For city and regional publishers, perhaps more so than their national counterparts, magazine distribution requires an active rather than a passive approach, one that includes constant tending, refinement and, often, innovation.
At Northshore, according to publisher Rick Sedler, the model is “measure, listen, adjust, repeat.” His magazine, with 70 percent controlled circulation, aims for a “membership, private club feel.” But retaining this means keeping up to date with who wants the magazine and who doesn’t.
“You can’t just create a list and constantly mail copies,” he says. “You need to understand how your list relates to everything else that goes on within your company.” He emphasizes the importance of listening—to those who love the magazine as well as those who don’t. As publisher, he takes subscription calls personally, pays attention to Letters to the Editor and actively attends events. “If you go to an event and someone says, ‘Everyone in my neighborhood loves your magazine,’ then look up the neighborhood and mail more copies to those who don’t get it.”
Sedler also uses a program called Salesgenie, which helps build targeted prospect lists with data on customer buying habits.
In terms of retail sales, it’s all about location.
“Distribution is big business,” says Sedler, “and small publishers have to fight through the practice of placing the magazine in channels that may not align with their own region.” For Northshore, which serves the shoreline region north of Boston, distributors often work with retailers in the greater Boston area, including points south, where the magazine is less likely to sell. Like many regional publishers, Northshore hired a newsstand consultant who knows the territory and understands the target market. But that doesn’t stop Sedler from visiting the stores himself, asking store managers about presentation and prominence, and he encourages his staff to do so, too.
“Whenever possible, operate on the ground,” he says, “and not from your spreadsheet 1,000 feet up.” The magazine has increased its newsstand distribution from 10 to 15 percent between this year and last.
Maine’s Down East, which saw a 20 percent newsstand spike last year, also works with a consultant. John Viehman, VP and group publisher, encourages finding creative ways to incentivize merchandisers to take a greater interest in the magazine. His consultant set up a contest that rewards those who keep the magazine stocked, in its proper location, with no premature returns. Those who do are entered into a sweepstakes to win gift cards or merchandise.
Establishing Relevant, Effective Local Partnerships
While traditional approaches to audience development, such as direct mail, have become softer, publishers seek more innovative approaches to expanding their reach. Often, these come through partnerships.
For the past three years, Down East has partnered with the Maine Innkeepers Association to distribute magazine copies to the organization’s member hotels. Because the hotels are charged for the subscriptions, Viehman says, this counts as qualified circulation. Recently, the magazine has launched a similar arrangement with the new Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, a nonprofit membership organization that purchases Down East subscriptions in bulk to offer as a benefit for new members.
Northshore recently partnered with one of its advertisers, an upscale men’s clothier, who supplied the magazine with a list of 2,500 people in the region who spent $10,000 or more per year on clothing. “Now,” says Sedler, “the advertiser has his best customers commenting on how they love the gift, he receives feedback from his ad, and we received 2,500 active customers who will most likely also buy from our other advertisers. It’s a win-win.”
Down East is hoping to extend its reach even further with the opening of a branded retail store [pictured] in the newly expanded Portland, Maine airport. The magazine has partnered with The Paradies Shops, which has a similar arrangement with others including The New York Times and CNBC. Viehman looks at this as a promotional tool and circulation builder as well as a revenue generator. The store will sell Down East’s magazines as well as its more than 800 books, along with the traditional airport store items: newspapers, beverages, candy and so on. A 55-inch plasma screen television will stream Down East-branded video into the store, focusing on its “Best of Maine” theme, and the magazine will sell advertising onto the channel as well.
The store’s opening may just be the beginning: Veihman says the stores can be duplicated at turnpike service areas and the Bangor airport, and the video channel can be streamed into hotel rooms and resorts. “We plan to be aggressive anywhere we can find the right demographic,” says Viehman. “As soon as we get it launched the way we want it to work, it’s completely clonable.”