July 13, 2006
Case Study

How Scientific American Grows Print Subs 15% Via Online Marketing

SUMMARY: What if you’re a magazine with a stately reputation, but your print subs are dropping and your online efforts are drying up?

If your content is archive-worthy, you may want to see how one publisher turned things around by testing another channel. Plus, how offering PDF versions of single issues became a fruitful effort.


“Pop-ups worked well for us,” says Mina Lux, Managing Director for ScientificAmerican.com. “As traditional direct marketers, we believe in targeted marketing. We needed a new channel.”

That’s because the magazine was seeing the rate of its print subscriptions sold online leveling off. The reason was simple: By early 2004, more of their potential subscribers were using pop-up ad blockers and email filtering.

At the same time, Lux’s team also wanted to boost the number of Scientific American’s digital subscriptions, which had been around less than a year.

The print subscription costs $24.97 a year while the digital sub costs $39.95, with no discount on the online content for print subscribers. They can get away with charging more because digital subscribers also get access to archived magazine material dating back to 1993.

The magazine provides news and a couple of feature articles each month online for free, but consumers must subscribe to the digital product to see all of the magazine and online content. It sells PDFs of the current issue for $5 or $7.95 for individual back issues.

What online technology could they turn to next to boost both their print and online subs?


In 2004, Lux’s team started buying brand-related words on Google and Yahoo, leading potential subscribers to a landing page and subscription page.

They expanded the campaign in mid-2005 to include subject and author-related keywords. People won’t just search on the word “hurricane,” they’ll search on the name of the hurricane expert and get pointed to ScientificAmerican.com. “Our authors are a brand for us,” Lux says. “Most all of our articles are written by scientists.”

Then they waited to gather the results. No matter how well known your brand is, you need to be patient to make keyword search marketing pay, even for top brands like Scientific American. “You must be committed,” Lux says, especially when the number of keywords you’re buying reach into the thousands. “It’s like standing in front of 100 knobs trying to fine-tune something. You can always optimize more.”

At the same time, Lux’s team tested how much of an article they needed to show before asking readers to pay to download the full issue. Would a sentence or two do or would several paragraphs work best?


Since beginning the effort, Scientific American has boosted its print sub rate by 15% and its gift subscription rate by almost 13%. Aside from traditional direct marketing efforts, search has become the single-largest source of print subs for the magazine.

Another bonus: The search campaign helped spike traffic to their site 33%. This boost has helped online sub sales. And that traffic increase is still holding strong. “You may not see results for the first two to three months, but it comes,” Lux says.

In her case, it took four months for Scientific American to really see any results, including the spike in print subs.

Brand-related search buys worked well, at first -- generating subscriptions at single dollar cost, Lux says -- but the effort didn’t scale since only a finite number of people will search on any keyword.

Scientific American’s *magic number* for how much of an article to preview before asking readers to pay for the entire issue is two paragraphs.

The convenience of having a digital version of each issue sells to Scientific American’s audience. “Even when we provide the article for free, they still go and buy the issue,” Lux says.

25% of digital product sales every month come from the single-issue sales. The digital product is approaching 7-digit revenue this year, having become profitable within its first year.

Useful links related to this article:

Creative samples for Scientific American’s subscriptions

Scientific American

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