32 Tips for Boosting Circulation
While the magazine publishing model is facing multiple challenges, strong circulation numbers remain a priority. For many, circ figures are the best way to make a case to an advertiser. For others, subscriptions are the primary revenue source.
Companies successfully increasing circ in the current environment are positioning themselves well for future growth, and their strategies reveal much about what will prove successful in a post-recession economy. Here are insights and tactics from eight publishing executives who have continued to grow circulation while many others are losing subscribers.
Tips from … Bryan Welch,
publisher, Ogden Publications Inc.
Ogden Publications publishes the well-known alternative lifestyle and special interest magazines Mother Earth News, Utne Reader, Farm Collector and Motorcycle Classics, among others.
1. Realize that subject matter matters.
Publishers seeing growth right now are in markets that are either recession-resistant (e.g., food, cooking) or prone to growth when times are tough. Ogden's focus on farming and self-sustainable lifestyles is proving popular with audiences right now, Welch says (though he notes that his antique collector magazines are also doing well).
2. Consider each reader as a unique, long-term asset.
"My feeling is that many magazine publishers don't look at the circulation metrics in the way I think they should," Welch says. Ogden calculates the value of each subscriber based on a model that takes into account the life of a relationship, considered as a sort of business partnership. "On the average, [readers] are with us for many years, and so … when we go out to acquire new readers, we look [at it] in the same way we would the acquisition of a new business," he says. "Based on [that] lifetime model, we calculate the value of each new reader. Each magazine is different, but each has that threshold identified. What that means is that we are able, over time, to generate higher and higher renewal rates."
3. Offer automatic renewals.
An outgrowth of the lifetime-model strategy is offering automatic renewals via credit card, promoted by Ogden as an earth-friendly subscription option. Customers get lower-priced subscriptions [for automatically renewing], and the publisher enjoys dramatically lower costs and higher "lifetime values."
4. In budgeting, look at your product line as a whole.
As content delivery evolves through formats such as online aggregation, look across products to better allocate circulation promotion money.
5. Seize opportunities in newsstand sales.
"Newsstand promotion has gotten more affordable as big rate-base- driven ad publications have scaled back promotional spending," Welch says. "The price has come down, so … we can sell magazines profitably on the newsstand."
6. Stay away from losing
Ogden does not lose money for the sake of padding a rate base. "Like many consumer-interest publications, we are circulation-driven. Ads are a secondary source of revenue for us," he says. "We are not selling rate base to the advertiser, so there is no reason to lose money putting excessive numbers of magazines out there."
7. Value audiences by their engagement.
Quality of audience engagement is the key element of Ogden's pitch to advertisers. "A good indicator [of engagement] is their willingness to actually pay for the magazine," Welch says. As such, Ogden avoids excessive discounting, free trials and public placement. "In general, those ways of buttressing circulation in order to make rate base will devalue … the relationship between the average reader and the magazine."
8. Help your Web site be a subscription driver.
Welch reports that pop-ups on Ogden's Web site are the biggest single source of new subscribers, and he's not shy about promoting his magazines aggressively online.
Tip from … Rosalea Hostetler, editor, The Prairie Connection
The Prairie Connection is published 10 times a year by Harper, Kan.-based nonprofit the Balmer Fund.
9. Libraries can be an asset.
"We have helped our dropping circulation by donating subscriptions to the many libraries in our region," says Hostetler. "At least the people who go to libraries are a cut above the average, and they also still read—what better audience and increase in numbers can you get?"
Tip from … Mark Amtower, consultant, author, speaker, social media & CEO coach
Amtower advises publishers on how to use online tools to increase reader engagement.
10. Use social media to
Amtower recommends joining groups on third-party sites (e.g., LinkedIn) as a particularly effective way to market a publication while encouraging a level of audience involvement that can increase subscriptions.
Tips from … Marc Ostrofsky, publisher, consultant, entrepreneur
Ostrofsky has built up and sold five magazines in the course of his career in Internet business.
more blow-in cards.
Ostrofsky says these are proven to work at low cost.
12. Run programs to
This can include a free e-book in exchange for e-mail names that don't "bounce back."
13. Use special offers to grow the database.
Draw new readers in with offers such as free attendance to a conference, a free e-book with a subscription or by bundling subscriptions.
14. Cross-promote with an advertiser.
Work with partners on promotions such as letting advertisers give free subscriptions to clients. "This works great because their clients tell them, 'We saw your ad in [such and such magazine],' so it's a double benefit," Ostrofsky says.
Tip from … Heather Logrippo, publisher, Distinctive Homes
Distinctive Homes is a luxury real estate publication covering the Boston area.
15. Use digital editions to increase impressions.
"One thing we've done is create an electronic version of our magazine that can be distributed through e-mail, on our Web site [and] on Facebook," Logrippo says. "Social media is a huge way to get this in front of more eyeballs than ever before, and by buying targeted e-mail lists, we can get this to the computers of people who might not have picked up the hard copy."
Tips from … Stephanie Davis, executive editor, Get Married
Get Married is a multimedia wedding platform consisting of a national TV show on WEtv.com, a Web site (GetMarried.com) and a print publication launched in October 2009, with a circulation of 300,000.
16. Complement the print medium with an
Get Married magazine is currently available free online as a digital edition (Getmarried.com/magazine/view/), where links are provided for every product advertised or profiled.
17. Use Microsoft Tag.
"The magazine is the first bridal publication to ever use Microsoft Tag, which gives readers instant entertainment and a connection to videos, Web sites, photos and information on their mobile phones, directly from the pages of the magazine," Davis says.
18. Offer the first issue free.
To establish its initial footprint in tough economic times, Get Married is offering the first issue free—an old tactic that's still proving successful.
19. Utilize strategic distribution methods.
"Get Married [sends] … one-third [to] newsstands and two-thirds [to] strategic lists. [This] puts us directly in the hands of newly engaged brides," Davis says.
20. Use integrated platforms to reinforce each other.
Get Married seeks to fill what it sees as a void in the marketplace by providing a comprehensive, integrated wedding resource. Brides seeking wedding advice on TV will be drawn to the print and electronic product.
Tips from … John McCarthy, SVP, customer marketing, Rodale
Rodale reports several titles—including Women's Health, Men's Health and Runner's World, which is up more than 80 percent in year-over-year online subscriptions—are doing well this year. Company research indicates people continue to be interested in health and wellness, even when economic times are tough.
21. Keep promotions fresh.
McCarthy says Rodale is constantly looking for new ways to keep promotions fresh and engaging, such as summer blowout limited-time subscription offers.
22. Integrate your multimedia
McCarthy credits editorial integration with magazine Web sites and "smarter ways to promote e-mail" for the company's successful online growth.
23. Utilize social media.
"Social media has been successful for us with Runner's World from an editorial and audience perspective," McCarthy says. "We have loyal followers who are very engaged with our content. By tweeting, we generated a solid number of new subscriptions. We even received comments from them thanking us for this special offer for Twitter followers."
24. Focus on profitability
Rodale will raise the rate base when there is a demand to do so, but on the circulation side, it focuses on improving source mix. "That means maximizing customers who are engaged, pay us for the magazine and renew," McCarthy says. "We have done that in 2009 with Runner's World. Direct-to-publisher mix is up 21 percent [year over year], driven in large part by huge online growth. As a result of this shift in mix, renewal rates are up 32 percent, which means more dedicated, profitable customers for the brand."
25. Know your audience.
"It is important to know your audience" when marketing and formulating a growth strategy, McCarthy says, "what they like, dislike and what they respond to. We look at lots of research, and we feel that we have a good handle on our customer. For Runner's World, we recognize that the sport is vertical with a somewhat limited audience. We are careful to grow at appropriate rates, so as to not expand past the natural limits of the audience."
26. Avoid lowering subscription prices to offset circulation declines.
Men's Health and Women's Health are able to command premium pricing relative to their markets, and Rodale is reluctant to undermine that. Women's Health, in fact, raised its online subscription price this year and still showed a 40 percent increase in volume. "The reason is that the brand is hot, the edit strong, and we have worked hard with the online editorial teams to integrate our promotions in all of their media outlets from the site to e-mail to social media," McCarthy says. In general, he adds, "We feel that lowering price is a short-term winner, but most of the gains you see will not be sustainable."
27. Trust brand appeal.
If you've built a strong brand, customers will remain loyal to it, McCarthy says. A little outside recognition doesn't hurt—Women's Health won Ad Age's magazine of the year in October. "We have increased rate base several times," he says of Women's Health, "in large part due to natural demand for the title."
Tips from … Risa Crandall,
publisher, Scholastic Parent & Child magazine
The proof is in the numbers for Scholastic's Parent & Child—with a circulation of 1.3 million, overdelivery on its rate base and ad pages up 9 percent in 2009 (one of only 11 magazines seeing growth compared to last year, according to Crandall). To what does she primarily attribute this success? "Brand and content rise to the top in a bad economy."
28. Stay engaged with your readers.
Scholastic goes out of its way to solicit feedback from readers, maintaining a 2,500-member "parent panel" that reviews story ideas and even design changes. "We are able to give them a voice," Crandall says. "We feel that keeps content fresher and on the pulse of what consumers are looking for." Behind the effort is the idea of editing for the consumer—building a publication that reflects audience desires rather than choices based on internal brainstorming or small focus groups.
29. Utilize social networks.
Scholastic held the Scholastic Parent & Child magazine Mommy Blogger Awards last year, asking readers to nominate their favorite parenting blogs. More than 1,000 bloggers were nominated, and Scholastic invited many to write for the company's parenting blog. Editors work with 100 of the bloggers at any given time, keeping on top of issues and subjects important to parents and getting feedback on editorial topics, as well as promoting the magazine. Scholastic also uses Facebook and Twitter to test content, such as celebrity profiles.
30. Harness the power of
With a 90-year legacy, Scholastic is seen as a "curator" brand, Crandall says. "When they feel they can be part of that curatorship, it makes reader response phenomenal." This contributes to strong renewal rates and makes advertisers conscious of a high level of reader enthusiasm.
31. Rely on detailed metrics.
Scholastic uses Affinity's VISTA service, a real-time measuring tool, to track rates of reader purchasing, recall and engagement in response to ads. The service allows Scholastic to show advertisers how well its ads do compared with other magazines in parenting and women's categories, as well as facilitate internal market research.
32. Don't shy away from a minor price increase.
If your product and brand are robust, minor subscription increases have no negative impact, as Scholastic found when it raised rates to $8 a year for eight issues (revenues are primarily advertising-driven). Crandall says, "Our design has taken a fresh approach, and people feel they are getting more."