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Selling Subscriptions in an Amazon World: Part 7 – Reimaging the Magazine Subscription

Date 21/11/2016

'Reimagining the Magazine Subscription' is available to Dovetail clients - please contact your account manager.This report provides a lot of granular detail about how the current way of buying magazines can be improved. Yet standing back from the detail what are the big issues and how do publishers go about selling magazines more effectively?

A key theme running through this whole review of the magazine subscription is how much good practice already exists in the industry and how much is actually being copied by new entrants into the world of RRM.

Probably the single biggest magazine development would be to stitch together the key elements of existing publisher activity into a more seamless whole: print + digital, retail + direct and reading + buying. “Joining up the dots” is a key message.

The more touchpoints with the consumer, the more deeply engaged they are, but this must come with consistent quality across all platforms and channels and with low friction ease-of-use.

This has to be done in the context of an RRM world where freedom, flexibility, exclusivity, low commitment and control jostle together in the consumer’s wish list; and where “free” is becoming a more important element of the whole package.

There are four big issues which are both challenges and opportunities for the magazine industry:

  • Balancing the different demands of different segments of magazine readers: walking the tightrope between Retro and Relic.
  • Making the most of the smartphone as the prime access point into the lives of modern consumers.
  • Working out a range of new models which move away from the traditional loyalty-penalising one.
  • Simply breaking through the constant chatter of the noisy digital world.

Yet while there are recurring themes and trends, the ultimate answer is that each magazine brand has to understand its own audience inside out and embed itself in the lives of its readers more deeply. Yet the question is can individual brands achieve this on their own without more partnering and cross-industry cooperation?

The real threat to magazines is not that consumers are consciously rejecting them, whether in print or digital formats, in a planned and logical way. It is simply that magazine brands are in danger of having their voice lost in the background noise of our digital world. Partnerships and more cross-industry initiatives must be part of the fight back. Yet so also is a more creative approach to the magazine subscription – reimagining it for an Amazon world.

Understanding the magazine now

The previous sections of this report demonstrate just how complex the magazine market is in terms of consumer behaviours and wants. This means that a deep and constantly refreshed view of each brand is essential in order to build any kind of coherent audience strategy.

Understanding buying as deeply as reading

Most publishers have detailed insights into how their magazines are read and consumed, but a much more sketchy view as to how the whole “magazine experience” works from buying through fulfilment and on to consumption. Knowing how the end-to-end journey works is the first step in improving that process and “owning” the consumer.

Tracking readers’ changing digital activity

While the lives of most consumers are becoming increasingly digitally-driven, their magazine consumption is not always following that trend – or, at least, not always at the same speed. Tracking and understanding readers’ digital activity in relation to specific magazine brands is another required insight. Consumer behaviours can change rapidly, so constant monitoring is needed.

Understanding the role of the magazine brand

Outside the real magazine addicts, magazines generally are not as front-of-mind, front-of-wallet and must-have as many publishers like to think. Understanding where they currently fit in the consumer’s “life-flow” and how to optimise that position is critical. Can the magazine brand be built into a bigger experience? Is the role of an individual magazine brand actually as a benefit in someone else’s larger membership operation?

Mapping the multiples

The most prolific magazine buyers are those who are multi-platform and multi-channel. Understanding the dynamic interplay between all these dimensions is at the core of integrating them more closely into a better user experience.

Preparing for the Digital Jump

The consumer’s jump across the Digital Divide from print-only into consistent digital activity is coming very slowly in a number of magazine sectors for a variety of reasons, but it must be assumed that it will eventually happen in every sector at some stage. Preparing for that eventuality is essential: to ignore digital is potentially suicidal.

Following the global RRM trends

There are big trends at work in the larger RRM world which cannot be ignored.

From front-end choice to in-service control

As front-end subscriber commitment becomes simpler, quicker and more impulsive, there is a real shift in focus from getting consumers to choose a structured package upfront (modern consumers are often actually overwhelmed by choice even though they may say that they like to have it) to allowing them to flex and control their service while they are actually using it and finding out what their own consumption patterns really are. That change has massive implications for every aspect of any RRM operation from marketing through to fulfilment & customer service and on to IT.

From lock-in to satisfaction

A much more subtle change, but just as fundamental, is the shift in emphasis from creating the structures to lock subscribers in to a commitment through mechanisms like direct debit and restricted cancellation policies, towards giving them more freedom to leave, but holding them through an enhanced experience of the product and the service – both must be first class in a world where consumers want more freedom and flexibility with reduced commitment.

From subscription to membership

There is a clear and logical trend towards changing the cold, contractual feel of a traditional “subscription” to a warmer club “membership”. Yet this shift is very difficult and costly to execute well and is not actually wanted by every consumer. Knowing what to offer to whom at a cost that actually pays back is the challenge behind the move into membership; and membership means adding the sense of excitement, exclusivity and discovery which tend to be lacking in a traditional magazine subscription.

Free as a pathway to paid

A free trial of a service is now regarded as a basic requirement by many consumers. Knowing how much to give away and for how long is critical to maintaining a profitable paid-for service. Yet “free” has another dimension too – a lower tier of service given away permanently for free as a taster of what the premium paid-for service looks like. Managing free without devaluing the paid for service is a tricky balancing act. Free can be either a pathway to a paid relationship or commercial suicide if not managed properly. Free is probably also a key mechanism for unlocking the smartphone opportunity.

Maximising the multiples

The more touchpoints with the consumer, the stronger the relationship and the more revenue opportunities there are. A number of more mature RRM operators have moved into a more multi-dimensional phase – digital-only offering physical products as well; online-only moving into bricks & mortar retail; content providers selling linked services, products and live events, etc. The traffic is two-way in every area. So, the message is clear – multi-dimensional is the end game, but joining up the dots along the way is the challenge.

Optimising the existing assets

“Reimagining” sounds radical. The thought process of reimagining undoubtedly is, but the practical outputs from the process often look far less radical than anticipated – often the result of servicing and polishing up existing assets before reassembling them in a new configuration.

Joining up the platform dots: print + digital

It is clear that, for the foreseeable future, a significant section of digitally active magazine readers still want some element of print in their consumer magazine consumption. Being able to deliver that across their magazine portfolio and to vary the balance between the two streams according to their flexing requirements is the foundation of the most basic audience strategy.

Joining up the channel dots: retail + direct

What many consumers see as lacking in the traditional magazine subscription – low commitment single copy buying / trial & sampling / impulse buying / instant delivery / instant treat / choice / theatre / discovery – are actually already provided via the existing retail channel. The retail experience needs some major “reimagining” of its own, but linking retail and direct delivery together more seamlessly is another major opportunity.

Joining up the activity dots: reading + buying

The fact that reading leads to action (buying a featured product, going on holiday, going to the cinema or a live event, etc.) is a major selling point of the magazine medium to advertisers. Making that link seamless through ecommerce and membership structures is another example of building engagement and of adding more publisher revenue streams.

Moving from bolt-on to rebuild

Many consumer publishers are still in the bolt-on phase of their content delivery – each time a new iteration is developed it is simply bolted on to the existing range of overlapping services which are not fully integrated with each other. Consumers can find this irritating, confusing and time-wasting. B2B publishers are more advanced in working back from the end user’s requirements to rebuild a more seamless experience.

Maintaining quality in every dimension

There are numerous examples, both inside and outside publishing, of introducing new dimensions to the core service which simply do not work to the same standard for a variety of reasons. Driving consistent brand values and quality through every dimension is key and sometimes “doing fewer things better” is more advisable than being “everywhere at once”.

Owning the complete magazine experience

The gift subscription is a prime example where most publishers have relinquished control over the end-to-end purchase + fulfilment + consumption experience, mainly for reasons of cost and complexity. Yet owning the total experience is what drives Amazon, because that is the route to owning the consumer.

Tailoring offers and models

It is obvious that “one size fits all” is well and truly dead as far as the consumer is concerned. Flexing the service offer and the price (and the business model that sits behind it all) is part of modern segmented marketing although much of this can be done by reconfiguring what already exists rather than creating something completely new from scratch.

Four key challenges

Balancing Retro and Relic

The retro theme that runs through much current publisher practice is attractive to many consumers, but looks outdated to others. Developing the future while leveraging the past is a difficult balancing act: walking the tightrope between retro and relic.

The smartphone opportunity

Increasingly, the smartphone is the access point into consumers’ lives. The opportunity is much more than simply delivering mobile-optimised content to a small screen – a challenge in itself – but should be built around developing a complete marketing and comms strategy based on the phone being the consumers’ prime tool.

The loyalty timebomb

Traditionally, publishers have penalised loyal subscribers at renewal. That is a valid model, but one that consumers are becoming more irritated by and one that works in the opposite direction to the idea of “membership”. Sorting out that conflict is a major issue.

Breaking through the noise

The background noise of the humming digital world means that the magazine message is in danger of being drowned out. How does the industry break through the static? More cross-publisher cooperation in promotions and technology? More radical partnerships with other service providers?

Practical suggestions

The sheer range of options and challenges can make publishers freeze into inactivity or leap into directionless hyperactivity. There is a mid course, based on some basic priorities.

Break down the internal silos

The digitally active reader no longer thinks in platform or channel silos and neither should publishers in terms of organisational structures, budgets or skills….but do not discard the old simply because it is old.

Take everything apart & reassemble it

Most of the elements required for a multi-dimensional world already exist, but (1) they may not be working at their optimum and (2) they may be whirring away in their own silo and are not joined up to each other properly. Taking everything to pieces, figuring out how it works, servicing it and putting it back together again in a new configuration is often what is required…..but always taking care to value and nurture what is already working and to understand why it does.

Develop a deeper understanding of the end user

That understanding must be holistic and stretch across purchasing, fulfilment and consumption…..but do not necessarily give them everything they want (or think that they want) – you might not be able to afford it!

Segment and automate everything possible

True real-time, one-2-one marketing can only be achieved through sophisticated automation….but be careful to avoid complexity and over-engineering.

Rethink what “customer service” really means

Owning the end-to-end magazine experience, with in-service flexibility, is essential to survival and means a major rethink about the whole process…..and it will require major investment not cost cutting – look at Amazon!

Build partnerships

The scale of both the opportunities and challenges are too big for most publishers to make progress quickly enough on their own. Cooperation and partnering – with other publishers, but also with other complementary companies – are fundamental to the magazine future….but partners can also be competitors.

Watch Amazon and retail

Amazon is still the envelope-pushing standard-setter; and the leading bricks & mortar retailers are developing more cautious, but equally clever multi-channel strategies – they can be copied and perhaps also partnered with……but do not necessarily replicate them – sometimes they make mistakes and sometimes they are going to places where few people can afford to follow.

Source: The PPA, in association with Dovetail, commissioned Wessenden Marketing to look at how consumer attitudes to the magazine subscription are changing in a market where the Recurring Revenue Model is becoming much more widely used.

The project included:

  • A 2,000 respondent quantitative survey, undertaken by YouGov, among magazine buyers and readers.
  • 7 qualitative focus groups, both online and face-to-face, undertaken by Grimwood Associates and Wessenden Marketing.
  • A wide ranging review of existing research, including Dovetail’s 145,000 respondent Subscriber Service Survey.

Read more…

Part 1 – The Subscriptions Landscape

Part 2 – The Magazine Subscription in Context

Part 3 – Mapping the Recurring Revenue Model World

Part 4 – Mapping Magazine Purchasing

Part 5 – Enhancing the Magazine Subscription

Part 6 – The B2B Dimension

Part 7 – Reimaging the Magazine Subscription

Download the full report

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