Special Report: Magazines: Getting into the right hands: Creativity key to circulation strategies

Also in this special report: * Spotlight on É Magazine Creative p.31 In the age of information-when-you-want-it, it's not easy to sell consumers on the pleasures of curling up with a good magazine. As a result, it's more crucial...

Also in this special report:

* Spotlight on É Magazine Creative p.31

In the age of information-when-you-want-it, it’s not easy to sell consumers on the pleasures of curling up with a good magazine.

As a result, it’s more crucial than ever that publishers succeed in getting their product into the right hands. How do they do it?

For this special report, Strategy asked five publications to explain how they’ve brought some creative thinking to their circulation strategies.

Why Magazine

‘The hardest thing you’ll ever have to do today,’ says Kimberly McGuigan, ‘is try to get a paid subscriber.’

If anybody’s qualified to make a statement like that, it’s McGuigan. As co-publisher of Downsview, Ont.-based Why Magazine, she has the daunting task of somehow getting this two-year-old quarterly to its circulation goal of 50,000 paid.

Not easy – especially if your magazine doesn’t fit into a tidy pigeonhole.

As the name suggests, Why is about questions. Big questions, on both social and personal matters: health and wellness, family, the environment. Among mainstream consumer publications, it’s a pretty distinctive editorial mandate. And the magazine has developed an equally distinctive circulation strategy to match.

‘We wanted to find some other way of building circulation, besides just spending a ton of money on promotions,’ McGuigan says.

Why uses direct mail rotation sampling to get the publication into the hands of potential subscribers, with each issue going out to some 50,000 recipients, grouped into specific lifestyle and professional clusters.

McGuigan says Why looks at the issue’s editorial lineup, and the performance of various clusters on previous issues, and then purchases mailing lists accordingly. For an issue with a strong health focus, for example, the magazine would buy health care professionals, fitness and healthy living enthusiasts, and so on. The lists are cross-tabulated with Why’s demographic target: university-educated adults aged 25-54, with a household income of $50,000-plus.

‘We’ll almost always pick a more educated person,’ she says, ‘because our research has indicated that those are the people most interested in our subject matter. Why is about heightening awareness, encouraging self-examination and giving people new ways to think about things.’

Why takes pains to ensure that the magazine never goes to the same person twice. ‘That may not be good for frequency, but it’s excellent for reach,’ McGuigan says. ‘We want to get to as many different people as possible.’

So far, she notes, Why is getting subscription conversions at a rate of approximately 1.5%. The goal is 2%.

McGuigan says this circulation strategy creates potential added-value opportunities for advertisers.

Advertisers can, for example, do inserts that will only go to specific clusters. They can also provide lists of names from their own customer databases, to be included among those 50,000 recipients. Why will even buy a specific list on behalf of an advertiser. For the summer 1997 issue, in fact, the magazine purchased 5,000 literary enthusiasts for Absolut Vodka. (Three cells of 5,000 are made available for this purpose every issue.)

‘Almost every advertising pitch we do includes some kind of circulation aspect,’ McGuigan says. ‘We try to offer something different.’

Approximately 6,200 copies of Why go to newsstands – primarily in Toronto, with several hundred as well in Vancouver, Montreal and various ‘B’ markets across Canada. A test involving airport newsstands is now underway.

‘We’d like to become a major national magazine eventually,’ McGuigan says. ‘But we’re going to have to do it inch by inch.’

Ocean Drive

Laurie Zakreski, director of advertising for Ocean Drive, was dining recently at a Montreal restaurant – as it happened, one of the select establishments in the city that carry the free lifestyle magazine.

At the end of the meal, the waitress – quite oblivious to Zakreski’s identity – presented her with a copy of Ocean Drive, and invited her to take it home and enjoy. Zakreski was both amused and delighted. ‘That,’ she says, ‘is exactly what’s supposed to happen.’

Launched successfully in Montreal last January, the glossy, oversized publication is poised now to go national, with plans for distribution in the Toronto market this fall, and Vancouver next spring. The circulation target is 120,000 copies – 30,000 in Montreal, 50,000 in Toronto and another 40,000 in Vancouver. Major advertisers signed on board so far include Chanel, Tommy Hilfiger and The Gap.

With its focus on entertainment, dining, night life, travel and fashion, Ocean Drive is clearly positioned to compete with the likes of upscale Toronto Life for the attention of the affluent urbanite. But the magazine, a spin-off of Miami’s popular Ocean Drive magazine, borrows its circulation strategy from such streetwise urban weeklies as Now and Voir.

‘It’s controlled distribution,’ says Zakreski, who explains that Ocean Drive goes to a carefully-selected roster of retail stores, restaurants, bars, health clubs and salons – each chosen for the close fit between its clientele and the magazine’s target audience.

‘We approach each establishment on an individual basis, and present the concept to the owner,’ Zakreski says. A page in every issue lists all the participating establishments – the ‘Friends of Ocean Drive.’

Ocean Drive’s strategy differs somewhat from that of the urban weeklies, in that it places an emphasis on the quality of the locations rather than the sheer number. ‘For them, one of the big marketing ploys is to be able to say: `Now distributed at 12,000 outlets.’ For us, the focus is the kinds of places we’re going into. It’s getting the magazine into the right sort of person’s hands.’

Zakreski says the magazine tries to avoid being grouped physically with other free publications near the entrance to an establishment, encouraging proprietors instead to position it prominently on bars and counters. Some retailers have even been persuaded to place a copy in a customer’s bag with a purchase.

The Ocean Drive plan also calls for 30,000 copies of the magazine to be distributed as an insert with The Toronto Star and The Gazette in Montreal, to targeted subscribers. ‘It’s something that will help us in the short term,’ Zakreski says. ‘It’s hard to just walk into a city and establish a perfect controlled distribution plan. This will help ensure that the magazine really is getting to the right number of people.’

Miami’s Ocean Drive now has a limited amount of select newsstand distribution. Zakreski says the Canadian edition may eventually contemplate that option as well.

Cottage Life

What you won’t get when you subscribe to Cottage Life: a clock, a tote bag, a baseball cap or a pen.

What you will get: the magazine. Got a problem with that?

Al Zikovitz, publisher of Toronto-based Cottage Life, takes a certain stubborn pride in the fact that his magazine – which celebrated its 10th anniversary in the summer – has never resorted to any of the usual promotional tricks of the trade to boost paid circulation.

‘We don’t do any direct mail to promote circulation, and we have never, ever given away anything to a new subscriber,’ he says. ‘We think the best promotion you can do for a magazine, the best direct mail piece, is the magazine itself.’

One of the foundations of its success, Zikovitz says, is a controlled circulation strategy that has been in place since the first issue rolled off the presses in 1987. Working from its own comprehensive list of cottage owners, the magazine began mailing out copies to potential subscribers on a rotating basis. With each new subscriber, one copy would be dropped off the controlled list. In this way, Cottage Life has been able to maintain circulation at a constant 70,000.

‘All we do is keep boosting paid circulation and declining our controlled,’ says Zikovitz. Today, Cottage Life rotates approximately 15,000 copies through a list of 130,000 names. (In the case of the 10th anniversary issue in August, an extra 10,000 copies went out.)

‘The guarantee we’re able to offer advertisers is that the magazine is going to cottagers at all times – to the market we serve and no other. It’s not like plucking 15,000 names at random off a mailing list. Every recipient is a cottage owner.’

Zikovitz says Cottage Life has also departed somewhat from industry orthodoxy by choosing not to offer its cheapest rates to first-year subscribers. The magazine, he explains, believes in rewarding its long-term subscribers, rather than hitting them for the full rate when they renew.

Cottage Life has renewal rates in the 80%-plus range, an impressive figure that reflects the amount of time and energy that the magazine has chosen to invest in renewal efforts. In addition to the usual cover wraps and renewal letters that go to existing subscribers, Cottage Life does a twice-yearly mailing to former subscribers who have not renewed. It includes a copy of the current issue’s cover, with the table of contents on the other side of the page, plus a letter – all of which is intended to convey the message, ‘Here’s what you’re missing.’

The mailing is quick and cheap, but it works, Zikovitz says. Response rates have averaged nearly 4%. ‘You do that twice a year and it adds up.’

Newsstand sales currently account for approximately 10% of Cottage Life’s total circulation. For the anniversary issue, the magazine doubled newsstand distribution, and ran a major promotion with distributors.

Zikovitz says newsstand distribution is an important part of the magazine’s strategy – but like many publishers, he finds this area a source of ongoing frustration. ‘There’s so much waste that goes on. People will dump an unbelievable number of copies on a newsstand and settle for a sell-through of 20%, just to be in the store. We don’t want that. Efficiency is quite important to us.’

Cottage Life’s ultimate goal is 100% paid circulation – a target Zikovitz considers achievable, without any major changes to the strategy.

‘Circulation is a profit centre for us right now, and a nice one at that,’ he says. ‘More than 25% of cottagers are subscribers. If you can get 25% of any market to subscribe to your magazine, you’re doing pretty well.’


True or false: If you’re an edgy little alternative-rock magazine, you don’t trouble yourself too much about niceties like circulation strategy. That’s for corporate weasels. If you’re cool, then cool people will find you, and word of mouth will spread. Simple.

In the last decade or so, more than a few edgy little alternative-rock magazines have answered ‘true’ – and, one by one, gone the way of the vinyl lp. Edward Skira is hoping not to add another name to that r.i.p. list.

Skira is co-publisher and co-editor of Chart, an edgy little alternative-rock magazine based in Toronto. Founded in 1990 as a trade magazine for campus radio, Chart has since evolved into a consumer publication targeting an audience aged 16 to 25.

While the magazine has national newsstand distribution, and can be found across the country in music retailers such as hmv and Music World, Skira says the present strategy is to drive paid subscriptions. The target? 10,000 – nearly three times the current total.

To reach that goal, he says, it’s crucial to get the magazine in front of more music fans. Hence the importance of initiatives like Chart’s involvement with this past summer’s Edgefest, a touring alt-rock event organized by Universal Concerts Canada.

Chart produced a program guide for Edgefest and, with hmv, hosted FanFest, a series of autograph-signing sessions at the event. Both helped promote awareness of the magazine. The autograph sessions drove traffic past the Chart booth, Skira says – as many as 800 fans for some of the bands. And the program guide included a full double-page-spread ad for the magazine, plus a subscription card.

Skira says Chart offered a special half-price subscription deal at the Edgefest concerts. ‘Because we were in a lot of markets where they didn’t really know us well, especially out west, that was a good incentive.’

In all, Skira estimates, the magazine sold approximately 1,200 subscriptions at Edgefest – an increase of nearly 50% in its total subscriber base. ‘This is definitely the biggest project we’ve ever done,’ he says. ‘And it has worked wonders.’

Future plans on the subscription side include the development of a loyalty program. Skira says Chart hopes to be able to send subscribers a regular package featuring music-related goodies such as band stickers and music cassettes. ‘All of that would be pure added-value stuff directly related to their interests,’ he says.

Targeting the campus audience remains another of the cornerstones of the strategy. Each year, Chart prints 100,000 copies of its September issue, to be distributed in frosh kits on campuses across the country.

Approximately 3,500 copies a month are distributed to newsstands. Skira says that for a small publication like his, newsstand distribution remains one of the most difficult pieces of the puzzle.

‘There’s a ton of u.s. magazines already sitting there, taking up a lot of space,’ he says. ‘And we don’t have the resources to be calling up retailers once a week to find out how they’re racking us, and whether we’ve sold out.’

While Chart has ambitious long-range plans, Skira has been careful to ensure that they don’t grow too ambitious.

‘There are a lot of magazines that have gone down trying to do things like large-scale controlled circulation,’ he says. ‘We’re a niche publication. For us, paid circulation of 10,000-15,000 is a manageable number. It will work for our advertisers, and keep us in good financial shape.’

Watch Magazine

Go where they go.

If there’s one thing that the folks at Toronto-based Youth Culture, publishers of Watch, have figured out, it’s this: If you want teens to read your magazine, then you’ve got to be wherever they congregate.

That means distribution in high schools. And it means a presence in the kinds of retail locations teens are likely to frequent: music stores, video- and computer-game stores, pizza places and coffee shops.

None of this may sound like brain surgery, but it takes time and effort to get it right. After four years, the Watch crew are satisfied that they’ve got it right – so much so, in fact, that they’ve now expanded the magazine beyond the confines of the Ontario market, and taken it national.

Starting with the just-published September issue, Watch – a free monthly youth culture magazine devoted to ‘music, movies, fashion and life’ – has boosted its total circulation to 125,000, with distribution in some 800 high schools across Canada.

‘The high school is the perfect environment for us,’ says Matthew Stradiotto, the magazine’s director of marketing and promotions. ‘It’s an otherwise media-free environment where kids spend time with other kids. They’re sharing ideas, talking every day about trends in music, in fashion. So that’s where we want to be.’

Stradiotto says that getting the magazine into schools, and keeping it there, is an enormous task that demands the efforts of two full-time employees.

‘We start by contacting school boards, and promoting to them the concept of the magazine as a vehicle for things like encouraging reading,’ he says. ‘From there, we’re directed to principals of individual schools. So we approach them, and let them know who we are and what we’re about. And gradually, we’ve built up this roster of high schools.’

Over time, Stradiotto adds, this strategy has evolved to incorporate distribution in retail outlets that attract heavy teen traffic. Since not all high schools carry the magazine, he explains, teens also need to be able to get it elsewhere – and what better place than the local pizza joint, strategically located near the school?

‘We go out, look at the environment, see where the teens are, and follow them,’ Stradiotto says.

In addition to extending its high school distribution across the country, Watch has recently signed up Music World to carry the magazine nationally, and may pursue other major retail partners as well.

‘From a practical point of view, it makes more sense to have national retailers carrying us coast to coast than to go after individual niche retail locations in each province,’ Stradiotto says.

Watch is now hoping to take advantage of its access to high schools to spin off a promotions arm that would help clients undertake projects such as product sampling, contests and concerts in the schools. The magazine is also planning to sign up volunteer student representatives in each high school, to assist in promotional efforts on behalf of both Watch and its clients.

In addition, the magazine is building a reader database, with a view towards launching future direct mail efforts.

Stradiotto says that with a pass-along ratio of four to one, Watch will now be reaching an estimated 500,000 teenagers every month. ‘I’d challenge any other medium, whether outdoor or tv, to say that they can deliver those kinds of numbers. We do, and with a vehicle that has an immediate and tactile relationship with the reader. We get into students’ gym bags and go with them everywhere. Other media don’t.’