The quiet digital revolution in magazine subscriptions

For most print-based publishers, subscriptions have felt like a safe haven in the current economic and technology storm. A survey recently commissioned by InPublishing from Wessenden marketing and sponsored by CDS Global confirms that for most consumer publishers, subs are growing both in absolute terms, and relative to newstand sales. Life is tougher for b2b publishers, subs are steady or shrinking, and renewals are a weak point, but newsstand is declining more rapidly. The detail of this survey, covering 132 companies, large and small, and over 900 titles, shows how digital acquisition sources, delivery methods, communication channels and servicing are quietly revolutionising how publishers are growing their subscription base. These are five key trends I have spotted:

1. Growth in digital acquisition sources

Combining publisher websites, affiliates & agents and email marketing as “digital sources”, totals 30% of new subs acquisition for consumer mags (17% in 2004) and 50% of subs for b2b (also 17% in 2004), a dramatic increase, showing the broader reach of digital acquisition techniques, and the ease of taking the customer immediately through a payment process. All publishers name these sources as their biggest growth areas.

2. Using digital to add value to subs packages

70% of b2b publishers and 45% of consumer publishers include digital editions in their subscriber package, and a very similar proportion offer email newsletters. An overwhelming majority of b2b publishers (77%) provide special online content for subscriber, and a sizeable number of consumer publishers (42%). Interestingly, b2b publishers feel these are an important part of the subs package, while consumer publishers are more equivocal.

3. Self-service renewals

Renewal series are still quite traditionally structured, with a focus on mailed letters. However, b2b publishers rate emails, and their own website as very important to their renewal efforts. All are seeing a growing proportion of subscribers renewing via emails (9% consumer, 20% b2b) and through self-service areas on websites (19% consumer, 15% b2b). With renewal costs typically 31% of subscription revenue, there is a strong incentive for publishers to reduce costs by encouraging online self-service renewals.

4. Promoting new services to subscribers

Publishers are increasingly selling other products and services to their subscribers, and digital channels such as their own website or email, are the most popular way of marketing them.

5. Tentative steps on digital edition subs

A majority of publishers have created digital editions (60% consumer, 75% b2b) but there is little clarity on their strategic importance. Most use them as a free sampler to attract subscribers, or bundle them into print subs as added value. They are also used to deliver content to hard to reach or fringe customers – eg overseas, free copies, or for back issue sales. Only 31% of consumer publishers and 35% of b2b publishers promote them as a stand-alone paid-for subscription. This is in contrast to newspaper publishers, where 71% charge separately for digital editions.

During the discussion after the research was presented, it was striking how few publishers were testing versions of their content on mobile or ereader devices; perhaps the uncertainty over the value of digital editions is prompting their cautious approach. I believe that mobile versions of content provide a new sampling channel, and the opportunity to trade customers up to full subs at a later date.

I’d be interested to hear from publishers who feel they are fully harnessing digital opportunities for their subs strategy. Please comment below, or join in the discussion on the Specialist Media Network on Linked-in.

Carolyn Morgan runs Penmaen Media, who create practical digital media and marketing strategies, and have particular expertise in the media sector. If you’d like to discuss how you can spark off your own digital revolution in your subscription strategy, please contact us for an initial discussion.