Why paper publishers are shooting themselves in the foot


I’m going to tell you a story. It may be an isolated story, but it underlines exactly why old-school magazine publishers will slowly die, unless they basically buck their ideas up.

My partner has a subscription to Vanity Fair and Vogue – both published by Conde Nast. This entitles her to the hard copy magazine and a digital version. So far so good.

In September her copy of Vogue failed to arrive – irritating but not unusual in the world of magazine subscriptions. Plus, she still had access to the digital version, and when Vanity Fair arrived as usual there was no reason to think it was anything but a blip.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, my partner’s access to the digital assets stopped. Downloads were frozen.

She rang them up and was told that the September issue of Vogue was undelivered and came back Return to Sender.

Apparently Conde Nast runs a policy that if this happens, it triggers an account freeze.

And not just a physical account freeze, but a digital freeze too.

That baffled me but, assuming they contact a subscriber electronically to let them know, that makes sense. Except they don’t. They just do it. No questions. No follow-up.

The customer services person then told my partner that now they knew all was in order they’d unfreeze the account and start resending physical magazines, with digital access available in 24 hours.

End of story, right? Well, it wouldn’t be much of one if that’s all there was to it, would it?

Four days later and still no digital access. So my partner called up CN again. After a 20-minute call, she was put on hold and then cut off.

She tried again the following day. The customer services guy explained that unfortunately digital access only becomes available once new issues are sent out.

‘But that’s ok,’ said my partner, ‘You’ve already sent out the next issue, haven’t you?’

‘No,’ he replied. ‘It will only restart when the November issues are sent out!’

The mistakes of Conde Nast
The amount of wrongheaded thinking at Conde Nast shown by this story emphasises why ‘magazine’ companies are still desperately struggling to come to terms with a world that is digital first.

1) The fact that CN cannot see digital and physical access to titles need to be separate is baffling and arcane. A title such as Vanity Fair is a product now, not just a magazine.

2) Akin to point 1, publication dates are fast becoming outmoded. If you have a digital subscription, this should not be dictated by magazine publication date. If you start mid-month, you want access to that month’s issue not wait for the next one.

3) Physical and digital location are not necessarily linked. Publishers should be able to check if the digital assets are being accessed, even if a physical magazine is returned.

4) Have customer services teams never heard of email? Before taking the decision to freeze an account, why not try contacting the subscriber to check if there’s a problem. Huge fail this one.

I’m sure there are more that I haven’t thought of.

Conde Nast is not an exception. The very fact that Hearst in the UK still calls itself Hearst Magazines shows how out of touch it is – despite running digital only brands such as Company.

Having just come back from a Digital Publishing Innovation Conference full of interesting case studies and ideas, it’s a shame to discover that some publishers still operate in the 20th century.

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