Who’s Winning the Subscription Website Publishing Wars?

Circulation, fancy digital magazines don’t reflect overall online publishing vigor

Subscription website publishing: It’s the core of every publishing business today. The website is where you drive traffic, post content to enthrall your audience and sell lots of products, including digital and print subscriptions.

The health of your subscription website publishing endeavors dictates everything else you do.

And today I’m going to show you some startling statistics. Most of the magazines you think are healthy really aren’t. And some magazines which receive almost no attention are quietly enjoying robust health, steady growth and, presumably, solid revenues.

Here at Mequoda, we have a number of criteria on which we judge magazines and publishers. For example, we’ve been reviewing digital magazines a lot lately, comparing them to our own set of Best Practices. We’ve also been reviewing subscription websites. Frankly, the nation’s magazines are all over the place in quality.

Then there’s circulation: The industry goes into a tizzy every six months when the Alliance for Audited Media releases its circulation figures, and circulation is certainly a powerful indicator of a magazine’s overall health.

Last week I took a look at the top 25 digital magazines by circulation, based on the numbers reported to AAM. There were a few surprises there, and of course I noted the usual industry hand-wringing over Game Informer’s stranglehold on that list, thanks to its status as a product bundled with a rewards program for a large video game retail chain.

Other industry observers, such as min, publish ad page statistics every week. That’s another interesting data point, but it’s constantly changing and tends to mean nothing in the big picture. One week, women’s magazines are making a killing; the next week, they’ve lost enormous swathes of advertisers and sports magazines are looking good. Advertising is an unreliable indicator of overall publication health.

Indeed, no single statistic can indicate overall publishing excellence. That’s why Mequoda takes into consideration circulation, both print and digital, and online publishing together. Our metric is called the Online Media Index, or OMI, and it measures total circulation against unique website visitors.

OMI Equation

The Mequoda Method, used successfully by dozens of magazines all over the world, relies on online publishing: Driving lots of visitors to a website, and converting them to email subscribers, to whom you then sell as many of your products as you can – making your magazine advertisers happy as circulation rises. And the higher the traffic volume, the more website advertising you can sell, too.


5.0 +


1.0 – 4.9


0.5 – .99


0.1 – 0.49


0 – .09

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So let’s get down to those online publishing surprises I promised. Of the top 100 magazines on AAM’s most recent list (June 2013), which ones have been gaining circulation since 2010, when digital magazines first took off?

And let’s not stop there. We went to compete.com to find monthly average unique visitors from July 2012 to June 2013, and calculated OMIs for the same magazines.

Is anyone doing everything right? No. Who’s coming closest? I’m giving the nod to Forbes.

  • One of only two magazines on the list making a Mequoda A for the OMI, with a score of 11.27, the highest of all 100 magazines
  • Circulation growth over the past three years of 1.07%
  • Unique visitor count steadily rising over the past year, from a low of 8,945,417 in July 2012 to 13,722,071 in September
  • With one distinct omission, Forbes’ digital edition is a blockbuster (we’d like to see it add vertical reflow). Forbes does not report its digital circulation to AAM, so we can’t tell you if it would be on the Top 25 list.

Critically, Forbes is doing all of this without a huge mega-publisher or major cable TV network behind it. The only other OMI grade of A, at 7.70, was Food Network Magazine, which also boasts 18.32% higher circulation today than it did three years ago. But its vast resources make it unfair to compare it to Forbes.

The fly in this ointment is advertising. According to min, Forbes has been losing print ad pages steadily over the past year. Then again, so are most publishers. At the same time, digital advertising is starting to take off, making subscription website publishing, including the OMI and website traffic where Forbes excels, much more important factors going forward than print ad pages.

We asked Mia Carbonell, SVP of Corporate Communications at Forbes Media, how the company has achieved all of the above. One sentence sums it all up: “No platform has ever been considered less important than others.”

Approaching publishing that way would certainly explain how Forbes Media has managed to succeed in subscription website publishing, digital publishing and print publishing over the recent dark years.

“It’s the strength of our content and the synergies of our platforms,” says Carbonell. “We’re focused on delivering high quality content that’s consistent with both our mission and values and relevant to our audiences. We distribute that content to readers and users across multiple platforms wherever they want to engage with that content, encouraging them to share with others.

“We actively encourage readers to share our content – rather than walling it off on Forbes.com or in our tablet edition, for example – confident that doing so will introduce our content to new readers in the platforms they choose.”

(If you’ll recall, one of Mary’s favorite features of Forbes digital is the unique sharing feature, and we now include content-sharing as one of our digital magazine best practices. Many magazines still fail to meet this standard.)

Carbonell elaborates: “Forbes.com, for example, was never intended to be Forbes magazine on the Web and has never had as its primary goal the marketing of print subscriptions. We’re constantly working to innovate in those platforms to offer the best experience for our readers and users.” That sounds a lot like Don’s often-repeated mantra: “Your website is not a magazine, and your magazine is not a website.”

Given its recent success, the effort to spread its attention and resources around all of its platforms would seem to have served Forbes Media well. “We don’t focus on encouraging the same audiences to read in multiple platforms. We work to attract and amass new readers who simply prefer a particular experience, whether it’s our web site, magazine or our tablet app, to name a few.”

Congratulations to Forbes Media, and we look forward to seeing what else it cooks up over the coming months and years.

Second place: Grade of B

Mequoda’s grading scale gives a large range to the B grade: 1.0- to 4.9. Twenty of the top 100 circulation magazines managed a B, of which eight showed a circulation increase since tablets made their debut in 2010.

Five of these eight are the products of media publishers; the other three are outgrowths of other kinds of large companies – the ESPN television network, the Scholastic book company and Weight Watchers – which again make them not comparable to the other magazines. The five media products are:

Magazine Growth OMI
Bloomberg Business Week 7.00% 3.09
Wired 6.77% 1.74
Martha Stewart Living 1.48% 1.59
US Weekly 0.35% 2.27
Money 0.12% 2.45

Of all the 41 magazines that gained circulation, the average growth was 3.44%, with a high of 44.26% for Game Informer – almost completely attributable to its inclusion in the rewards program in 2010, according to the publisher.

For these 41 magazines, the highest OMI, as I said, was Forbes at 11.27. The average grade was 1.22, a low B. As for the lowest OMI, I’ll get to that in a minute.

Time Inc.’s All You, a magazine dedicated to free samples, coupons and other money-saving items, led the list for titles from actual magazine publishers with 29.58% growth, probably not a huge surprise during a recession. Unfortunately, All You could only muster a C for its OMI at 0.51 – at the bottom of the C scale, as it happens.

Note: Though they scored well for circulation growth, we’ve segregated out the data for Game Informer and American Rifleman (published by the National Rifle Association for its members), because they’re only available as part of an organizational membership, and their numbers would substantially distort the totals and averages.

Also, there are several publications in the circulation top 100 for which a full year of unique visitor data is not available, so they’re not included in our study.

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The also-rans

Fifty-nine out of the top 100 magazines have lost circulation over the past three years. The average loss among these magazines was 4.12%; the worst was Country from Reader’s Digest at -47.08%. It also got an F for its 0.07 OMI.

Other than the 12 B grades lurking here in the circulation losers, the category is awash in C, D and F grades. The average was .64, a low C.

While the correlation between circulation growth and OMI is not perfect, we believe there’s a strong relationship. Imagine that: Driving traffic to your website makes for healthier circulation. No wonder Mequoda is such a firm believer in the power of subscription website publishing!

Oh, and who has the lowest OMI of all 100 magazines? Surprise: It’s Game Informer, at 0.05. So for all the industry angst over Game Informer leading the pack with digital magazine circulation, many other magazines are far healthier overall, with a better foundation for continued success as the industry struggles to drag itself out of the recessionary mire.

The losers you didn’t see coming

On almost any given day, you can read industry news about the biggest players: Time Inc., Hearst, Meredith, Condé Nast, Bonnier. And all of these publishers are represented in the group of magazines that have gained circulation over the past three years.

But they’re also well represented in the circulation loss group, and have not just Bs, but a host of Cs and Ds for OMI grades. Biggest disappointments:

Magazine / Publisher Growth OMI
Allure / Condé Nast +7.08% 0.33 (D)
Family Circle / Meredith +4.11% 0.14 (F)
Country Living / Hearst +3.43% 0.38 (D)
Popular Science / Bonnier -0.23% 0.28 (D)
Southern Living / Time -0.61% 0.37 (D)
Glamour / Condé Nast -0.85% 0.31 (D)
Marie Claire / Hearst -3.50% 0.44 (D)

A couple of weeks ago, Ad Age published its 2013 “Magazine A-List,” intended to “honor glossy titles that are not only doing great in print, but smartly building their brands beyond the page.”

The article ads, “What the 10 magazines on this year’s list have in common is that, in many ways, they’re as much digital companies as they are ‘traditional’ media companies.”

They may be what Ad Age considers “digital” media companies, but they’re not doing much with their online publishing efforts. Here are their picks that are also in the circulation top 100, along with the measures of their circulation, OMI and digital presence.

Magazine Circulation OMI Digital Magazine Top 25 Digital Circ
Women’s Health -0.89% 0.52 (C) Y N
Elle +2.88% 0.54 (C) Y N
InStyle +0.87% 0.29 (D) Y N
Bon Appétit -5.4% 0.26 (D) Y N

The Ad Age article credits things like increased print ads, design awards and new ventures outside of traditional media for their selections. All those things are good … but can they sustain the lifeblood of a magazine? Will Elle’s “thickest September issue yet” help it sell more products and subscriptions? Will the “Next Fitness Star” talent search on The Today Show do the same for Women’s Health? Or are these things transient successes while the magazines themselves founder?

More importantly, these kinds of endeavors are beyond the reach of the average niche publication that Mequoda generally serves, while a strong Online Media Index is doable no matter how limited your resources. That’s why we’re so focused on it, and why we’re judging magazines by that telltale number.

Digital magazines – are they a factor?

Since we used the year of the tablet, 2010, as our starting point for circulation data, I want to consider the role of mobile magazines in the performance of the top 100. Taking a quick look at that top 25 digital circulation list that I wrote about last week, I see that 20 of these publications are in the top 100 for total circulation.

Game Informer, of course, is #1, while #2, Reader’s Digest, though indeed boasting a robust app (I haven’t formally reviewed it yet), is buried deep in the circulation loss category and has only a D grade for its OMI.

Otherwise, in general, the circulation growers include 11 of the digital circulation leaders. The other nine digital leaders are all overall circulation losers. And the remaining five of the digital top 25 aren’t even on the top 100 total circulation list.

Is there a correlation between having a digital app and being a healthy publication? It’s hard to say, because so many publications having a digital magazine have lost circulation since 2010 – and of those, nine have digital magazines in the top 25 circulation list!

At the same time, in looking over the As and Bs, only two of these don’t have a digital magazine. And those two, Scholastic Parent & Child and Kraft’s Food and Family, get their strong OMIs by virtue of small circulation versus heavily-trafficked websites largely unrelated to the magazines.

See the full data chart of the top 100 magazines.

Are you surprised to see this data? What do you think of the relationships between OMI, digital magazines and circulation? Let’s talk in the comments.


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