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"Who signed me up for a subscription of glamour? This is the last thing I want," a not-so-pleased Glamour subscriber tweeted last month. Another irate subscriber filmed herself throwing her unwanted copy of Glamour in the trash. Someone else recently launched this question out into the ether: "why did i all of a sudden start getting a subscription of teen vogue without subscribing to one HMM????" Within seconds, other women were replying with their own tales of Teen Vogue issues popping up in their mail out of nowhere.
When magazines drop on your doorstep without warning, it probably has to do with where you’ve been shopping recently. Mainstream magazines — especially those owned by Conde Nast — have been really stepping up their efforts lately to slip in free magazines with orders at popular women’s retailers, and while they technically have to alert customers that the free magazine is coming, not everyone is getting a warning.
Right now, Asos is giving out free subscriptions to Teen Vogue with any purchase over $40.
The marketing concept isn’t new: magazines have been giving out free subscriptions for a long time under the umbrella of "partnership sales," or subscriptions that are bundled in with another product or service. Right now, Asos is giving out free subscriptions to Teen Vogue with any purchase over $40, Sephora has offered free subscriptions to Cosmopolitan, Harper’s Bazaar, and more with qualifying purchases, Forever 21 has given out free subscriptions to Self, Teen Vogue and Glamour; and Birchbox sweetened deals last year with a free subscription to Glamour, Vogue, or People.
According to the Alliance for Audited Media, which tracks this type of data across hundreds of magazines, partnership sales have gone through the roof in the past ten years, especially at titles like Teen Vogue, Glamour, and Self.
Teen Vogue counted 1,183,316 paid subscriptions on average per issue in 2005, and 4,489 of those paid subscriptions were categorized as partnership sales. In 2015, Teen Vogue had an average of 893,816 paid subscriptions for each issue, and 319,230 of those subscriptions were categorized as partnership sales. In other words, about one in every three Teen Vogue subscriptions were bundled into other purchases as a free giveaway last year.
About one in every three Teen Vogue subscriptions were bundled into other purchases as a free giveaway last year.
The numbers are similar at other Conde Nast magazines, particularly ones that have been struggling to stay afloat. Self had a monthly average of 1,067,092 paid subscriptions in 2005, 14,957 of which were due to partnership sales. In 2015, Self counted an average of 1,329,617 paid subscriptions and 549,308 of those subscriptions came from partnership sales (just over 40% of the total subscriptions!). A similar story unfolded at Allure, where a monthly average of 28,723 subscriptions due to partnership sales in 2005 ballooned into 298,098 in 2015, while total subscriptions crept up from 758,092 to 1,046,458 over the same ten-year span. Glamour recorded a monthly average of 43,551 subscriptions due to partnership sales in 2005, which expanded into a monthly average of 515,874 subscriptions due to partnership sales in 2015.
Outside of Conde Nast, the numbers are much less drastic. Hearst’s Elle brought in 747,258 average monthly paid subscriptions in 2005, and 19,586 of those subscriptions fell under partnership sales. In 2015, Elle counted 949,329 average monthly paid subscriptions, and 50,700 of those subscriptions fell under partnership sales. At Seventeen, 91,380 of its 1,842,906 average monthly subscribers last year came from partnership sales. And at Time Inc.’s InStyle, 57,332 of its 1,372,598 average monthly subscribers came from partnership sales last year.
It’s pretty widely accepted that mainstream print magazines aren’t doing so hot right now, especially in Conde Nast’s portfolio. So why give away all those subscriptions for free?
So why give away all those subscriptions for free?
"The people that are in charge of selling subscriptions, they have two jobs," says Rebecca Sterner, a publishing consultant who’s worked with a variety of magazine publishers. "One job is to sell as many subscriptions and newsstand copies as they can to meet their budget, and the other one is to deliver the number of copies that advertisers are paying for."
This puts those people in an interesting situation, says Sterner. "If it was just about, ‘We’re going to sell as many subscriptions as we can,’ then they wouldn’t have to worry about anything else. But it’s, ‘No, we have to sell as many subscriptions as we can, and we still have to meet advertisers expectations.’
The main reason that magazines spend money on partnership sales is to keep up advertising revenue and meet those expectations, explains Dipayan Biswas, the editor of the Journal of Consumer Marketing.
"Most newspapers and magazines earn most of their revenue from advertising," says Biswas. "Not so much from the subscriptions. So even if it’s a free subscription, they can actually claim a readership of X number and that X includes the number of free subscriptions, and they can charge a higher advertising rate based on their subscription level."
"Even if it’s a free subscription, they can actually claim a readership of X number."
So, even though Self’s paid subscriber base has largely only increased over the past ten years due to those freebie magazine subscriptions, it can still tell advertisers that its subscriber base has grown and can charge appropriately for advertising."It’s actually a good business model to have, like you give away the magazine for free but you actually make money from advertising because you can now claim higher circulations," says Biswas. "And it would be a fair claim because the subscription count is higher even though some of those subscriptions may be free."
According to AAM, publishers that engage in partnership sales must spell out to the consumer what is going on. During the transaction, consumers have to know that the magazine has been included in the order, the value of the magazine, and that they can receive a refund on the subscription if they don’t want the magazine.
In practice, the lines seem way less clear. It’s easy to find plenty of confused first-time subscribers who don’t know how they got on certain mailing lists, and there’s Reddit threads dedicated to figuring out why this magazine landed on that doorstep. One guy’s mysterious Teen Vogue subscription followed him through three different address changes. Some are okay with the new, free magazine appearing out of thin air, but others are definitely not. (Conde Nast declined to comment on its subscription marketing strategies.)
There’s a loophole here, too, that at least one intrepid Redditor has tried to spell out. Since the consumers technically have to be given the option of a refund on the magazine, and they didn’t pay for it in the first place, it is possible to get $10 or $12 off of the consumer’s original order. For example, Sephora offered a free Cosmopolitan subscription to customers who spent over $25 with the retailer. The subscription is worth $10, so, if the customer doesn’t mind filling out a rebate form and waiting six to eight weeks for the refund, the actual order would come down to $15.
Overall, the majority of paid subscriber bases still come from readers who pay a yearly fee for their magazines, but the popularity of partnership sales, at least with titles including Teen Vogue, Self, Glamour, Allure, and Vogue, has grown dramatically in recent years.
"[The magazines] have a mixed portfolio," says Biswas. "They charge prices to people who are willing to pay and then for people who they think might be price sensitive or might be willing to switch later, they give it to them for free, and create a higher subscription level. But it definitely helps with the subscription claims and that in turn helps increase ad revenue."