How The Magazine Industry Can Save Itself (Hint: Not iPad Apps)

The top priority for most magazine executives today seems to be building iPad apps. Yet the user experience of a print magazine is unmatchable: they’re cheap, never out of battery charge, not a target for thieves and they have twice the screen space when spread as an iPad screen. Magazines might have a place in our connected future, but they risk losing a generation if they don’t modernize their subscription systems instead of trying to compete with Angry Birds.

Consider my recent experience renewing my favorite magazine, The Week: My subscription was given to me as a gift. After a couple weeks of not receiving issues, I figured something was up. After looking into it, I found my subscription had expired. I’d have known this from their mailings, had I not gotten into the habit of throwing out all letters from magazines due to their high rate of silly offers. I went to, clicked “Subscribe now”, which goes to a page that doesn’t match their design hosted by that asks me to pay $49.50 for the next year. I checked “Check here if you want us to bill you later” and they sent me an invoice, in the mail (you read that right, no “e”). Who does that anymore? So I had to type the code from the mailed invoice into a web form so I could pay by credit card.

In Japan you can buy a coke from a vending machine with your phone. The magazine industry’s still mailing invoices?

The Week isn’t unique in this regard. The vast majority of magazine subscription systems are woefully out of date. I recently bought a Groupon (NSDQ: GRPN) for a year’s print and digital subscription to The Economist. How long till I get the first issue? “Allow 5 weeks for delivery of 1st issue,” according to their fine print. When I bought a Groupon to Dos Toros I used it that very night for a delicious burrito. Amazon (NSDQ: AMZN) Prime will ship me a microwave in two days at no additional cost. Even the hottest new Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) products get only backed logged for a week or two. Why do those otherwise clever Brits at The Economist take 5 week to fill a new order for a product they’ve been making for over 150 years?

It’s time for the magazine industry to take a page from companies like Netflix (NSDQ: NFLX) and Spotify: charge by the month, require a credit card, auto-renew payments and let people cancel anytime.

Subscriptions in this modern style are fueling impressive revenue growth of companies serving a wide variety of consumers and corporate clients, including Dropbox, GigaOM, Birchbox, 37signals, JibJab and MailChimp. (My company recently adopted this model by introducing a professional version of Muck Rack.) Here’s why magazines should do it too:

Monthly fees appear lower than yearly fees. Even cable companies have figured this out. Time Warner Cable (NYSE: TWC) is offering me cable and internet for about $150/mo. Would you reconsider your cable package if they asked for $1,800 a year? You can buy a MacBook Air and iPad for that! Subscribing to The Week at $4.13/month, or even $5/month (which would more than cover the additional credit card fees), sounds pretty good.

More people will subscribe. If people know they can cancel anytime, they’ll be more likely to subscribe. Even better, offer a 30 day money back guarantee like we do.

You never have to ask people to renew: With monthly reoccurring billing, the default behavior is renewing. If you don’t yet appreciate the power of defaults just read AOL’s income statement.

Selling additional products is easy. If I want an additional DVD from Netflix, I don’t have to type in my credit card again. Magazines could let customers buy their books, tickets to their event and other new product with one click.

It will make you better. Once you’ve moved to a cancel anytime model, there’s a huge incentive to invest in your product and provide great customer service to lower your attrition rate. All they money and effort that you spent spamming your subscribers with begging letters and weird gift offers could go into figuring out what the future of magazines truly are.

Magazines need to pay attention to the frontier of technology. But it’s hard to successfully pioneer tomorrow’s media technology if today’s experience is arcane. Creating a better subscription system now is an investment that will lead to a great relationship with customers that can transcend paper and digital screens.

Gregory Galant is the CEO of Sawhorse Media, a network that includes the Shorty Awards, Muck Rack and Listorious. He blogs at Motivatr and can be followed on Twitter @Gregory.

This article originally appeared in Sawhorse Media.