These results couldn't have come at a worse time. For one, the press has been rife with reports of publishers overestimating circulation claims-most notably of newsstand sales. Further, buyers are closely scrutinizing those very subscription sources-bulk, third party, airline loyalty programs-that publishers are increasingly emphasizing in attempts to meet their rate-base claims and offset the newsstand sales shortfall.
The shortfalls at newsstand have been attributed to everything from the Iraq war and abnormal weather patterns to weak retail sales and a consolidation among the wholesalers or individuals that actually get the magazine to the retail outlet. They're all very valid points. Maybe January-June 2003 was an abnormality. Nevertheless, further analysis of historical newsstand trends clearly shows that single copy sales have been on a downward spiral over the past decade. According to the Magazine Publishers Association, single-copy sales in 2002 were 59.9 million, down from 70.7 million in 1992, a whopping decrease of 25%.
So what's the big deal? From a media buyer's perspective, we believe single-copy sales (for most categories) are a leading indicator of a magazine's vitality-not to mention good business. Any publisher would rather get $3.99 an issue for their product versus 75¢ (as is common with many subscription offers). As marketers, we need to continue to push for a more balanced revenue split-in which circulation and advertising contribute equally to a magazine's profitability. Strong newsstand sales are one way of accomplishing this.
cures for sales blues
Challenging times call for bold, innovative action. So I offer up some suggestions for curing the newsstand blues.
In Europe, which is a predominantly single-copy magazine market, it's not uncommon to find product samples, CD-ROMs or recipe booklets polybagged with a magazine. Why not try the same in the U.S.? Offering a like-minded product (not the Sports Illustrated sneaker phone) that reflects the magazine's essence would build goodwill and help justify the higher cover price-and may even convert a newsstand-buyer into a subscriber.
Take a cue from book publishers. In the spirit of book signings, why not "magazine signings" that feature that month's cover subject? It may be hard (or expensive) to tempt Madonna or Kate Moss to the local grocery store. But there are plenty of other celebrities dying for publicity-not to mention the celebrity chefs, health experts and diet gurus.
Bring magazine pages to life. Devoting special coverage to high blood pressure? Why not bring in the magazine's medical/health editor to conduct free blood pressure screenings?
Be bold. Experiment with colors, headlines and cover subjects. After a while, consumers get sick of seeing the same faces month after month after month. The very best magazines offer a package that's not only relevant but different. This summer, for instance, Vanity Fair featured a bunch of teen celebrities on its cover-a radical departure from the usual fare of Tom, Demi and Nicole. And guess what? Newsstand sales jumped 25% for that issue.
control the checkout
Take control of checkout space (commonly referred to as "wire"). How many times do we visit the checkout line and find a dead chicken (yes, it's frozen) where TV Guide is supposed to be? Or five copies of U.S. News & World Report stacked haphazardly on top of People magazine. Publishers have too much at stake, and supermarket real estate is too valuable, to allow this to happen. (There would be hell to pay if Coke all of a sudden found its way to the shelf space allocated to and paid for by Pepsi.) Media companies should set up systems to monitor the in-store point-of-sale as effectively as other marketers do.
Build partnerships with a consumer package-goods/confections company. Magazines are losing valuable selling space to these companies. Why not produce an end cap featuring the magazine and a like-minded partner? It could be a novel way to grab the consumer's attention. And CPG companies do it all the time.
Create interest and excitement for upcoming issues. Invest in radio, or even out-of-home, to create top-of-mind awareness prior to the customer's visit to the grocery store, and sponsor in-store video screens to present offers while she's shopping. "Buy this month's Redbook and find out how you can have J Lo's body." Tell me that wouldn't get a response.
What's the alternative? Not very pretty. And singing the blues gets old after a while.
George Janson is senior partner, director of print at WPP Group's Mediaedge:cia, New York. He is a member of the American Association of Advertising Agencies' magazine committee and the Audit Bureau of Circulations' magazine buyers advisory committee.