What’s Your Cover Strategy?
Great covers define and set readers' expectation for quality, tone of image.
Building a great magazine involves a lot of processes, players, deadlines and content. It’s a relationship that is not easy. Successfully marrying good ideas with quality execution takes planning and patience, especially when creating the cover of the magazine.
We consider the cover to be one of the most critical areas requiring strategy in your magazine, second only to your magazine’s content strategy. It is important to think about possible cover solutions early in the process that reflect the plan.
What is your magazine’s cover strategy? Keep in mind that this goes beyond the logo, coverlines and color palette. It’s about defining what will be on each cover—the quality and commonality of the images, as well as the overall tone from issue to issue.
More Than Just the Cover Story
Many magazines’ cover strategy is defined as whatever the team can get that relates to the main feature story. This approach can be a start but it’s not the end. You need to define and set the reader’s expectation for quality and tone of image.
Some magazines jump back and forth between photography and illustration. It can work, but only a few magazines have done it well. The covers of Wired magazine are great examples of this approach. They may have a conceptual photo, an interesting portrait shot, or a creative illustration in any given month. The commonality between them is the high level of quality and the presence of a great idea driving the image. If you lay six different issues of Wired side by side, the covers are all clear expressions of the same brand but are still individually engaging. They compel you to pick them up.
Many association or b-to-b magazines struggle with this each issue. Most are challenged by budget restrictions and finding the right image to tell the story. Most also shy away from taking risks and tend to use very literal imagery as a result. Going the “safe” route every time, however, soon becomes stale and often employs less unique imagery that might be seen elsewhere. Stock images can be a useful resource, but custom visuals will always make a stronger impact.
Start thinking differently about your covers. Set aside some time to brainstorm and create a plan. Get it down on paper, then measure each cover concept to the strategy. Be innovative wherever possible. Try taking a less literal approach. Remember, we have to engage the reader very quickly; it is the cover’s job to pique their interest and capture their attention. Your magazine is on the reader’s table with a pile of other things. Make the strongest impression. Be the must-read!
Here are some questions to consider during your cover strategy work session:
1. Which editorial content drives the cover image? Does it have to be a feature article or is there another opportunity to create a dynamic cover? 2. Does the cover lead the reader inside? 3. Are your covers clearly and creatively tailored to your target reader?
4. Does your cover have substance or is it just “wallpaper”?
5. Are your cover images crisp and high-quality with a clear focus?
6. Where do the images come from?
7. What are the struggles you encounter in getting a great cover image each issue?
8. How can you overcome that challenge with your new cover strategy?
9. Can you increase the budget for your cover by lowering costs elsewhere?
10. If you need to use a stock image on the cover, would your budget and circulation allow for the use of a unique rights-managed image as opposed to a more common royalty-free image?
11. Can you create a strategy that will allow multiple issues’ cover images to be photographed or created at the same time to save money?
12. Who determines the concept for the cover image—editorial or creative? Should this change or be a collaborative decision?
13. How important are your coverlines? Should there be more or less?
14. Does your cover template need a redesign to be ready for great images?
Additional questions are sure to come up along the way, but hopefully these will get you started. Chances are, stronger solutions are out there for your cover if you have the desire to strive for improvement. Try not to be discouraged by today’s tough times. If budgets are tight, don’t be afraid to negotiate with photographers and illustrators to get a better rate. They just might need the work or be open to a new opportunity. Get creative when seeking out images, and be persistent. Consider non-traditional resources. Art schools or journalism schools may have excellent senior-level students who would love the opportunity to do real-world work to build a portfolio.
I challenge you to think differently about your approach and document a thought-out strategy to create better magazine covers. It will all be worth it when you see your readership make a lasting commitment to your publication.