Holiday Mag Discounts: Good for Subscribers, Bad for Business?

The pros and cons of slashing subscription prices

‘Tis the season for huge savings. Whether they’re buying a car, TV or the latest Barbie, customers expect big price drops during the holiday season. The same goes in the magazine industry where publishers have made a habit of offering seasonal discounts on top of already deeply discounted subscription prices. But while slashing prices on magazines can attract hordes of new readers, there’s also the risk of having those readers undervalue the product itself.

This holiday season, Hearst is selling full-year subscriptions for all of its titles for just $5 (41 cents per issue). At Meredith, you can get magazines like Family Circle and Better Homes and Gardens for just $6 a year. There are plenty of two-for-one deals—buy a discounted one-year subscription to New York magazine or one of Time Inc.’s lifestyle books and get a free subscription to give as a gift. Meanwhile, Condé Nast and Rodale are both hopping on the Cyber Monday trend, offering consumers, respectively, a year of Vogue for $12 or $10 for Women’s Health in honor of the shopping holiday.

These kinds of deals are an easy way to boost subscription numbers, which help prop up the rate bases that magazines guarantee their advertisers. They also have the potential to turn casual fans who are willing to pay five bucks to try a magazine into long-term subscribers.

But offering $5 or $6 subscriptions can have an equally negative effect on the magazine industry. “Generally, I don’t think that coming close to giving away the product is a smart idea,” said Jack Hanrahan, owner of Hanrahan Media Services, publisher of CircMatters and a former media buyer. Not only does offering subscriptions for the price of a Starbucks latte make the magazine seem less valuable to consumers, he said, but it also attracts readers who are less valuable to advertisers. “I think of this as a media buyer,” said Hanrahan. “Am I getting someone who’s really interested in the magazine or someone who’s interested in a bargain or an inexpensive Christmas gift for someone who may or may not want it? When you see that type of scrambling going on, you ask, what am I paying for?”

Regardless of the consequence, Hanrahan doesn’t see these discounted subscriptions disappearing any time in the future. “These practices have been going on so long that there’s just a spiral downwards,” said Hanrahan. “It’s too late to go back.”