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8 Ways to Sell Digital Magazine Subscriptions

How to sell digital magazines online as the demand for many platforms rises


It’s incredible to look back just 5 or so years ago, when digital magazines were still something of a novelty. Today, it’s a given that print publishers have some version of a digital edition of their magazine, either through an app, a web edition, or through online access to paywalled daily news content.

There are also publishing entrepreneurs who have launched from scratch with print, digital and website simultaneously. Even established brands in the retail spaces are beginning to create their own magazines – multiplatform publishing run backward, so to speak.

However, even as they’ve become part of the norm, everyone is still trying to figure out subscription marketing and how to sell digital magazine apps and web magazines in this brave new world. Sometimes the newest and hottest ideas are just that – ideas. But today and always we’re focused on strategies that have actually been executed and demonstrated to work.

So here are 8 strategies we’ve compiled for selling digital magazine apps and web magazines, and as always, we welcome your ideas in the comments below.

Consumers are telling us loud and clear what they want—are you listening? How much would you pay for that information? Download a copy of our 2018 Mequoda Magazine Consumer Study for FREE instead, to find out how you can improve your digital magazine rapport with subscribers.

How to sell digital magazines, Best Practice 1

Track device users

If you’re making even the smallest effort at online audience development, you’re getting a sizable number of unique visitors to your website. You should always identify those visitors who arrive on a mobile device, and deliver a floater with a digital subscription offer they can’t refuse. This will help you sell digital magazines in the future because you’ll have the benefit of data to guide your decisions.

How to sell digital magazines, Best Practice 2

Keep the whole pie

At Mequoda, we always build a web magazine subscription website as a companion to our Gold Members’ magazines. A web magazine looks and functions much like an app, but it’s web-based and responsive on all devices, so no app is necessary. Besides the obvious benefits of audience development, subscription websites for web magazines are vital in selling digital magazines, because you can do so directly from your website.

If you also have an app, take the money yourself. Send them to Apple for fulfillment, and you don’t owe Apple a dime. Why? Because Apple’s primary interest is selling iPads, and as long as your subscription website isn’t a competitor retail site, the company is happy.

Bonus: You get to gather the customer’s data, which Apple doesn’t willingly share and is a sore point for many publishers.

01-digital-magazine-publishing-software-is-important-which-option-are-you-usingHow to sell digital magazines, Best Practice 3 

Leverage your back issues

There’s gold in them thar archives! One of the product bundles offered by Scientific American includes print, digital and the incredible archive that SA fully digitized – a couple hundred thousand articles, dating back to the magazine’s first issue in August 1845 and including contributors such as Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison.

And while few publishers have an archive as old and rich as SA’s, most legacy publishers have older content that their subscribers would love to access. For instance, Mequoda Gold Member Biblical Archaeology Society has digitized back issues of its current magazine, Biblical Archaeology Review, along with its retired titles, totaling over 7,000 articles spanning 40 years. Bundling that archive with the digital magazine (and leveraging decoy pricing) consistently delivers more sales and revenue than the digital magazine or the library alone.

BAS, by the way, combines Best Practice 2 with Best Practice 3 for a profitable two-fer!

How to sell digital magazines, Best Practice 4

Practice Six Sigma subscription marketing

Launch a high-frequency Six Sigma email spotlight program focused on selling more magazine subscriptions. For one client, we increased the number of magazine spotlights from the standard 2-3X per week to 5X per week and introduced editorially-driven creative to alternate between offer-driven creative. We saw a 70% increase in their TOPX (total orders per 10K email subscribers) from this program.  

The email campaigns for this particular client are planned and measured in 2-week cycles, where we identify the 5 best performing spotlights and the 5 worst performing spotlights in a given 2-week cycle. We keep the 5 winners and include them in the next 2-week email cycle, and we replace the 5 losers with brand new creative.

Meanwhile, we are also testing the offer. For example, for this particular client, we ran one offer for 4 weeks and we ran a different offer for the next 4 weeks. The reason we recommend doing offer testing sequentially is because of the multi-device nature in which our consumers engage with our content.

For example, they may be reading your emails on their phone, but prefer to visit your website on their computers to subscribe to your magazine. In this scenario, we’d want the consumer to be able to find the same offer on your website as they saw in email. This can present a challenge of course in measuring attribution, but we prefer this approach as it provides a cleaner read on the strength of a particular offer when it’s the only one being promoted across web, email and social. 

While this approach is a significant amount of work, requiring active coordination between editorial and marketing, on-the-spot analytics, great copywriting, and interaction with fulfillment to manage the offers, we have seen it work and strongly recommend all publishers try it. For more, read Six Sigma Subscription Marketing: 12 Offers That Boost Response Rates.

Consumers are telling us loud and clear what they want—are you listening? How much would you pay for that information? Download a copy of our 2018 Mequoda Magazine Consumer Study for FREE instead, to find out how you can improve your digital magazine rapport with subscribers.

How to sell digital magazines, Best Practice 5

Start with a soft offer

Selling your magazine without a soft offer, like a free trial or a free incentive, is tough. We’ve seen hard offers work with low introductory prices, but at full price, selling these alone can be a hard way to make a living.

Hard offers typically deliver only 25% of the response that can be generated using soft offers, such as free trials and free issues.  We experience a higher response rate when we test trial offers that include incentives such as free special issues or other digital content available only to premium subscribers.

With introductory pricing, we recommend using two different prices for new subscribers and renewals. Another option we often recommend is step-up pricing, a strategy that has three prices: One for new subscribers, a slightly higher one for renewals, and an even higher price for those who have already renewed once.

Start thinking about new ways you can begin subscription offer testing and how you’re going to leverage your editorial team and their expertise to craft intriguing copy specific to what the consumer will find in the current or archived issue of the magazine you’re promoting. Start coordinating with your fulfillment team to create different offer types to include free trials and monthly price points billed quarterly or bi-monthly. For more, read How to Use Six Sigma for Subscription Offer Testing.

How to sell digital magazines, Best Practice 6

Sample issue

With app editions, some publishers give away sample issues to entice customers to buy a subscription. A case study noted that for Popular Science, when they tested a specifically-designed sample issue against a free trial, the sample issue, showing off the best of the digital edition, easily bested the free trial offer. (Don’t hesitate to run your own similar test, though. Free trials are classic marketing techniques for a reason!) 

With web editions, you can easily emulate the “free issue” by offering one issue for free. However, we find that most of our publishers have the most success by letting users sample individual articles across all of their issues. Instead of letting users access a single issue, they are granted 3 free premium articles per month before being asked to subscribe. Through email promotions that promote premium articles, users can quickly use up those credits and realize on their own, that they would value a full subscription to the magazine.

How to sell digital magazines, Best Practice 7 

02-digital-magazine-publishing-software-is-important-which-option-are-you-usingLow-tech paper

There’s no excuse not to market to your existing print subscribers. Include a special offer for them when you have to send a renewal or billing notice— the cost is minimal.

How to sell digital magazines, Best Practice 8

Promote them

This may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s shocking to us how many publishers (and we’re talking big players) have elaborate websites hosting subscription pages to build print circulation … but their digital products go unmentioned. On the platform where they’re most likely to find their tech-savvy readers! Don’t hide your digital editions under a barrel!

What about you? Have any tips or tricks we should include in this list? Selling digital magazines is an area where we could all use new ideas, and one that’s changing daily. Leave a comment with your thoughts.

If you’d like to discuss how we can help you implement a more effective subscription marketing program using our proprietary Six Sigma marketing strategies at no financial risk to you, please schedule a call to chat with a member of our executive team.

This post was originally published in 2013 and is regularly updated.

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10 thoughts on “8 Ways to Sell Digital Magazine Subscriptions

  1. Marv says:

    I appreciate your reference to working with Apple/Newsstand.

    I need more clarity as to how to structure that deal…Would also want to publish to other platforms, Nook, Kindle, etc.
    I’ve build my Premiere issue, not released yet, in Apple’s iBook Author… (not optimum, but a familiar environment)

    Magazine is: YourEARTH—YourFUTURE. (Covering everything we need to consider to survive as a species)
    Do I still need to pay the $575 publishing fee and the $99 developer fee?

    Abundant thanks,
    Marv Lyons
    Founder, Publisher, etc. etc.

  2. Ed says:

    Thank you Marv. Given your size you’re unlikely to have to worry much about “structuring” a deal with Apple. The whole process is pretty well defined, from contrast terms to what you need to do. As we note in other posts on this site, Apple is the big player in digital newsstands, Kindle is a distant second, and Google Play an even more distant third. So, generally we recommend starting with Apple, adding Amazon Kindle, and then adding Google Play. There are others but those three are accounting for the vast majority of magazine app buyers.

  3. I write and edit a vintage magazine – digital of course, although prints can be ordered via our current only publisher, Joomag. Desperate to reach a wider audience and have looked at Apple and really want to make them the next big platform for us. However, a small company, it is a bit daunting, and none of us here are tech savvy. We are only a small magazine and wondered if Apple are basically going to laugh… help?

  4. Ed says:

    Michelle — The Apple newsstand will certainly enable you to reach a wider audience — they won’t laugh at you — but you had better count on doing the marketing because you’re going not going to have Apple driving a lot of traffic to your magazine.

  5. dorian says:

    Wait, how can you use Apple for fulfillment for a subscription website that’s not an app?

  6. dorian says:

    Let me add to that question: … and even if it’s not an app, it can be gated behind registration (e.g., if you feed to the Apple News feed)? How does that work?

  7. Ed says:

    Hi Dorian — Selling on a digital newsstand, whether Apple, Google or others, is selling an app, not a website. A gated website cannot be distributed through a newsstand and doesn’t need to be. Any device with a browser can get you to it.

  8. Emmanuel says:

    I still don’t understand. How do i make my company’s magazine available on Apple newsstand?

    1. Amanda says:

      Hi Emmanuel,

      Apple doesn’t have a newsstand anymore, so you’ll need to create an app and submit it for approval to Apple. Here is Apple’s page on how to do that:

      Amanda MacArthur
      Managing Editor

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