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What About Subscriber-Only Covers?

Cover messaging can transcend the buying channel, but it depends on audience.



Linda Ruth By Linda Ruth
07/14/2011

One thing I love about the people who read my blog (you know who you are) is how responsive they are. No matter what the topic, there are always a few people who have something to ask about it or add to the conversation.

In a recent blog about online cover testing, I mentioned that one thing we learned about newsstand readers and subscribers is that they are looking for the same things in a cover—something immediate, practical and eye catching. An editor from Esquire International contacted me to ask: what are the test results of doing a separate subscriber versus newsstand cover? The editors there, and elsewhere, believe that a separate subscriber cover makes the subscriber feel special, and more attached to the magazine or brand. How does that perspective relate to my assertion that both subscribers and newsstand buyers are found to be looking for similar things?

It’s a great question, and one well worth clarifying. I have worked for many publications that have had separate newsstand and subscriber covers. BYTE magazine’s subscriber cover, by artist Robert Tinney, had its own cult following and violated every rule of the mass market—illustration instead of photo, little inside jokes and whimsical touches. It was, in fact, a work of art—and its following of geeky hackers (this in the days before “hackers” was a bad word and “geek” a word of praise) knew it and valued it as such. So, a different cover was created for the mass market. The newsstand version had cover lines pointing to the benefit-laden articles inside, as befits an impulse product; its subscribers were meant to figure out the meaning of the cover art themselves.

Similarly, The New Yorker’s art cover for years was clean of cover lines for its subscribers; the newsstand version used a full-length tip-on, masterminded by then-newsstand director Dinny Zimmerman (now my partner at PSCS).

My point was only that the message to the subscriber and the message to the newsstand buyer is (often unexpectedly) similar; and that what it takes to convey that message also transcends buying channel. Whether or not subscribers appreciate the clean (that is, cover-line-free) covers or would rather have cover lines showing what’s inside the publication was then, and continues to be, a matter of some debate. In my experience it really varies from title to title; and it depends in large part of the value of the cover art, and its collectability, in the eyes of the audience. In the cases mentioned above, the covers were truly works of art and also collector’s items. Actually even though BYTE has been out of print for a number of years there are people who still have the entire collection in their libraries; the same of course is true for The New Yorker. [Ed. note: Coincidentally, BYTE has just been resurrected, albeit in a digital form.]

If there is any overarching research that has been done tracking these preferences I would love to know; and I’m sure that some alert readers (as Dave Barry might call them) might identify it and send it in. In the meantime, my own experience indicates that for the majority of publications a subscriber wants to know what’s inside the publication; and the approach of creating a separate cover for subscribers is best left to those publications that create something durable and lasting in their cover art. That would certainly apply to the Esquire historical oeuvre. And given Esquire’s impressive cover history, I for one would hesitate to recommend any changes.

Linda Ruth is Principal of Publisher Single Copy Sales Services. Her book of case studies, "How to Market Your Magazine on the Newsstand," is available at BookDojo.com and at Amazon.

Linda Ruth By Linda Ruth
07/14/2011







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