A cover strategy begins with the decision on which of three cover approaches to use: journalistic, conceptual or generic.
Journalistic covers are informative and direct. What you see is what you get. If Angela Hoofer is on the cover of Blacksmith Monthly, for example, we are doing a cover story about Angela inside.
Concept covers usually employ a singular image, minimal type, a visual pun and a whole lot of hope: Will the reader get this? A story with the cover line 'Regaining the Competitive Edge' might feature a cover image of a biker or a runner or someone on skis coming off a mountain. The magazine is Blacksmith Monthly, of course.
"I advise you to avoid analogies," observed David Ogilvy in his masterful Ogilvy on Advertising (a book I often recommend to editors). Ogilvy's research found that analogies "are widely misunderstood. If you are writing copy for a face cream and say, 'Just as plants require moisture, so too does your skin,' readers don't complete the equation. If you show a Rembrandt and say, 'Just as this Rembrandt portrait is a masterpiece, so too is our product,' readers think you are selling the Rembrandt."
Covers should convey excitement and urgency or some stimulus to inspire the reader to open the magazine and read on. Today, we know from newsstand analysts that we have about 3.5 seconds to engage the reader with a cover, and concept covers don't always deliver the message quickly enough.
Generic covers use images that reinforce a magazine's mission, but they usually have nothing to do with the cover story inside. For the Angela Hoofer cover story, we may run a photo of a fiery andiron, or maybe a photo of a horse hoof being caressed by two snaggly hands, one of which has a blacksmith's tool ready to go to work;photos from a stock house that serve as wallpaper for cover lines that sell the story.
B-to-bs on the journalistic track may want to consider going generic on the cover. The advantages are considerable, especially if the competition is doing journalistic covers. Generics can make you distinctive, apart from the crowd.
Other advantages of the generic cover:
It can make each cover a poster-like thing of beauty, even in a business that makes ugly things. FenderBender, a magazine for the auto body shop trade, uses generic details from beautiful cars. This resonates with the magazine's mission and with the readership, which is made up of people who make beautiful things out of damaged goods.
By controlling the image, you can place cover lines for maximum readability on the cover.
It gives you control of the image far in advance. No hurrying around looking for art and having to settle for something that may be poor quality to begin with or may look sloppy in last-minute execution.
Like generic drugs, you can get great visuals from stock and other sources for very short money. (Always negotiate to include a repeat of the visual inside.)
The cover message is delivered swiftly, cleanly, with high readability. There is no bewilderment over the image, which is just background for the cover lines.
So much of what magazines cover editorially is repetitious. Instead of looking for a new image to dramatize the same old cover topic, the generic approach allows you to give full focus to stories without having to capture them visually;and repetitiously;on the cover.
Finally, when going generic, be sure to explain the cover image in a box on the TOC so that readers know where it is coming from. Also, make certain that your cover lines are not obliterated by a mailing label, and that all page references are accurate. On a generic cover of Men's Fitness, for instance, the enticing cover line 'The Ultimate Safe Sex (page 24)' took readers to a two-page ad for Nike. The cover should have mentioned page 44, which featured a review of erotic CDs.
John Brady is visiting professional at the Scripps School of Journalism, Ohio University. He conducts editorial workshops for professionals and is a partner at Brady & Paul Communications, a publishing consultancy. For information on his Editor's Tool Kit, e-mail him at Bradybrady@aol.com