Magazines- User Experience vs. More Users

- - Magazines

Magazines will deploy an entire bag of tricks to attract readers who normally wouldn’t be interested in buying their product. Getting people to subscribe usually involves pretty harmless marketing stuff like gift offers (SI’s football phone is the most famous and successful example), direct mail (send in your toaster warranty and suddenly Martha Stewart is sending you subscription offers), those annoying blow in cards (3 is the magic number and yes they always work) and the ridiculously low subscription price (if you see 12 issues for $10 they’re trying to pad the rate base).

Readers can be bought with football phones but they can’t be forced to buy your magazine at the checkout… or can they. The newsstand is actually where the real nefarious stuff happens. That’s because newsstand is the only metric anyone has to judge a magazine’s popularity (advertising sales isn’t a good indicator because you have no idea how much they discount the ad and how many are house ads).

I was reading a post by Craig Stolz (Web 2.Oh…really)–recently in Time Magazine’s top 25 blogs (here)–about newspaper websites using SEO trickery (worthless links to common words) to make their stories rank higher on google at the cost of degrading the user experience (here). Reminds me of the similar magazine practice where the cover will have fake numbers (chosen for how they look on the cover) to trick people into thinking there’s 234 tips or 55 great trips inside and then big cover lines will sell you on stories that turn out to be 1/3 page or worse–a sentence within a story. And then there’s all those lifeless packages (conceived to give you a number on the cover or a coverline), topical yet vapid front of book pieces and shiny products with hollow write-ups, all served up at the cost of user experience in hopes of attracting more newsstand buyers.

Of course the worst example of this bait and switch technique is the cover image. A subject chosen for their ability to hit it big on the newsstand accompanied by a perfunctory story on the inside. This has nothing to do with your mission as a magazine.

That’s why I love Esquire for owning up to it on the cover this month with a picture of Jessica Simpson and the coverline “We shot this image to catch your eye so you will pick up this issue and immerse yourself in the most gripping story you will read this year.” Bravo.

(click to make big)

There Are 19 Comments On This Article.

  1. Even better than the Esquire cover was the Mad Magazine cover about 35-40 years ago. It was an illustration of a dog and the caption read, “Buy this magaine, or we’ll shoot this dog”. It was Mad Magazine in it’s prime and it’s best. Even for a dog lover like me, it still gives me a chuckle.

  2. Yes, National Lampoon – January 1973 – “If you don’t buy this magazine, we’ll kill this dog”.

    One of my favorite books on the Cover’s glorious past is “Front Page: Covers of the Twentieth Century”.

    Your post sounds right from a great quote from its foreward:

    “These days magazines tend to use their covers to advertise their interior. Headlines, sub-titles, advertisements and lists of contents jostle together where once the image reigned supreme. Of course there is always an image there still in the background. It’s hard to know sometimes who this strategy serves. Does it reassure the reader by telling them exactly what lies inside? Or do the editors of the magazine feel happier when all of its wares are on display?
    For a long time though, things were different. The image alone was trusted much more. As a result every magazine cover was a work in its own right, a subtle mixture of art and marketing, reflecting a spirit rather than a menu or a table of contents. And the art director was king.”

    When I was asked to shoot my first cover for a magazine a while back, it was very challenging to say the least, and exposed me to the inner working of the publication as I had never seen before. Everyone from Editor to Circulation to Publisher had a say as to what the image was to be.
    Big arguments ensued. Lots of shouting.
    They even went to the extent to have an illustrator draw the cover as it was to appear. To exact specifications. My job became more colour by numbers, than collaboration with the art director. A truly eye opening experience. The art director was no king, and it stifled the hell out of the publication as witnessed by the strife and inner fighting over the cover image.
    It all worked out in the end, as the art director is living happily ever after with a well suited publication.

    The end.

  3. Johann Gutenberg

    I was at that nice magazine store on 42nd Street and 7th Avenue yesterday. Walked in, and saw that entire section of fashion “art” magazines, produced and printed in who-knows-where. Gorgeous printing, heavy paper, very few ads, amazing photography. But then I thought of those posts that Kristiiiiiina posted here a month or so ago, and thought about all those stories about the free editorial, the fake free ads, and the backroom printer deals, and I thought of them in a whole new way.

    An entire store of “traditional business model” magazines, and then that one section of fashion magazines that play by a different set of rules.

    After seeing the gorgeous photography in the fashion magazines, I’d say we need more backroom printing deals, and more voodoo economics. I could have pitched camp, laid out a cot, and stayed in there for hours on end…

  4. I have noticed this bait and switch technique that they employ. I usually grab a mag on the newstand because of the cover highlights, find out what page it’s on, get to it, then throw the mag back on the stand and ask….”WHY?”

    One page?
    A half page?!
    A quarter page?!?

    Not cool.

  5. Covers are for news-stand sales; news-stand sales help your profit, you pay full price when you buy a magazine on the new-stand. However and maybe more importantly, news-stand sales are the cheapest way to get new subscribers.

    I know even magazines with small news-stand sales spend lots of time thinking planning writing designing and TESTING covers.

    Its not just about design and prettiness – its making your cover effective on the news-stand. Getting someone distracted and tired to notice and shell out $5 for you magazine as they are running home after eight hours of work.

    If making effective covers was easy an intern would be doing it, not several million dollars worth of corporate vice presidents, editors, designers, and photo editors for two weeks.

    Yep, Bait&Switch sucks and I wonder if it really is effective over the long term.

  6. Way way back when I was still involved in print magazines it went something like this: Subscriptions paid for printing, Newsstand numbers added to the circulation and advertising paid the bills.

    But you can work forever on a great cover (it’s red and it’s got the photo of the celeb appropriate to your audience… in my case you got a 30% jump in newsstand sales if you had Bruce Lee) and have it all go to nothing if you don’t have shelf position.

    Bottom shelf at the back isn’t going to move a lot of copies so you’d better be paying those extra fees for position.

    In 1999 I went to the net with and stayed there. Never made a dime since but I’m happier.

    @6 Johann I agree with you on the fashion mags, so much that can be done without 200 pages of advertising. And “the net is free” for publishers, check out I’ve been publishing that “because I can” for over three years now.

    Kim Taylor

  7. I think Esquire is always doing the things that will keep it a successful newsstand magazine: making itself a relevant MAGAZINE. I kinda cherish each and every issue and if they keep it up, they’ll never be replaced by a website or any other new medium.

    And what’s even better: they have a long, rich history of doing great things that they can now reflect upon and revisit. The latest cover, for instance. After 75 years of doing things right, they deserve it. And the story referenced on the cover is something I’m really jealous of.

    And don’t forget the GOAT/St. Sebastian cover!


  8. I’ve been browsing on-line more than three hours today, but I by no means found any interesting article like yours. It’s beautiful worth enough for me. Personally, if all web owners and bloggers made just right content material as you probably did, the net shall be a lot more useful than ever before. “No one has the right to destroy another person’s belief by demanding empirical evidence.” by Ann Landers.

  9. Bill McLean

    People often purchase magazines only for the big print and the pictures. Most people don’t read much of the articles. One time I was reading a computer magazine and in the middle of a paragraph was the promise of a gift from Microsoft. Readers had only to telephone an 800 number and give the code to whoever answered, then they would receive a complete copy of Microsoft Office 2000. This was the newest version at that time. When I made the call the man who answered seemed shocked. The program arrived three days later.