My sense of the online sphere is that it remains a place of opportunity rather than threat for a print magazine. Over time, this may change, but the internet provides the best place to attract pre-qualified subscribers, to build a relationship with them, and then to convert them to paying subscribers. Unlike direct mail, this is an area where initial sunk costs continue to pay off over time, and where simple changes can have positive ripple effects far down the line. It also seems like the barriers to change are fewer than in completely revamping the way they do direct mail.
So, what should the sf magazines be doing to maximize the medium?
1) Website Look-and-Feel
In all honesty, their websites do need to be updated. This is just a packaging question, but it’s absolutely necessary. Perceptions are made and defined in the online space – for many users, their experience of your website is, in their minds, actually their experience of your entire product and organization. If you’re clunky, or confusing or poorly designed, readers transfer that impression onto your product and organization.
A magazine website should reinforce both for new and old readers that the magazine they subscribe to is exciting and interesting and worthy of excitement. As authors we spend a lot of time worrying about how good a cover we get with our books; for magazines, their website packaging is just as important. In many cases it will be the first, and sometimes only contact that a magazine has with a new, undiscovered reader. It should make a positive impression. We talk about sense of wonder a lot in science fiction — video games like Halo 3 actually do a great job of this with their snazzy tv ads and packaging — sci fi mags can have their websites become significantly more evocative and more enticing. I’m not saying they need a lot of high tech bells and whistles, they just need some exciting looking art. They pay artists all the time to create images for their covers, it wouldn’t hurt to put some of that look-and-feel excitement into their websites.
2) Prioritizing Desired Outcomes
The magazines need to prioritize what their websites are supposed to accomplish, first and foremost. Personally, I think their priority should be 1) acquiring new paying subscribers and 2)creating a relationship with their readers both paid and non-paid. Figured in terms of the real estate on the page, this means they need to be spending a significant amount of area on telling people where and how to subscribe and how great it’s going to be for them if they do. On HCN’s website, I had between three and four different places on the site where I would advertise either full subscriptions or else free trial subscriptions, enewletter signups and RSS feeds.
If you look at a consumer magazine site like Yoga Journal, one of the things you see immediately is the button and cover image that entice someone to subscribe and get two free gifts. Not only is there a button telling me where to go to subscribe, there’s an included (immediate gratification) reason to do so. If you scroll down to the bottom you see a massive embedded form and the opportunity to subscribe again. — and if you look at most other consumer magazine sites, you’ll see a similar mix of ads for the magazine along with embedded subscription forms. They devote a lot of real estate to their sell messages because that’s what they really really want. They’re providing other kinds of added value as well, but they’re solidly focused on their message — subscribe, sign up, buy — and its reflected in the layout of their site.
3) What are you selling?
After you’ve got a snazzy looking website and have prioritized that you want to sell or get the reader to do some action, you need to think seriously about what that action is and how you’ll entice them. In Yoga Journal’s case, they have a call to action (subscribe) and an immediate benefit for doing so (2 free gifts). In their case, these free gifts happen to be .pdf downloadable guides for things like “Yoga for Neck and Shoulders” and “Yoga for Back Pain” (not a bad come-on for someone who’s already looking at their site through a computer).
Now, If you look at something like the asimovs.com ad for Analog (wierd cross marketing if I ever saw it), it’s interesting because all it says is “Analog — subscribe now.” It should probably be something like “New Subscriber Special: Save 30% off the cover price and get Paolo Bacigalupi’s new story “Pump Six” FREE!. It sounds cheesy, but it works (even if you insert a better known author in place of my blatant self promotion :-)). And in the online space you can keep testing your messages and your offers to find out what works best for your reader type. With tools like Google Analytics you can aggregate a huge amount of information on how promotional offers perform, and keep refining the pitch.
4) The Beauty of Free.
It’s obvious and lots of people talk about it, but “Free” is super enticing. That said, there should be a quid pro quo. I don’t really agree with the idea of putting out every story for free online, unless you have the massive readership to create substantial advertising revenue, which I’m not really convinced exists yet and may never exist because science fiction and fantasy seem decidedly niche — but I am in favor of giving away 2 free trial issues to someone who’s willing to provide their physical address. By arriving at the site and signing up, they’re already pre-qualifying themselves as significantly more interested in the magazine than a general shmoe off the street.
If they like the magazine, great, they’ll subscribe when the magazine bills them, but if they don’t right now, they can still go into a general list of direct mail marketing names, and they may turn out to perform down the road. The offer to sign up for 2 Free issues is a great way to get people to try out a magazine out, and in my experience, names acquired in this way performed significantly better than almost all direct mail cases. At HCN were seeing a 7-14% conversion rate from free trial offers when we billed after two free issues, as opposed to a 1% conversion rate on direct mail. Ultimately, it was a significantly cheaper way to acquire a new subscriber. Note how Yoga Journal mixes a soft offer (2 free issues) with a hard offer benefit (pay now and get a couple extra issues). This works really well. Really. I’ve tried it. It’s cool.
5) Relationship Building with Email Newsletters
Email newsletters work. Gathering the voluntarily submitted email addresses of potential subscribers is hugely important, because this defines a pool of people you can return to again and again for marketing. None of the big three magazines run an email newsletter. If they were to do one, an easy way would be to send out an email once a month, and include the TOC of the current issue along with enticing descriptions and also include one free complete story (quid pro quo – the readers get a free story, you get to keep trying to entice them to subscribe to read the rest of the stuff). This is a good trade both for a reader, and for the magazine. They get stories and a relationship with the editors at the magazines, you get marketing names. Pyr Books and Lou Anders do a good job of this. He interviews his authors, talks about different ideas that are in the zeitgeist, and unabashedly markets his products. And I’m happy to get his email newsletter.
The Good News:
The above ideas are just some of the basic tools I’ve seen used to acquire more subscribers, but given that most of them aren’t actually being used aggressively, or in some cases at all, it seems premature to assume that short sf market or the big three are predestined for death. If a magazine isn’t actively fighting for survival, its market almost inevitably shrinks. As I go through all the ideas above, plus numerous others that have been floated, it seems that there are enough low-hanging fruit for the magazines to start experimenting with a more aggressively entrepreneurial model. Frankly, there are so many possibilities, it’s mostly a question of picking and choosing what to do first.
Without knowing what exactly is happening under the hood at the magazines, it’s difficult to say what institutional barriers are actually causing their failure to reach out more aggressively, but at least at this point, it seems that there’s still growth potential, and circulation declines are not inevitable.