Consumer Reports Sets Examples to Learn by

Building a Consistent Presence for Your Audience

Consistency. It’s not the first word you think of when trying to list a company’s reasons for success in the specialized information industry. But I’ve come across it a couple times of late, and it has made me think more about how consistency plays before an audience—your audience.

On Saturday, The New York Times ran an article heralding the 75th anniversary of (SIPA member) Consumer Reports—and the success it enjoys in both print and online. Bill Grueskin, dean of academic affairs at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University and formerly managing editor of, spoke about how the consistency of Consumer Reports’ payment policy has helped fuel their success. “I don’t recall them ever taking the subscription wall down and then rebuilding it the next year. So customers understand that they can’t ‘wait it out’ while the publisher vacillates between paid and free.”

That reminds me of something Robert Lerose, one of the most popular speakers at last week’s Marketing Conference, often reminds people of with renewals—to put your best offer in the first effort and emphasize that it won’t get better down the road. Again, it’s about the consistency of your strategy. Subscribers are smart. Because they know they’ll get many chances to renew, they might hold out until the end in the hope of receiving an even greater deal—if they see inconsistencies in your subscription wall. The last thing you want to do is reward them for procrastinating. Also, as Lerose points out, it costs you more money to mail each additional effort and a late “best offer” would prove unfair to early renewers. The goal is to condition subscribers to accept your first offer, knowing it will be the best one.

Randall Stross, the author of the Times article and a professor of business at San Jose State University, also noted that Consumer Reports’ consistent policy of not allowing advertisements has “helped protect their reputation for clear-sighted recommendations, untainted by commercial considerations. The policy keeps its name away from use as an endorsement. Merchants whose products earn a spot on the recommended list would like nothing better than to mention it, but Consumer Reports forbids them from doing so.”

Now Consumer Reports is in a pretty unique situation—according to the article, they have 3.3 million subscribers on their website and generate more revenue from digital subscriptions than from print. Their print subscribers have held steady since 2001 at around four million. “It isn’t much of a leap for people to pay $5.95 a month [or $26 a year] for access to a database that will help them make a wise purchase of a $500 dishwasher or a $25,000 car,” Grueskin said. So I’m not espousing the no-ads approach. In fact, a great deal of the talk at the Conference had to do with companies moving to a more ad-based model—or at least supplementing their subscription model. But to me, the important words there are “consistent policy.” Subscribers know that a Consumer Reports review has not been influenced in any way. You can trust them wholeheartedly.

Consumer Reports also wants subscribers to report on their experiences with the products. As Mark Everett Johnson said at last week’s copywriting workshop, the audience is the authority when it comes to what they will read and buy. So consistently engaging your audience with surveys, questions, information and chats can also be effective.

“Five years ago, the Web site was just the magazine put online, word for word,” said Kevin McKean, Consumer Reports’ editorial director. Today, testing is constant and so are the posting of results. As we’ve talked about before, there’s just no reason to hold information any more. Put it out there and get some more. And be consistent.

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