We currently operate more than a dozen digital magazine publishing systems in partnership with some of the country’s leading content brands including Prime Publishing, Yankee Publishing, and Cabot Heritage Corporation. The tips and advice provided in this article are drawn from our direct experience around building and growing successful premium magazine and all-access digital magazine subscriptions in cooperation with our content partners. We also maintain a robust independent research operation that identifies and documents subscription marketing best practices being implemented at mentor organizations that include more than 100 of America’s top content producers.
Our most successful partners are running digital magazine publishing systems that introduce content to members through a free Portal, and then convert them into paid members of their premium magazine programs that include issue archives, curated collections, and video series.
This post outlines five main ways to build an audience to sell new multiplatform membership programs. You can use free offers, use efficient call-to-action placements, use time-tested brand-building techniques, email-building techniques, and other types of traffic drivers.
Consider the offer when selling digital magazine subscriptions
The offer is the most important thing to test. If you’re generating a significant amount of traffic but aren’t converting visitors into members, or members into premium members, it may be time for an offer test to see if what you’re offering is what people want.
1. Website Access: One major way to sell new digital magazine subscriptions is to build your email list (you’ll notice this theme throughout this post) and a great way to do that is by limiting access to certain articles. You can do this, much like a metered paywall, where you allow readers to view a portion of the article, but they need to enter their email address in order to see the rest of the content. You can also be bolder and use an actual metered paywall where a user can see so many articles per day, but then they have to pay. (More on metered paywalls here.)
2. Email Updates: As mentioned, email is one of the best ways to get in front of a potential subscriber. Since most people don’t join the first time they visit your digital publishing or membership website, and may never return, we think it’s best to ask them to join your email list so that you capture their email from the get-go and can follow up with them at a later time.
3. Free eBooks and Downloads: A remarkably effective tactic is to give away a free white paper or some other type of downloadable freemium. Did we ever tell you about the time that one of our partners built an email list of 20,000 email subscribers before the site we created for them even launched? With just one measly landing page? Yup, and they did it with a free knitting pattern. They got all that traffic to the page by sending people in via an ad in their own magazine.
4. Magazine Clubs: Are you only promoting your premium magazine membership, or have you created magazine clubs that bundle products to create a high-value offer? Magazine clubs can significantly increase conversion rates and also profits because they convince members to choose a higher-priced membership option. (More on magazine clubs here.)
5. Six Sigma Email Marketing:
In order to test offers and find out which work best, our content marketing team has developed a Six Sigma marketing program to systematically rotate through email offers. Six Sigma methods are used in direct marketing to test a control against a number of variables. You test each variable against the control in order to declare a winner and this continues until all the variables have been tested. This can take place over the course of a month, or over the course of a year depending on how many variables you have to test. In multiplatform membership and subscription marketing, we adapt this structure to continuously test both offers and creative. (More on Six Sigma here.)
Consider the call-to-action placement when selling digital magazine subscriptions
6. Previews: Our content marketing team creates email Previews for our partners to tease content within their premium membership websites. The Preview leads with useful, interesting content that teases full premium articles without giving away all of the content. The reader is happy to get the free insights, but are also inclined to click into the premium content where they may be faced with a metered paywall, or a call to action to become a member.
7. Free Offer Floaters: Named a floater because it appears to float onto a webpage, this was a method created in order to fight back against pop-up blockers. While it may look like a pop-up, a floater does not open in a separate window and therefore cannot be blocked or banned. The floater order form is a tactic for increasing landing page conversion rates and may be used at nearly every entry point on the Portal of a membership website, though it’s usually better to set a cookie to let the floater appear to the user only once upon entry to the site. For most of our sites, these floaters, similar to pop-ups, are bringing in 35-60% of email subscribers. You can also use them for paid products and magazine ads. Google asks publishers not to show Floaters to mobile visitors on the first page a user visits because it can hide content. We support and oblige by this rule. (More on Floaters here.)
8. Embedded Text Ads: After a few paragraphs of every free article, sometimes a few times per article if it’s long, we recommend adding a text link or a text ad in the middle of your content that offers a free eBook or download. The free download should be contextually relevant to what your post is about so that it’s a no-brainer to the person reading. Once someone downloads a free eBook, they will be able to log in and download more eBooks. While they’re logged in, they will no longer see text ads for free products but should begin to see text ads for your premium membership or subscription. (More on text ads here.)
9. Order Forms in Editorial (OFIE): This order form—either for a free download or a premium membership—appears within editorial content on a website, most often found on article pages and category indexes. This is because it’s easier for a publisher to get more members or sales by placing OFIEs on a page that is heavy with content and likely to be indexed by search engines. When collecting emails, OFIEs simply require a user to supply his or her name and address and click “submit.” For premium memberships, it will do the same, but bring them to a second order flow page. Like Text Ads, this transforms into an OFIE for a premium membership once a user is logged in. (More on OFIEs here.)
10. Order Forms in Navigation (OFIN) – Designed similarly to an OFIE, these signup forms appear in the navigation panels of a website usually to the right or left. The customer/end-user fills them out to sign up for the email newsletter, or to move to the next page in an order flow. Like Text Ads, this transforms into an OFIN for a premium membership once a user is logged in.
11. Freebie Widget: To build SEO juice and generate inbound internal links to your free download landing pages, try a freebie widget. All you need to do is create a list of your free white papers and include them in the right- or left-hand navigation of your website. By including them here, you’re ensuring they’re repeated on the persistent navigation theme of every page of your digital magazine publishing website.
12. Navigation Links: If you have free reports, go ahead and display a link to the “free reports” link in your main navigation. Everybody loves the word “FREE!” (And don’t forget to promote your premium digital magazine membership in these free reports!)
13. Online Buyers: If someone has just bought a product or magazine subscription from you, there’s no better time to convert him or her into an email subscriber than right when they’re comfortable enough to give you money. Add an automatically checked box to all of your order forms that ask them to subscribe to your email newsletters. This is especially important if you have more than one magazine or other membership products you can promote to your already paying subscribers.
14. Order Flow Abandons: When someone abandons an order, you might lose them forever. One of the best ways we’ve seen a publisher retain email addresses from this opportunity is when someone abandons the checkout page, they get a pop-up that offers them a free trial subscription.
15. Email Text Ads: Many of our publishing partners use daily email newsletter templates that place text ads in-between featured articles (more on our email stack template) and diversify these ads. Some are for paid products, and others are for free products. We generally include the products we want to sell most in the top text ad position, like a premium membership and the free downloads at the bottom.
16. Email Spotlights: We use email spotlights as a focused way to sell a premium membership, or give one away. When we create promotional spotlights for our partners, we feature a single product, like your premium membership, and nothing else. We find that promotions that feature multiple products give users too much choice and can depress response rates. Instead, allow the reader to focus on subscribing to your membership website, and the only options they have are whether they want print, digital, or a subscription to your magazine club where they get both.
Consider different types of traffic drivers when selling digital magazine subscriptions
17. Organic Search: We think organic search should be your top priority as a magazine business looking to drive memberships. Paid media and direct mail can be effective but expensive, and offer fewer long-term benefits compared to organic search. Spending the time to search-optimize your membership website and content has endless long-term benefits with little additional cost.
18. Facebook: Many of our digital magazine publishing partners have turned to Facebook as a way to drive magazine circulation. There’s not enough space here to list them all, so read this article about how mags are creating free digital ads on Facebook and also other ways publishers are using Facebook to generate revenue.
19. Twitter: At Mequoda, we suggest using our 12x12x12 method on Twitter to promote your content. It benefits the content in SEO in the long term and the short term. Our partners create Previews, which feature premium content and tease related articles. They can be optimized for SEO and are not behind a paywall, which makes it easy to achieve success promoting these in social media, like on Twitter.
20. Pinterest: One of our publishers gets 18-20% of their traffic from social, and Pinterest represents 66-68% of that. Their key to success is that they’re a craft publisher, and Pinterest is primarily a social network for sharing recipes and craft projects. It’s a natural home for this publisher, and if you publish articles about DIY projects, food, decorating, natural health, or crafts, it’s worth exploring how you can help build magazine circulation through this channel, too.
21. LinkedIn: A great example of a publisher who is both building an audience and magazine circulation on LinkedIn is Forbes. They have 8.9 million followers on LinkedIn and fosters their community with a “Dear Abby” type of column that fields questions from actual people.
22. Bloggers: Are there bloggers in your niche that you can partner with? Some work-from-home mommy bloggers get as much traffic as major parenting magazines. Partner with the rock stars in your niche and ask them to read and promote your free downloads or run contests to win premium memberships either for a stipend or a trade.
23. Contributing: Guest blogging on major sites is still a strong strategy for brand awareness. This could come in the form of a native ad you pay for on a large website, or it could be as simple as becoming a contributor to Forbes and driving interest through your bio.
24. Text Ad Networks: The major player here is Google Adwords. You can buy space at the top of Google’s search engine and promote your membership website. We suggest trying at least a dozen different versions of copy and iterating continuously until you find the top three ads that perform best. Not just for clicks, but for conversions.
25. Display Ad Networks: As a complement to paid text ads, you can also make banner ads. You can pay for placement on other websites, or use them on your own.
Consider brand building when selling digital magazine subscriptions
26. Instagram: The reason why we don’t consider Instagram a traffic-driver and call it a brand-builder instead, is because Instagram doesn’t have clickable links anywhere except in a user’s profile. If you want an image you upload to be clickable, you need to pay for it through their ad platform (which should be familiar, because it’s Facebook’s ad platform). Or, if you have more than 10,000 followers, you can include links in Snapchat-style video stories. If you’re interested in ads, how much are you willing to spend to gain a new magazine subscriber? Most publishers agree that they’ll spend the first-year cost of a subscription to gain a subscriber that they hope will renew for many years. So to gain a $20 subscriber, they will spend $20. Instagram is a very visual network and is a great place to share beautiful images from your magazine. Just be sure to back them up with stories, use hashtags, and pay attention to what your competitors are doing on Instagram. And let me repeat, use hashtags. You’ll be amazed at how much further a post will go.
27. TikTok: The newest kid on the block, TikTok has mostly replaced Snapchat in terms of gaining access to the millennial market. This popular video platform is mobile-only and doesn’t allow direct links back to your website, which is why we call it a brand-building opportunity.
28. YouTube: Again, it’s not that you can’t send traffic from YouTube, but that’s not how the ecosystem of the network works. People come to YouTube to stay on YouTube. So while we do recommend including hyperlinks back to your membership website in your descriptions and using these YouTube SEO hacks, consider this a place to tease your content, not a place to sell it.
29. Press Releases: You’re limited on interlinking in press releases, but you can use this method to announce new curated collections, new clubs, new pricing, and anything else you think will help increase magazine circulation or memberships. Got a free download? Send out a press release! Whenever we release a new one, we use a few select press release distribution sites to build inbound links and drive a small amount of traffic to our landing pages.
30. Podcasts: The Harvard Business Review uses their podcast, HBR Ideacast, which is free, to send people back to the HBR website for further reference. Often they are paired with an author who has recently published an article in the current issue. HBR uses their podcast as just another media arm and posts the podcasts with transcripts below them in article form (see an example here.) We think it’s smart to find a way to tie in the magazine, or a related author so that you use it as a generator for memberships. A popular podcast that’s only available to members could also increase memberships (just look what Orange is the New Black did for Netflix!)
31. Books: You might be surprised to know that although this is more common in the newsletter industry, it’s not uncommon for the public face of a magazine, like a David Zinczenko when he ran Men’s Health, to write a book and promote the magazine within it. Or, for a magazine to create a book series that’s branded with the name of the magazine. If you produce books, leverage that platform to promote your premium memberships, especially if a digital copy of the book is included.
32. Your Print Magazines: Are you promoting your premium membership within your magazine? Why not? That’s a great way to sell more premium memberships amongst already active subscribers!
33. Other Magazines: Are there other non-competitive magazines out there you can buy a half or full-page ad in? Consider that whoever is reading is the type of person who reads magazines, and that’s exactly the eyeballs you want to get in front of.
34. Packaged Goods: If you’ve ever bought a Real Simple or Martha Stewart product, you’ll find no lack of URLs leading you back to their magazine websites. How can you “optimize” your non-digital products the same way?
35. Syndication: Syndication is a popular way to drive traffic from a popular news source back to yours. Nobody’s claiming that it’s a major source of revenue to be a syndicated publication, but it certainly does a good job driving inbound links to your website, which, if optimized with OFIEs, OFINs, text ads and floaters, should have no trouble converting the newcomers into email subscribers.
36. Live Events: At the end of your presentations at live events, leave a slide that offers up additional resources, aka your free downloads on your membership website. Keep them relevant only to what you’re talking about, but offer them up as a nice take-away from the event and also a potential calling card.
37. Television: If you have a TV show, like This Old House has This Old House and Fixer Upper has The Magnolia Journal, don’t forget to mention it on the show. It could be as simple as an ad on the screen at the end of the show, or a mention by the host in between commercials.
Consider email list building when selling digital magazine subscriptions
38. Print Order Forms: Rounding this list back up on emails (because building your email list is crucial for increasing magazine circulation), consider adding a checkbox to your blow-in cards that gives you permission to add them to your email list. That way if they don’t follow through with a free trial, they are still in your database for follow-up efforts.
39. Customer Service: Whenever someone is on the phone with a customer, invite them personally to subscribe to your emails. What better way to keep the relationship going than asking them if they want to be put on the list of updates that you work so hard to put together every day?
40. Mega Circ-Builders: A relatively newer strategy our content marketing team uses with our partners, is an email template called Mega Circ Builders, which features their entire catalog of free downloads. The purpose of this email is to ask readers to share the email with a friend or colleague who could benefit from the included resources.
If selling more digital magazine subscriptions and memberships is what you’re looking for in 2021, consider the above examples and how they might be inspirational for your organization. To chat with a member of our executive team about how we can help you with those goals, schedule a time to talk.
Forty is a long list, but if you have more to add, we’d love to hear it in the comments below!