More than anything – more than changing demographics, or the advent of new technologies, or the rise of free content – I have a sense that the loss of sf readers for the “big three” markets is actually a failure of marketing and core circulation management practices, not of the sf market as a whole. I just don’t see the big three doing a lot with their current subscriber base and I donâ€™t see them actively reaching out much. On one level this has to do with things like the appearance of their websites, whether they offer exciting subscription enticements, etc (which I’ll go into later). But even more, it relates to how they use something decidedly unsexy: direct mail.
Direct mail, ie “junk mail” is *the* tool for maintaining magazine circulation. If you aren’t a major player on the newsstand (think Maxim), direct mail is the only way new subscribers will ever find out about you, and build a relationship with you. It was our workhorse at HCN and remains a workhorse, even as postal rates increase. There are other technologies that are worth discussing as well, but at root, this is the biggest part of the circulation management toolbox. With direct mail, you’re trying to do one of two things:
1) Subscriber Acquisition
While I was at HCN we ran several major direct mail campaigns each year, and numerous smaller ones where we traded and tested mailing lists from all sorts of different publications and non-profit groups in the hope of finding new subscribers. On top of that, we did tests of our direct mail package every year, splitting our direct mail into tests of the layout, the language, the pricing offer, and the envelope packaging in order to ensure that we were sending out the most highly performing package possible.
It turns out that little things like a cute cartoon on the cover of the envelope made our targeted readers more likely to open the envelope and respond. But we would never have known it if we hadn’t been constantly testing. We also tested the types of offers (ie Subscribe for a full year at $28 and get a gift, vs. subscribe for a half year at $14.95 and get X number of issues.). We also tested things like how quickly we ratcheted a subscriber up from an introductory offer to a full price offer. This was an ongoing process. There was always something new to test, and it made a real difference in how 20,000 pieces of junk mail performed.
2) Subscriber Retention
We ran a series of SEVEN renewal notices (plus an email reminder to those people who we had email addresses for), starting three issues before a subscription ran out, and running until four issues after a subscription ended. We continued to use lapsed subscriber names in our direct mail attempts for an additional two years, and we constantly tested our renewal package, both for layout, language and design to see if we could make a renewal series perform even a partial percentage point better than our control.
Retaining current subscribers is a huge thing for a magazine, and even though our subscribers sometimes complained about getting constantly nagged to renew (and claimed that they would remember on their own), it always turned out to be worth sending a seventh reminder to a lapsed subscriber because there was still a solid chance that that seventh reminder would work — and it was significantly cheaper to retain that subscriber than to go out and try to discover a new one to replace that laggardly renewer.
3) Some Thoughts and Guesses
Now, even though all the sf magazines have access to my mailing address I very seldom get direct mail from them. And I haven’t run across any exciting new offers coming from them. I don’t see differences in the prices I might get, I don’t see any special deals designed to hook me, I don’t see any “act now” language. I’d expect that I’d get two or three pitches a year from them. When I lapsed as a member of the Nature Conservancy, I used to get direct mail from them quarterly. They were unstoppable. Maybe I missed the direct mail from the sf magazines, but if I did, it means that the packaging and pitch weren’t strong enough to make me notice them — and that’s a problem.
My sense is that because the circulation functions in the sf magazines are either largely outsourced, or else run through a larger organization (ie Penny Press) that the big three actually have less flexibility with their direct mail systems and their testing and renewal processes than we had at HCN, where we kept a huge amount of expertise in-house.
This means that they’re going to be less entrepreneurial and less able to aggressively test, seek, and retain subscribers. In an expanding market, this may not matter. In a troubled one, it starts to look more like an emergency.
Overall, I think the institutional barriers in the magazines may be significantly more problematic for them than the actual state of the SF market. This cuts to the question John Scalzi raised recently about the magazines’ apparent unwillingness to do anything to save themselves. It’s possible on some level that they recognize the problem but other internal issues (ingrained habits, the logistics of mail drops and outsourcing, a lack of funding, a lack of staff expertise, to name a few) make it difficult for them to change.
Next up, online marketing options for the big three.