Cheap Partnership Subs Efforts on the Rise

As magazine circulations come under greater scrutiny from buyers demanding more accountability from publishers, one area that hasn’t received much attention is partnership deductible subscriptions. Perhaps it’s because they’re not well understood, or because they fall under the seemingly legitimate paid circ. But despite their low profile, partnership programs—whereby a sub is bundled with the purchase of other products or services—are on the rise, which is not necessarily a welcomed trend.

In June 2006, 181 titles participated in these programs, generating 3.3 million subs, or 1 percent of total paid and verified circulation. By December 2008, 210 titles used partnership programs, representing 9.2 million subs, or 2.5 percent of total circ, per the Audit Bureau of Circulations. Some titles get one-fourth or more of their subs this way.

The ABC has tightened up its partnership rules, eliminating the so-called nondeductible type that forced the consumer to buy the magazine with the product or service. But two recent ABC decisions paved the way for this category to grow. One expanded the allowed partners to charitable groups. Another let publishers sell up to three titles with a product or service, as long as each additional magazine comes with an additional purchase.

That hasn’t stopped dubious offers from popping up on the Web. At Vistaprint, which sells marketing and promo products to small businesses, shoppers are offered Parenting Early Years and Spin with purchases. Me Too Software, a seller of CD and DVD burning programs, includes a subscription for Maxim (and, oddly, its defunct sibling, Blender) with a purchase.

Maxim publisher Ben Madden said Me Too once generated a tiny number of subs but is no longer an authorized partner, with most of Maxim’s partnership subs today coming from companies like online dating service eHarmony and gaming sites. Parenting and Spin reps said the Vistaprint program is a small test.


Partnership users also argue that consumers can opt out if they want. Still, many question how much partnership subscribers really want the magazine. “Everything is examined on a magazine-by-magazine basis,” said Robin Steinberg, senior vp, director of print investment, activation, MediaVest. “However, typically they do not rank as high and are valued differently than a ‘true’ subscription as well as newsstand.”

Moreover, the opt-out process is often cumbersome. At Vistaprint, shoppers who don’t wish to get the magazine must request a rebate by submitting a form and copy of their receipt within 30 days of purchase.

“It’s a challenge for the consumer to not get the magazine and get their money back,” said Jack Hanrahan, founder of Circ Matters, a circulation newsletter.

And while publishers don’t disclose their subscriber renewal rates, a key sign of wantedness, they admit that renewal rates are lower for partnerships than for direct mail.
Still, publishers are hooked on them as a low-cost way to acquire subs. At Field & Stream, which derives 25 percent of its circ mainly from outdoor company partners, publisher Eric Zinczenko said a partnership sub costs 75 cents versus $3.50 for a direct-mail sub.

“What you’re trying to do with a partnership sub is attract a potential subscriber who could become a long-term subscriber,” he said. “The renewal rate might be lower, but the cost to try to attract them is much lower.”

Chart: BIG USERS OF PARTNERSHIP SUBS