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How an online magazine shop works

The web is now a major source of magazine subscriptions, via publishers’ own sites and third party online magazine shops. One of the leading online shops, iSUBSCRiBE, recently commissioned Wessenden Marketing to undertake research into their customers to find out who they were, how they used the site, and their magazine purchasing habits. Here, iSUBSCRiBE managing director, Rachel Beresford, shares the findings.

By Rachel Beresford

No one needs to be told that the internet is now central to any business, least of all magazine subscription marketers. With over 30% of all new consumer magazine subscriptions across the industry coming from online sources, that is pretty obvious. Yet, what is not so obvious is how the different streams of online activity should work together in a balanced subscription strategy. With affiliate deals exploding in number; with subscription prices completely transparent online; and with publishers trying to grow their own branded websites: it all adds up to a heady and confusing mix. So, where does an online magazine shop like iSUBSCRiBE fit into the picture?

Third party magazine shops hold a much wider range of titles than either publishers’ own sites or, indeed, most retail outlets. We currently hold 1,200 titles. Online sales are growing. From our own publisher survey, we estimate that iSUBSCRiBE accounts for about 3% of consumer publishers’ total subscription sales or around 10% of online sales.

What the magazine shop subscriber looks like

From the research, we built the following profile of users of the iSUBSCRiBE site:

* Age. The median age of consumers who have bought from us over the last year is 42 years old. This is significantly younger than the industry average for magazine subscribers as tracked in the PPA’s "Loyalty Challenge" research. While the 25-34 year old age band is important to us (+17% above the industry average), we have a particular strength (+42%) in the time-pressured 35-44 year old band which is often difficult to penetrate through traditional subscription marketing.
* Gender. 65% of buyers are women, slightly above the industry average.
* Magazine buying. With an average of 3.6 magazines bought per month across all channels, iSUBSCRiBE customers are in line with the national average. They are heavy retail shoppers with 38% stating that they buy most of their magazines from shops (the figures are for registered users of the site and not just for customers who have bought a subscription from us). So, the website looks to be reaching outside the normal subscription pool into the broader magazine purchasing universe.

When you are buying your magazines, how do you usually buy them?
I buy all my magazines from shops28%
I buy most of my magazines from shops, but I also have one/some on subscription38%
I buy most of my magazines on subscription, but I also buy some from shops24%
I buy all of my magazines on subscription10%
Total registered site users100%
Source: iSUBSCRiBE Consumer Survey

* Internet usage. Predictably, they are internet-savvy, price-aware shoppers. 56% are buying more product online than a year ago (and not just magazine subscriptions) and 53% are using the internet more than they used to, to compare prices when shopping.

Customer segmentation

Beneath these overall averages, we found have three distinct categories of customer:

* Seekers who come looking for a specific magazine. They visit the site less frequently than the other segments, but buy when they do.
* Sifters have a type of magazine in mind, but have not yet decided which specific one they are going to buy. They spend longer, look at more magazines and visit more regularly than seekers.
* Browsers are just generally smootching around to see what is going on. They are polarised between one-off visitors and very heavy repeat users. They are also the most prolific magazine buyers and the most heavily retail biased. They use online shopping less and are less aware of prices than the other two segments.

All these segments are important to our business as they are all users of our service. All they are doing is using the service in a different way on different shopping occasions: sometimes they buy, sometimes they don’t.

Publishers’ own branded sites will see this same kind of segmentation, but in mirror-image proportions to us. Essentially, we catch more browsers than publishers do.

The customer journey

The consumer’s contact with the site breaks down in four distinct stages:

1. Starting Point. Which shopping mode are they in? Seeking, sifting or browsing? This will determine what happens from here on in.
2. Entry Point. Seekers and Sifters are more likely to come to the site via search engines and will often land on the specific magazine that they are interested in. Browsers are more likely to have come from another website first or to have responded to our enewsletter or offline promotions; they will tend to land on the home page. The site has to take account of these different entry points.
3. On-Site Activity. Seekers and Sifters are quite purposeful. They know what they want and they want to compare prices or transact quickly. Browsers are more interested in the added-value areas of the site – competitions, reviews, best seller lists – and will stay on the site for longer than Seekers and Sifters.
4. Exit. At the end of the visit, they buy or they do not buy. Across the whole of the internet, the conversion rates on transactional sites (the percentage of site visitors who end up buying on that visit) range from 0.5% to 5% typically. iSUBSCRiBE falls squarely within that range and it is our constant aim to edge up the conversion rate. There are various reasons why sales are not made – on iSUBSCRiBE, only 7% of non-sales are because the consumer could not find what they wanted. The main reason why visitors do not buy is that they do not want to buy. Here are a few statistics to emphasise the point:

* 83% of non-buyers are "just browsing" and have no real intention of buying on that occasion.
* Contrary to popular belief, these browsers are not completely price-driven. 64% are actually looking at range and what is on the market at the moment, while only 36% are actively comparing prices.
* This is reinforced by the fact that only 8% of non-buyers go on to complete a purchase elsewhere on that "shopping mission". Most browsers are simply not in purchase mode at all. They are reviewing their options or just keeping up to date with what is on the market and they intend to buy another time.
* Of those who do go on to buy elsewhere, almost 70% buy from the publisher direct, either through the publisher’s own website (38%), from a print edition (10%) or buying a single copy from a retailer (21%). Most of this traffic is one way: we push customers to publishers and rarely the other way round. Also, the website stimulates retail sales.

What all this underlines is that an online shop actually serves two quite distinct purposes. Apart from being a subscription shop, it is also a showcase of what is on the magazine market at any one time, acting almost like an advertising outlet. We want as many visitors to buy from us as possible, but we also accept that the showcase role is a valid one for both consumer and publisher.

The digital dimension

As part of this showcase role, we have introduced digital samplers, what we call iMAGS, both in our enewsletters and on our main site. One recent iMAG has increased the click-through rate around three fold compared to a flat cover image. Consumers clearly like to "try before they buy" and they are taking a good look at these digital samplers: of those users who clicked to open an iMAG, 95% of them flick through the full magazine right to the back page. There are other applications further down the line which will involve full digital editions rather than just cut-down samplers. For example, one frustration that our customers have registered with us is first issue delivery, which can seem very slow when the actual purchase can be made instantly online. So, full digital editions could help in this regard too.

What online magazine shops add to the subscription mix

In recent client research, we asked publishers why they use iSUBSCRiBE. The top reasons given were:

* To reach consumers that they could not reach themselves and so bring "new blood" into the subscription file.
* To deliver subscriptions at low financial risk.
* To deliver subs at a relatively low acquisition cost.

The general publisher view seems to be that we serve a very distinct purpose which may occasionally overlap with their own internet activity, but which is generally complementary and part of a balanced acquisition strategy.

Gift subscriptions versus self-pay

Crucially, the proportion of total subscriptions generated over a year which are gift subs averages out at just under 50%. The psychology and customer journey of the gift subs purchase is very different to that of the self-pay purchase, but more of that in the next issue...

Top sellers

The table below shows the current iSUBSCRiBE best sellers, ordered by the volume of subscriptions sold. This ranking, which is available on the public site, is updated daily and also drills down into individual magazine sectors. What is immediately clear is that the ranking does not follow the ABC figures or the newstrade retail rankings. The price of the specific subscription offer makes a material difference, as does whether the title is a strong gift subscription candidate. Yet it also demonstrates that when a magazine is offered online, away from all the vagaries of the newsstands, it can reach an unexpected potential.

Top 20 Best Sellers
2Good Housekeeping
3Elle Decoration
6Easy Living
7Conde Nast Traveller
9Men’s Health
10Mother & Baby
12Marie Claire
13House & Garden
14The English Garden
15Cosmopolitan (Travel Size)
16House Beautiful
19Runner’s World
Data as at end April 2008. Based on previous 30 days sales.