Mobile navigation


Selling print subscriptions off the web

The web represents an alternative route to market – be it via digital editions or other forms of online content provision. However the print / online relationship is symbiotic with the primary source of subscription orders for many print titles now being the web. Georgina Rushworth looks at how RBI uses the New Scientist web site to promote subscriptions to the New Scientist magazine.

By Georgina Rushworth

You don’t need your own website to sell subscriptions to a print product online, but it helps. In an ideal world, if your print magazine brand has its own website, you can control the content, the traffic and the subscription promotion messages. In a realistic world you are more likely to have to vie for prominent positions on the site along with your colleagues who are also looking to hit revenue targets through third party advertising, Google AdWords, sister publications and directory sales. Subscription marketers have to justify their online space by proving that the lifetime value of print subscriptions can, in some cases, outweigh the one-off chunk of cash coming in from a high value directory.


Selling subscriptions to print products online is growing at a rapid pace and, in some cases, it is sustaining the circulations of some subscription titles and, in even better cases, is helping to grow subscription volumes against the prevailing market trend.

Flight International, a B2B publication for the aerospace industry, has seen orders coming from its website almost double in the last four years, whilst the number of orders coming from inserts in its newstrade copies has halved - and the good news is that the growth seen online is twice the size of the loss seen in depressed orders from cards.


Online content is a prerequisite and compelling content ensures a regular stream of traffic. Traffic can be purchased on search engines via pay per click options such as Google AdWords, Overture and Miva (SEM – Search Engine Marketing) and by paying for advertising on third party sites (banners, buttons, mid page units etc). Traffic can also be acquired, at no cost, by search engine optimisation through keyword submission and using metatags to enhance search engines’ natural listings, and also via own brand email newsletters, pick up by blogs and third party sites, as well as by ensuring that the subscription page URL is included on printed materials, in the magazine and on subscription marketing pieces.

The percentage of unique users of that convert to paid magazine subscribers has remained constant over the last six years, whilst traffic has grown from just over 170,000 unique users a month in July ’97 to just over 1,600,440 in November ’04 (source: ABCe). This growth in unique users translates into a 750% growth in online subscription orders to New Scientist magazine over the same period.

Emailed offers to targeted inhouse lists can also be successful in pointing traffic to order online. We have tested html v text, but find neither one outpulls the other. Subject line tests are also critical; interestingly the use of spam unfriendly phrases such as ‘Save 40%’, whilst being blocked by a number of spam filters, can get through the barrier and result in a higher click through and order percentage response.

We have been using email as a part of our print magazine renewal series across a number of markets for a while now, and recently reviewed our creative and effort timing plan. Initial results show a small number of subscribers clicking through from the email to the online renewal page to renew their subscription, but we have noticed an uplift in the response to the previous hard copy renewal effort once an email reminder has been broadcast.

On the flip side the year on year growth in renewal orders taken online for New Scientist has risen 245%, but not by subscribers clicking through from a renewal email (as the activity has only just begun on this title) but simply by existing subscribers choosing to renew online and coming to the site via other means, which does of course suggest a healthy response to future email renewal efforts. This increase in the frequency of subscriber visits to the site has two clear benefits: firstly it creates a stronger relationship between the subscriber and print / online brand which in turn will contribute to an increase in site unique users and page impressions (a clear message to the website manager / webmaster that subscription promotion online is a clever use of advertising inventory) and secondly that the cost of renewing the subscriber is dramatically reduced.


We have found there is a correlation between the number of subscribe links on any one page to the volume of orders generated. The most important space on any site is the navigation bar, ensuring a strong visible presence on every page of the website. The next most important position is on the page the majority of visitors first link to, which is not necessarily the homepage – for example, links from blogs such as the Drudge Report will take the user directly to the article of interest which is often buried deep in the site.

In our experience, we have found a front cover scan and simple subscribe text link is the most effective promotional image. In the past, entry pop up boxes have delivered a huge volume of orders, but over the last 12 months the percentage of total orders achieved by entry pop ups has decreased from 21.8% in 2004 to 13.3% in 2005, a decline we can attribute to the rise of pop up blockers.

Between them, these key promotions account for almost half the volume of orders generated online at for New Scientist.

New Scientist
New web orders by source - 2005% of total
Navigation bar20.1%
Front cover scan14.9%
Entry pop up13.3%

Banners and skys, we have found, do not pull the responses you might imagine – so leave these spaces to the third party advertisers and concentrate on less obvious positions for your subscription promotion, such as a simple text link at the end of each story, if it originated from the magazine, such as ‘read more like this when you subscribe to x magazine’, with a hotlink through to the online order page.

Key to encouraging the subscriber to submit their order online is the design and clarity of the online order form. Additional functionality, not possible on printed forms, such as PAF address look up and real time credit card validation can enhance the user experience and help ensure address accuracy and minimise bad debt.


In our experience discounts beat free issue offers, however it is prudent to promote both on the site. Use discounts / savings / premiums for your proactive promotion (eg entry pop up) but maximize your overall subscriptions yield by promoting free issues on the reactive promotions, such as the navigation bar. The theory here is that visitors to the site seeking a subscription will click on the navigation bar first and, as they are keen to order, are less likely to require an incentive / value-added offer.

User segmentation

As in direct mail, segmentation of the user base is arguably the next leap forward for online marketers. Publishers such as the New York Times are already delivering targeted offers to different user groups:- users browsing who wish to view a story are requested to register before they can access the full text, however users searching for the same subject via Google can select the same story and are rewarded with instant access.

Segmentation of a user base can also be applied to subscription promotion, where search engine referrals are delivered preferential subscription offers on the basis that they do not have as strong a relationship with your brand as direct users of the site.

Another test to consider is to set the offer price according to the number of page impressions made. If a user has spent some time on the site you could deliver them a bigger discounted offer on the basis that previous offers delivered have not provided sufficient incentive to get them to subscribe.

At its most basic level, it is New Scientist’s strategy to segment its users geographically and deliver bespoke offers to the US market. ‘$1 an issue’ for the North American consumer, against ‘Save 40%’ to the rest of the world.

Offer innovation

If your website provides compelling news, research or data, you can use these assets to incentivise print subscriptions. places a ‘barrier’ between the preview of an article and the full text. The barrier prevents the user from reading further but promises instant access to the story and six issues of the magazine for a nominal charge of $1.99. The subscription is renewed with a continuous credit card authority at the end of the six week period and at six month terms thereafter. (When you provide your credit card details you are agreeing to have your card charged in this way.)

Meeting subscribers’ needs

Once in the mood to buy, magazine subscribers are more likely to choose additional subscriptions to send as gifts. This is when it is beneficial to promote on third party agent sites (eg., or, if you are a multi-title publisher, to create your own multi-title order platform such as the IPC gift subscription site

Test, analyse, refine

Essential for selling more subscriptions online is to understand user behaviour. Web analytics packages, such as Hitbox, can provide realtime user stats. Data identifying the most frequently clicked link on any one page, or the point in the order process where the majority of ‘almost-subscribers’ abandoned the order form is extremely valuable.

This insight into user behaviour can be translated into a web design / production brief, with the objective of moving the user from the first point of site entry, through the online order process, to the submit button.

There are no real secrets to selling subscriptions online; in fact I believe it is a great deal easier; test results are instantaneous, we can watch every move our competitors make, acquisition costs are kept low and our audience is potentially infinite. The key, as with all direct marketing routes to market, is to deliver the right offer at the right time to the right person.