Thursday, June 14, 2007

Cutting Edge Covers

"The bitterest misfortune can be covered up with a smile"

Cutting Edge Covers

By Linda Ruth

What's working on the newsstand today is a sharp, clean approach, a clear image, and a message that can be perceived at a glance.

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 covers provide contrast, whose cover lines jump out with their visibility and catch your interest with their content, and whose images are 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, analyzing 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 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 those sales dips and spikes to put every issue on an equal playing field. Check 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 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, how will that effect 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 fluctuation in sales of a monthly consumer publication with no change in distribution, promotions, or packaging are due to 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? 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. Words 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 perceived wisdom from the time of general interest magazines that a person, eye contact, could sell a magazine, in the age of special interest publications we find this is not always the case. A random person-one who is not a model, or a celebrity, and not the focus of the feature article-does not sell a magazine. A fit person can sell your magazine-if it's a fitness magazine. A beautiful person can sell your magazine-if it's a beauty magazine. There's no need to put a person into a shot just to warm it up and make it friendlier. Generally, it doesn't work.

What is Working Now

Some recent successful redesigns tell us what's working today. Most logo redesigns 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 MacLife, 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.

"MacAddict was great for its time: a magazine for people just passionate about their Mac," comments Holly Klingel, then VP of circulation for Future. "The new MacLife 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 the idea of New England evokes," says Sherin Wight, its VP 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 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 redesigned. "It combines looking back to an older New England, in the looping type face and serif font, and 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 look-ing 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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