Behind Foreign Affairs’ Surge in Circulation
How the 94-year-old journal found success in paid digital content while growing its circulation by 30 percent.
If paid content is truly dying in the digital age, Foreign Affairs hasn't received the memo. Over the last five years, the bimonthly journal — focused on international relations and U.S. foreign policy — has seen its average circulation surge 29 percent, from 150,074 in the first half of 2011 to 194,016 today, according to the Alliance for Audited Media.
What's more, average subscription value has jumped 16 percent over the same span, to $32.16, and since setting out to increase subscriber retention, renewal rates are up 20 percent.
Apart from the magazine's impeccable editorial content, marketing director Emilie Harkin says Foreign Affairs' recent success can be attributed to a focus on a direct, transparent, and value-driven relationship between the brand and its readers.
Folio: sat down with Harkin to learn more about Foreign Affairs' multifaceted approach to audience growth, and what's gone so right for the 94-year-old title.
Folio: What were some of the original goals you identified when setting out to grow your audience?
Emilie Harkin: When we looked at ways to grow our readership, one of the themes that kept popping up was churn. Rather than trying to replace people, what could we do to gain new subscribers who were building on a base? We took a really hard look at our renewal strategy and part of that had to do with the messaging we sent to people, the kind of marketing that we did, the benefits we included in subscriptions, and our pricing structure.
Folio: What did you learn about the pricing structure?
Harkin: Foreign Affairs uses introductory rates. We flirted with standard pricing, but right now we feel that the introductory rates are a really great way to welcome people to the magazine at prices that are more comfortable.
We took a hard look at the messaging that we’re giving to people when moving them from an introductory rate into a standard rate. Everything from the gradual increase we were giving to people plus the messaging we communicated to people, the reasons why we offer introductory rates. It’s necessary as a circulation-based magazine to adjust the pricing.
Folio: What are some ways in which you avoid a drop-off when that introductory rate expires?
Harkin: We actually don’t see much drop-off. Our renewal rates are very good. We think that this is a testament to not only the excellent editorial that comes with the subscription, but with an introductory rate, people are taking a leap of faith. They may know the magazine casually, but not very well. It’s our understanding that, based on the retention rates, the value of the magazine increases to the subscriber as it becomes more of a habit to them, more regular reading. One of the things that we keep in mind is, as the value of the magazine increases to the subscriber, how can we match that with the pricing that we expose them to?
Folio: You mentioned that part of this is your messaging to readers. Can you tell us more about that?
Harkin: We try to always make sure that there’s a personal touch with the messaging. Most of our retention efforts are signed by the publisher. They know that this is a niche magazine with people who are passionate about it working for it, and they get to have some exposure to that with the messaging that we give them.
Folio: How do your subscribers break down? Do most subscribe to both print and digital, or one or the other?
Harkin: We have three subscription tiers currently. We have a standard print subscription, with the six magazine issues, plus web access. Then we have a digital-only subscription. That includes magazines issues as PDF replicas, and you also get access to our website, iPad app, and six original e-books. Then we have the plus subscription, which is all-access, digital plus print.
Folio: What are some things you’re doing to convert some of those lower tier subscribers to the plus subscription?
Harkin: Most of our all-access subscriptions are coming through the website. A lot of the people who sign up for the plus subscription have been exposed to the website; they know the quality of the digital content that’s included in the subscription. A lot of times, it’s just making sure that they clearly understand the subscription terms. The plus subscription is most our popular package, and also the highest priced one. We make sure to back that up with high value.
Folio: The idea of new print audiences coming into the brand through the website — is that a relatively recent shift?
Harkin: It’s a pretty small portion of people who select the print-only option. Most of those subscribers come through traditional sources like direct mail. Even though the print subscription is less popular online, there’s still an audience who wants it, and it still serves an important role in that it establishes a reason for the plus subscription.
Folio: What have you been doing in terms of enhancing that relationship with your audience? Is part of this aimed at controlling the channels through which you communicate with readers?
Harkin: Absolutely. The most valuable relationship for us is the direct-to-publisher relationship. We do what we can to incentivize subscribers to want to have that relationship with us. One of the ways we’ve done that is just by continuing to add value to the subscription.
We’ve done what we can to bring people to the website, to encourage people to register, to sign up for our newsletters. We know that we have a channel of communication that we control. If an algorithm change happens, that can really affect the way you communicate with your audience. The more people you have a direct relationship with, the more you can control the way that you talk to them, the frequency of communication, and so on.
Folio: How vital are those other channels to bringing in new readers?
Harkin: Our referral sources are probably pretty similar to most publishers. It’s a mix of social media, plus we have an extremely well-optimized archive, so we have terrific results from search engines like Google. And then we really encourage repeat visits through the direct relationships that we establish, so our newsletters drive a lot of traffic as well.
Folio: Are newsletters seen as a way to get people into your system so you can start prompting them to buy a subscription?
Harkin: Foreign Affairs has a metered paywall. We allow visitors a certain amount of free content every month as a sampling of what we do, so the newsletters are a great tool for interesting people in our content.
Folio: How long ago did you implement the metered paywall?
Harkin: Foreign Affairs has always had some sort of metered access, going back to before I first got here in 2007. We’ve dabbled with what those rules exactly should be. We introduced a metered paywall a few years ago, and have since been spending time adjusting and refining the paywall depending on what balance is right to give people a sampling but also satisfy our business objectives.
Folio: Is there anything you’re doing differently with that balance between free and paid content?
Harkin: Previously, we used to make some distinctions between what content was free and what was paywalled. Then we just realized that all of these different nuances weren’t a very clear and transparent relationship with the web visitor. What we wanted to do was create consistency across the website, so we decided to make the paywall agnostic of whether an article originally appeared in print or online. An anonymous visitor can come and read a full article for free. The next time they visit that month, they’re prompted to register. Registered users are then allowed one more free article before they’re prompted to subscribe.