Sometime next week, newsstands on the West Coast will be hawking a new magazine called Esquire Sportsman. So will newsstands on the East Coast. But the magazine's cover--its biggest sales tool--will be different on each coast.
While West Coast and Northern state consumers will see a cover photo of film star Brad Pitt fly-fishing, East Coast and Southern state residents can look for a picture of singer Jimmy Buffett quail hunting with his dog. Coast-to-coast travelers who poke around magazine stands on both legs of their journey may do double-takes when they see the different covers on each coast.
"A magazine's cover is the key component that affects newsstand sales," said Robert A. Cohen, a New York-based magazine industry consultant. "Imagine what it would be like for a company to come up with a new package for its product every month. Well, that's what most magazines have to do."
Consumers do indeed judge magazines by their covers. Industry executives estimate that a very good--or very bad--cover can affect a publication's sales by up to 60%. In recent years--with technology improving and the nagging recession continuing to cut into magazine sales--industry executives have been more willing to try to bump up sales by placing different covers on the same issue of their publications.
Few consumers are aware of the behind-the-scenes shuffling and reshuffling of magazine covers taking place at an increasing number of periodicals nationwide. In just the last year, dozens of consumer magazines--from Esquire to Entertainment Weekly to Parenting to Golf Digest--have begun to experiment with different covers for the same issue.
In fact, 86 of the 100 leading consumer magazines are engaged in ongoing cover testing--from running different covers on the same issue to using different headlines, said Samir Husni, a University of Mississippi professor who publishes the Guide to New Consumer Magazines.
"The majority of them don't even believe in this stuff," said Husni, "but they're doing it just because everyone else is."
Actually, mixing of magazine covers is serious stuff. Some magazines do it for the free publicity that often goes along with it. Other times, editors do it to test the likes and dislikes of readers in different regions. And once in a while, magazines use two covers because the editors simply can't decide which cover they like best. One really bad cover--particularly for a new, monthly magazine--can spell a publication's demise.
But what's really driving the sudden uptick in cover testing is increased competition in the market. Today there are 24,000 magazines published nationally in all categories--double the number of 10 years ago. Few survive more than five years.
Magazine publishers have to be careful not to confuse--or upset--loyal readers with cover juggling. "You don't want readers to feel like lab animals being poked at," warned Donald L. Nicholas, editor of Magazine Week.
One of the first magazines to test different covers on the same issue was Inside Sports, which in 1980 printed up to six different covers for its regional editions. Although it helped boost sales in some regions, it also caused confusion, recalled Dan Capell, who was the founding publisher of the magazine and is now a direct marketing consultant.
At the time, television ads for Inside Sports showed different covers than those sold in certain regions. "It didn't take long before we had collectors calling us for all the covers," Capell said.
Travelers on shuttle flights from New York to Washington would sometimes buy the same issue in both cities, mistakenly believing that different covers meant different articles. "We had to do a little refunding," recalled Capell.
Last year, Entertainment Weekly ran two cover photos of Roseanne Barr--one showing her looking rather wretched and the other somewhat sexy. Test-marketing wasn't the issue.
"We honestly couldn't decide which picture was the better one for the cover," said Jim Seymore, editor of Entertainment Weekly.
He decided to run half the issues with the upbeat photo on the front and the other half with the downbeat picture. Because the issue had a fold-out advertisement inside the front cover, readers actually saw both pictures when they unfolded it.
Likewise, Esquire ran two covers for the same issue last September. Comedian David Letterman was smiling on half the editions and frowning on the other half. "It was a stunt, pure and simple," said Editor-in-Chief Terry McDonell. But not a bad one. It was far and away Esquire's best-selling issue in 1991.
In its October issue, Golf Digest is publishing two covers: one featuring a man--golfer Corey Pavin; the other a woman--golfer Juli Inkster. Each will be circulated in different parts of the country, and Golf Digest editors will closely monitor sales.
One of the more interesting split-run covers was done recently by Disney Adventures magazine, which is aimed at boys.