10 Tough Questions To Ask About Your Print Magazine

Sure, your publishing company has had its hands full with digital media the past few years. As soon as you got a handle on monetizing your website, along came smartphones and ad blockers to trash your business plans.

Meanwhile, your print magazine has kept chugging along, probably not as profitable as it used to be but still bringing in most of your revenue. If you’re like many publishers these days, that faithful old jalopy needs some attention—maybe a tune-up to meet the needs of a changed audience, maybe a complete overhaul of its business model. It’s time to ask some tough questions about your magazine that could result in that old engine running more profitably.

Be sure to read the companion piece to this article, “10 Questions To Ask Your Printer,” which raises some strategic questions that you can address in consultation with your printer, such as what kind of special advertising packages you should pitch to your advertisers and whether to change the paper you use. But first, here are 10 important questions about your magazine that you’ll need to answer mostly on your own.

1. Should you decrease (or maybe even increase) your circulation?
Try this revealing exercise: Calculate how much money you are losing on your most unprofitable circulation, including the cost of producing the copies and the value of the circulation to advertisers. If the numbers are ugly, you may be chasing too many eyeballs when what your advertisers really want is a premium vehicle for an engaged, niche audience. And if all of your circulation is profitable, maybe you should invest in growing your audience.

2. Are big decisions made rationally, or do the various departments just duke it out based on their own interests?
In case you hadn’t noticed, our industry has a well-deserved reputation for “siloization.” If someone points out that the magazine would be more profitable if it jettisoned those negative-remit subscriptions, Ad Sales is sure to object; it is in the nature of sales organizations to ask for whatever they can get without looking at the cost of what someone else will pay. But it’s in the nature of profitable publishers to say: “Wait a minute, why do we have to have 120,000 subscribers? We’re losing our shirts on 10,000 of those and could be a lot more profitable at 110,000, even if we have to cut ad rates.” Magazines need a strong leader who asks tough “what if” questions and makes decisions based on what’s best for the entire publication, not on which silo whines the loudest.

3. How will your magazine adapt to the Programmatic Revolution?
Programmatic advertising is teaching advertisers to expect seamless online buying of ads that are precisely targeted to the best prospects across broad networks of publishers. Do you think print will be exempt from those expectations? The pressure will mount for us to take the bureaucracy out of buying ads in magazines. And we’ll need to think more about offering subsets of our audience—such as “influentials,” C-level executives, or residents of select ZIP codes—to advertisers at high CPMs. And joining with other publishers, maybe even competitors, to create magazine-advertising networks that can offer targeted audiences at scale?

4. What will your current target market look like in five years?
Will it be larger or smaller? Will its needs or desires be different? Will it still value magazines, whether in print or digital form? You’re looking at an object lesson in how a magazine can change with its audience: Publishing Executive used to be known as Publishing & Production Executive. When the publisher, NAPCO Media, realized that we “production executives” were a vanishing breed, it transitioned the brand to serve the entire magazine industry.

5. Have you rethought your digital-edition strategy in the past couple of years?
The iPad Revolution that was supposed to transform our industry turned out to be a street scuffle, mostly irrelevant except for the investment in iPad editions that publishers made before Apple flipped us the Great Speckled Bird. So now what? Magazines look great on tablets, but consumers aren’t buying and advertisers are skeptical. What consumers are doing is reading on their phones, but can you really translate your magazine (and its ads!) to the small screen? Maybe your best bet is to focus on publishing a strong mobile-optimized website and an addictive printed magazine, not investing in apps or digital editions until a viable business model emerges.

6. Have you applied lessons from your digital ventures to your magazine?
If native advertising is working for your website are you talking to those advertisers about putting their messages into print as well? Your digital folks know which links and headlines get the most clicks and which are actually read when clicked. They know whether your audience likes listicles or slide shows. Sure, your magazine has a different audience and focus than your digital vehicles. But the data from your website is probably better than the magazine industry’s traditional BOPSAT (Bunch of People Sitting Around Talking) method of determining what readers want.

7. What are your incremental copy and page costs?
For example, if you’re thinking about adding eight pages for a special section, how much additional ad revenue would you need to make it profitable? Don’t multiply eight by what some financial report says is the average cost of a page; that will be much higher than what it will cost to produce an 80-page issue rather than 72 pages. Or if a client will only buy an ad page if you give it 100 copies of the issue, should you say yes? Hint: For most magazines, the cost of printing 100 more copies is a fraction of what advertisers pay for a page. And you might be able to count the copies toward your total circulation.

8. Do all of your ad sales reps know how to sell print?
Many reps in our industry were hired because of their digital chops but find themselves selling print as well. Who’s guiding them on issues like deadlines, positioning, specifications, and how to create an effective web-and-magazine package? Do they know about high-impact units like gatefolds, inserts, and belly bands? Or how to present the magazine’s circulation and audience?

9. Are you using your magazine to boost your digital efforts?
A printed copy can be an effective calling card or leave-behind, even for digital advertisers. Because people view print as costly and digital media as cheap, content that appears in print has a higher perceived value (even if someone is reading a digital version). Association with a print publication also boosts the credibility of digital content, so feature your magazine covers prominently as a branding vehicle with your digital products. To boost sign-ups for your electronic newsletters, try offering a free download of an excerpt or greatest hits collection of the magazine.

10. Are you using your magazine to sell your magazine?
Look at how Amazon sells books, especially Kindle editions: Up to 20% of a book is available as a free preview on Amazon. The e-commerce giant has learned that it’s not enough to have snazzy marketing copy. You have to show, not tell. Yet our industry persists in using subscription promotions that tell lots but show nothing. Is it so difficult to create a PDF of some sample editorial pages and allow people to download it from your website? Are we ashamed of our magazines, or is it just that we haven’t bothered to update our copy since before the days of “I can probably read it on the web for free.”

D. Eadward Tree is a pseudonymous magazine-industry insider who provides insights on publishing, postal issues and print media on his blog, Dead Tree Edition.