine because they have a propensity for mail-order weather station clocks is not exactly an attractive target audience.)
- Bolstering the premium position of our companies’ multi-media publishing ventures so effectively that the magazines are considered successful even if they’re just breaking even.
In other words, the future for print looks more like the niche, subscribers-actually-pay-for-their-copies path chosen by Newsweek than the mass, hit-the-ratebase-no-matter-what strategy that TIME refuses to abandon. And it certainly doesn’t involve pitching subscriptions to millions of people while giving them the impression that the magazine itself isn’t worth looking at.
Related story: 14 Ways to Enhance the Marketing Power of Printed Magazines