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mac life march 07

yankee jf 07

Cutting edge covers


When you stand at the newsstand and scan the titles, what do you look for?  What catches your eye? 

Likely in the jumble of titles found there, your eye is drawn to the ones whose cover provides contrast, whose cover lines jump out with their visibility and catch your interest with their content, and whose image is clear, immediate, and arresting.

These have always been the fundamentals of a good newsstand cover, and the leading newsstand publishers today still adhere to them, as they did last year, and five years ago, and ten years ago.  Yet as publishers, art directors and editors pore over their covers from issue to issue, and analyze through sales what went right and what went wrong, the art and science of cover creation continues to evolve.


What Difference Does a Cover Make?

The difference that your magazine’s cover can make is evident by the fluctuation in sales from issue to issue.  Begin by indexing for seasonality and smoothing out the sales dips and spikes created thereby to put every issue on an equal playing field.  Check your distribution history to verify that no special promotions, premiums, shipping delays, UPC problems, or acts of God artificially inflated or depressed your sales.  What is left is the work of your package—primarily your cover.

Seventy-five percent of newsstand readers say that the cover was the main reason they picked up, and eventually purchased, the magazine.  And a newsstand reader typically will buy three to four issues per year of a monthly publication.  If your cover can push that three time reader to a four time reader, what effect might that have on your sales?

In running split tests publishers have found that the right cover can make a difference of five percent, seven percent—or as much as twenty to twenty five percent of sale.  The attached graph shows the month-by-month fluctuations of a monthly consumer publication with no change in distribution, promotions, or packaging.  The entire cause for the fluctuations of sale is the newsstand cover, and the public’s response to it.

What does this mean to your bottom line?  If a cover can move the sales needle what does each additional sales percentage mean in net revenue?  This is a number that every publisher, every editor, every art director should know.  It is a number that they should bring into their cover concept meetings, and it should dominate their awareness in choosing their cover images and cover lines.


Find What Works for You

While splitting your newsstand run remains the most reliable way to test your cover treatment, there are increasingly effective options for online cover testing as well.  Because on line testing can be done in advance of the issue it is a good way of discovering which of two overall completely different cover treatments might work best for an upcoming issue. 

When split testing on the newsstand, however, it is important to limit your test to only one element.  Will a person or product work best for your image?  One image or several?  An indoor or outdoor shot?  Whatever you’re testing, be sure to limit the cover variance to that one element.  Even when testing an overall direction or concept, keep colors, point size, logo, and every other element consistent.

As you test, you are likely to discover or confirm some general principles that seem to hold true year after year, publication after publication:  a full bleed still does work better than a frame.  A photograph tends to work better than an illustration.  Word like “new”, “hot”, “free”, or “bonus”; numbers, how tos, tips, guides, and the use or implication of the word “you” still lift sales—for almost everyone. 

The image on your cover—that one, clear, focused, central image that commands attention and sells its story at a glance—should whenever possible be a picture of the “product” covered by your magazine.  What is the product?  If you publish a computer magazine, it’s a computer.  If you publish a child magazine, it’s the child—not the parents, not the child with the parents, but the child itself.  If you publish a travel magazine it’s the destination; for a yoga magazine it’s the posture.  Despite the received wisdom from the time of general interest precedence that a person, eye contact, could sell a magazine, in the age of special interest publications we find this to not always be the case.  A random person—one who is not a model, not a celebrity, and not the focus of the feature article—does not sell a magazine.  A fit person can sell your magazine—if you publish a fitness magazine.  A beautiful person can sell your magazine—if you sell a beauty magazine.  But there is no need to put a person into a shot just to warm it up and make it appear friendlier.  Generally, it doesn’t work.


What is Working Now

Some recent successful re-designs can give an idea of what publishers today are finding works.  Most logo re-designs still go for a bigger, bolder look.  An example is Guitar Player magazine, whose new logo dominates the top fifth of the cover.  Gone is the signature guitar that once dominated this important space.  “The old logo was dated,” explains Denise Robbins, Group Circulation Director.  “It appealed to a certain core audience of enthusiasts, but alienated other consumers.   The new logo is a sleeker and has a more modern sensibility.  It helps dispel the myth that we're a magazine that appeals only to classic rock guitarists and attracts a broader consumer base. Because the new logo is placed slightly higher on the cover, the magazine is more easily identified in a fanned newsstand display, as well.”

In relaunching MacAddict magazine as Mac|Life, Future US was especially concerned with maintaining continuity for the newsstand reader.  In order to accomplish this, they came up with the creative idea of creating a sticker of the MacAddict logo to place over the logo of the first issue of the relaunch on all the newsstand copies.  The sticker could be peeled off to reveal the new logo underneath.  “MacAddict was great for its time: a magazine for that group of people just passionate about their Mac,” comments Holly Klingel, Vice President of Circulation for Future.  “The new Mac|Life acknowledges that there are more users of Apple technology than ever before, and the number of people using the technology is growing faster than ever before.  They don’t have to be defensive about it—it’s a lifestyle.  You see the clean, contemporary look of the cover, reflecting the beautiful styling of the Apple products.  It’s got that pleasing look that draws you in.”

In January 2007 Yankee magazine changed its format from digest size to B size.  “Yankee is all about New England, and all that the idea of New England evokes,” says Sherin Wight, its Vice President and Single Copy Sales Director.  “That includes images, powerful images that connect back to its sense of place.”  The re-design allows more room for photos, both on the cover and in the pages.  “Images have to be read at a glance,” Sherin adds.  “No one has time anymore to stand and figure out what the image is about, what it means.  Years ago you could have covers that included visual puns or “in” jokes.  Today there’s too much going on.  We make things simple, not complicated.”  Part of that simplicity for Yankee is short, clear cover lines stacked over the logo.  “We don’t have room for more than three or four words for each feature, so we have to make them count.”  The logo, too has been re-designed.  “It combines looking back to an older New England, found in the looping type face and serif font, and the looking forward to the New England of today and tomorrow in the bold, clear, look of the logo.”

A cleaner look, a clearer image, a message perceived at a glance.  A move away from images as part of the logo, away from an over-decorated look.  Even when looking backward, the ornate look of yesterday is modified to the bigger, simpler lines that typify the look of today.  While holographic art, special covers, new type fonts, and creative angling do not lose their power to appeal and draw in readers, what is really working on the newsstand is the sharp, clean approach needed to maintain the cutting edge. 


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