For some publishers, magazine subscriptions have been an unexpected bright spot amidst the pandemic. Dennis Publishing have recently reported that subscription rates across all titles have increased by 9% overall during the pandemic, with The Week Junior and Cyclist performing particularly strongly with 23% and 39% rises respectively.

Dennis are far from the only publisher seeing a rise. Condé Nast has seen new subscribers in the US double, while new subscription orders for UK titles are up by 420% compared with the same period last year. Similarly, Bauer Media has seen big increases in print subscriptions for Yours and Grazia, as well as subscriptions to its Total TV Guide reaching 10x the equivalent period last year.

As the world adjusts to life after lockdown, publishers will be looking at which areas of the business to focus on and which to put on ice over the coming months. Is a pivot back to magazine subscriptions a wise idea, or is this a trend which will fade as restrictions ease?

Investing in subscriptions

For those publishers who have seen rises in subscriptions, there will be a strong temptation to cut other areas of the business that have been struggling during the pandemic and focus resources on bolstering subscriber acquisition.

Whereas this is not an issue in itself as a short-term response, the longevity of this strategy does need to be considered. Budgets have never been tighter; will otherwise-profitable areas that have been cut be given a chance to recover?

The most sceptical perspective is that single-digit subscription rises are a long way off reversing decades of decline in magazine circulation. Even the past 10 years has seen magazine sales halve in the UK.

Print sales volume of magazine titles in the UK from 2011 to 2018, via Statista

At best, publishers who throw time and energy at print magazine subscriptions now will have a few years of stagnation before the downward curve begins again. At worst, this newfound consumer interest in paper and ink will peter out as soon as we can reliably make plans in the calendar again.

But there may be more value in focusing on reader revenue past hoping for six-figure circulation figures again. Media Voices co-host and publishing consultant Peter Houston is more than happy to counter the scepticism.

“Once the platform play fell apart, direct relationships became crucial again,” he points out. “For a few years now, the focus has been back on readers, first as registered users then as subscribers.”

In this scenario, subscriptions are just a wider part of reader engagement; something for the inky-fingered super-fans, while focusing on other reader revenue streams such as eCommerce or digital membership like gal-dem

Will the COVID bump last?

On looking at the longevity of subscription bumps, there does need to be a distinction made with types of magazines. News-focused magazines like The Week and The Economist will continue growth as long as the world continues to be unpredictable and chaotic.

But for consumer and niche titles, the trend is far more difficult to predict. The pandemic adds magazine casualties every day, such as Q which folded after 34 years after circulation had dwindled to almost 10% of what it had been in 2001.

Bauer Media told Buzzfeed News in May that its lifestyle magazines in the UK had seen big increases in print subscriptions, but the publisher also closed a number of titles including Planet Rock, Simply You and Practical Photography at the end of June.

The titles seeing success and the ones on the chopping block seem to be impossible to predict. In some publishing houses, pandemic growth may be irrelevant if they are looking for ways to eject magazines without sufficient margins.

“Focusing on subscriptions is good business practice for many publishers, particularly in terms of stabilising a magazine’s cashflow, but as with most things, one size does not fit all,” points out Mary Hogarth, a media specialist at The Magazine Expert. “Some titles will be more successful than others when it comes to building a healthy subscription base, namely those specialist or business magazines that offer value.”

For Houston, the jury is still out, although he also emphasises the need for value. “You can sell anything once, but it needs to deliver value if people are going to renew,” he argues. “There may be more mileage in subscription boxes or added extras than just standalone magazine subscriptions.”

Making the most of new subscribers

For all the publishers who have been fortunate enough to see subscription bumps, now is not the time to rest on one’s laurels. When the time comes to renew, will the reader have had a great experience and will continue without hesitating, or will they have doubts about spending that money again?

In fact, research from the Financial Times has shown that it’s four to five times cheaper to retain existing subscribers than acquire new ones. This means that to make the most of new subscribers, publishers must demonstrate value, and keep the promises which attracted that subscriber in the first place.

“Having a community aspect is vital,” advises Hogarth. “When strategising to build a thriving subscription base, publishers should also first scrutinise if there is a real potential to develop a sense of community among their audience before investing in that next step.”

Retention strategies are a well-studied area in publishing, but it never hurts to revisit your own strategies with your team. We would recommend Julian Thorne’s Ten Top Tips for Retention Strategies and Faisal Kalim’s exploration of how publishers are innovating with content to retain subscribers as starting points. 

“Added value is a big deal, as is constant communication,” emphasised Houston. “The worst thing publishers can do is ‘fire and forget’. They need to be constantly communicating with subscribers, re-evaluating the offer, and adding extras that keep audiences interested.”

Not a time to trim digital

But as with all changes in strategy, nurturing print subscription success needs to be seen holistically in the bigger picture of the whole brand. There are a number of publishers who are cutting digital teams in order to focus on print, which in turn reduces the funnel of readers who discover and grow loyal to the brand.

Without a strong digital presence, it is difficult these days to drive sustainable subscription growth, print or otherwise. For almost every potential subscriber, the content they come across online – whether that be through social media, newsletters or recommendations – is a showcase for the title and what it can do. If the content is first-class online, it will be first-class in print too, and readers know this.

Let’s not reverse years of progress in digital publishing by turning it back into a battle of print vs digital. Each has their place, and the key for sustainability now is working out what is recoverable from the coronavirus crisis, and what it is time to turn the page on.


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