Direct Mail Marketing Trends for Magazine Publishers
Magazines have long been among the most sophisticated users of direct mail (for the very latest look at trends, into both direct mail and email marketing by magazines, along with extensive analysis, see DirectMarketingIQ's just-released Magazine Publishing Industry Sector Report). Many fine copywriters and designers cut their teeth on subscription packages and developed giant reputations as a result of their ability to sell subscriptions through this channel.
There are a number of reasons why publishers have had a successful relationship with this type of advertising. Chief among them, it's been impossible to manage a magazine rate base without some level of direct mail in the source mix. Subscription sources didn't change much for a very long time.
There were insert cards, agents, trade shows, white mail, gift subscriptions, space advertising and telemarketing — plus any special sources a magazine could develop on its own. In the 1950s, the sweeps marketing companies came along and that was the last really viable subscription source until the advent of websites and email over 50 years later. So, even though it was always expensive, direct mail became the workhorse of magazine subscription sales because it was reliable and predictable in a way most other sources were not. It still is.
Direct mail remains the most important source of subscriptions for most magazine publishers because it's also flexible and offers more volume potential than other sources. However, it's more expensive than ever, so some things have changed as a result, particularly over the last year or so. Some of these changes are necessary and expected; others, not so much.
Here are the trends that I've noticed among our clients and others over the past 12 to 18 months:
1. Volume is down
No surprise there. Many publishers cut out an entire mailing last year. All eliminated marginal mailing lists. Most are pushing harder on other less expensive sources to produce more orders and hold the line on direct mail volume. While budgets are under so much pressure and direct mail packages cost so much to produce and mail, I expect this trend to continue.
2. Most business-to-business publications eliminated direct mail from their source mix altogether
There is a big push away from direct mail for the simple reason that the cost per order has doubled for many business publishers over the last couple of years. The vast majority of B-to-B magazines are controlled circulation publications and that kind of acquisition cost doesn't create a reasonable metric. As long as it's less costly to acquire direct request circulation on the telephone or via email and websites, this won't change.
3. Voucher packages are ubiquitous
Creative people hate this format for obvious reasons. The good news is there are some smart publishing companies that realize adding selling features to the voucher can vastly improve its longevity and response. Stripped down voucher efforts don't work as well as they once did. There's an opportunity here for publishers with voucher control packages to soup them up at a reasonable cost and sell more subscriptions at an acceptable cost per order.
4. Testing is teetering on the brink
Budget shrinkage accounts for some reluctance to test. Marketers who come out of print publishing know it's important to test continuously. There is a lot of "tweaking" and package "downsizing" going on at the moment. Some new to the industry don't really understand testing or its importance to successful direct mail campaigns, and that is alarming.
Currently, most direct mail packages in the publishing industry seem to be #10 formats — not as many 6" x 9" or larger packages are being developed as a direct result of budget cut backs. I'm also seeing more double postcards, triple postcards and oversize postcard formats. It's good that magazine publishers realize the importance of being in the mail, but some need re-convincing that postcard formats don't always work and require careful testing.
It's tempting to wring your hands and sniffle over the state of direct mail in the magazine publishing industry today — whether you work on the creative side or on the publishing side as a circulation/audience development executive. We're past the golden age in terms of pure creativity at any price as well as in volume mailed each year. No one can spend the kind of money developing a new package that was routinely spent even a few years ago. Flooding the mail with excess volume is out. That's gone, and it's not coming back.
I choose to focus on what can be done instead of what can't. What magazine publishers need to stress now — and the successful ones know this — is devoting money to the most efficient sources of subscriptions. Being as aggressive as possible with every subscription source including direct mail and emphasizing true cross-platform subscription acquisition programs for all their magazines.
Testing the possible in direct mail — a better offer, a more attractive price or new premium while developing enewsletters, webinars, events and websites that brand each magazine and help drive sales and profits. It's actually a pretty exciting time for direct mail and for magazine publishers. Print is not going away any time soon, and neither is direct mail. It's important to work with the attitude that no matter how good your direct mail program is, there is almost always a way to make it better through testing.
In the meantime, should you find yourself in need of inspiration therapy from Bill Jayme, Martin Conroy, Joan Throckmorton, Frank Johnson, Linda Wells or Hank Burnett — and many others — come visit me at my office. I'll make the coffee, you bring the donuts. I have file cabinets full of the best of the best magazine subscription packages ever written and designed. We'll take a trip down memory lane together, then we'll figure out how to sell more subscriptions by tweaking, downsizing and selectively testing the important elements that are known to affect direct mail response. We will also stubbornly refuse to go away.
Elaine Tyson is President of Tyson Associates, a 28-year-old Connecticut-based outsource management firm with clients that include consumer, business and association publications.