Bring Back Creative Subscription Sales this Year

According to circulation consultant John Morthanos, the magazine industry is missing the boat on selling subscriptions.

“As an outspoken advocate of newsstand sales and someone with experience in circulation marketing, I find there is a correlation between the loss of newsstand sales and the reduction in creative direct response subscription marketing,” he writes in Publishing Executive.

He knows what he’s talking about. A 35-year veteran in the magazine circulation industry, Morthanos was one of the original team that introduced the world to home computers, through his work at Ziff-Davis’s Computer Division.

The direct mail and print campaigns he worked on there helped launch IBM’s PC Jr. to the masses and helped create the wildly popular computer magazine industry.

Back in the day, magazines were advertised with creative in-home direct mail, special packaging and cross promotions. It worked, not just building exposure for magazine brands, but increasing circulation and sales, both newsstand and subscription.

Fast forward to our digital present, where Morthanos notices a distinct change in creative magazine marketing.

“I’m sorry to say we don’t see these types of promotions anymore. I cannot remember the last direct mail package I have received for any magazine,” he notes. “Only a few bother to send renewal notices via snail mail. They depend instead on the internet and auto-renew programs.”

I find it ironic that publishing executives are neglecting the power of direct mail at the same time they are searching for creative ways to sell more print magazines. Magazines have been texting subscription ads and getting better at building paywalls for their content. When the New York Times’ announced they were focusing on subscriptions just about a year ago, we cheered.

The problem, as Morthanos notes, is that digital ads are too easily avoided, blocked and overlooked. And there is precious little in the way of creative direct mail and print ads for bolstering print subscriptions. Are publishers concerned that they won’t find their readers via print? Surely that can’t be the case. Print magazine readers like print, after all.

Morthanos pins the problem to something more significant.

“The loss of creative direct response marketing and the new ‘breed’ of publishing execs who value short-term growth and quick decisions to reduce or eliminate print are slowing down growth in today’s print environment,” he states.

That could be part of it, but that doesn’t tell the whole story either. Certainly we see many publishers continuing to embrace print, not replace it with digital. So what else is going on?

I think it might be strategic laziness. It’s fast, cheap and easy to run digital ads, and it’s fairly simply to rack up a bunch of KPIs for the monthly report. It’s far more challenging to work in the medium of print, where creativity must blow past the defined edges of the media.

Yet creativity is exactly what we need to engage more subscribers and grow circulation. And that creativity thrives in print media, exactly because of its limitations.

Morthanos makes a solid point. While digital may have devoured the computing audience niche, “[it can’t] devour History, Art, Sport and other magazine categories – it can help these categories grow in print by using creative platforms to direct consumers to retail and print subscriptions.”