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Magazines are a “cultural barometer” for marketers to get valuable, free market research

By Mark Alexander Posth
Professional online marketers are shocked when I tell them I’ve created successful products based upon gazing at magazine covers. Just to be clear, we are talking gaining valuable insights into consumer behavior from the covers that scream “10 Ways To Improve Your Orgasms” and “Lose 10 pounds – by Tomorrow!” Really, it’s true.

I’ve used the insights gained from a study of magazine covers to spot key trends, gauge the size of markets, verify marketing campaigns already underway and to help identify compelling language to speak to target markets. You can too.

Why should I wage my next marketing campaign based upon the cover of a $5 rag, you say? A very good question. Here's the answer: magazine covers are the distillation of high-powered consumer research by some of the world’s most successful companies. Publishing companies spend billions on marketing research (remember, these are some of the most successful consumer-oriented companies in America). They continuously test their marketing assumptions with A/B splits — sending different covers to different areas to gauge effectiveness — conduct focus groups, and receive continuous feedback from their readers, who number into the millions.

Magazine buying decisions are made in quick, three-second glances at newsstands, so the most compelling marketing is distilled onto the cover. Knowing that each line and each word counts; editors, marketing, circulation and creative departments sweat and debate each detail.
The resulting marketing insights are clearly displayed and easy to access, if you know how to find it.

To start effectively utilizing magazine covers in your market research, find publications relevant to your market. There will be obvious candidates: for example, in the general health and fitness category there is Shape, Fitness, and Health. But general lifestyle publications such as Mademoiselle also devote pages to health & fitness, too. And there are specialty publications like Yoga Journal.

Start by compiling a list of publications through research and by browsing. Try the Magazine Publishers of America website: It’s not necessary to track every publication in your genre; the goal is to get an adequate cross-section from among the more successful magazines.

Track and sample covers over several issues to get a clear picture of key marketing approaches since they change seasonally. Be aware of themes that predominate at certain times of year such as products (gifts) in around the holidays and summer themes (“Get your body bikini-ready! “10 top fitness vacations!”) in the spring.

Anatomy lesson
Covers are constructed to be noticed, picked up, and browsed in a newsstand, where competing magazines are stacked near or on top of other publications. Editors have adapted to this environment by placing the most compelling blurbs in the most obvious visual locations. The most important real estate on any newsstand magazine cover is the upper left side, often the only clear area, when other publications or shelving intrude.

Cover lines (“The no-brainer diet plan!”) are arranged hierarchically, with the line judged to be the most compelling (“primary cover line”) on top and to the left. Often it relates to the photo.

Secondary cover lines, those judged less compelling than the primary cover line, are placed under and in a smaller type size than the primary cover line, The most compelling among the secondary lines generally is given the second-best location on the page. Sometimes these lines are boxed, angled, or given other graphical treatments. When it’s not always perfectly obvious which is considered number “2,” there may be several secondary lines of the same significance.

Stick to the newsstands: home-delivered magazines often don’t follow the same conventions as newsstand magazines, and are not a good source for headline tracking.

Tracking and analysis
Now that you have a few dozen primary and secondary cover lines, put them in columns verbatim. I list the magazine name, date, the primary, and then the secondary lines in each row.

After you have gathered the data, assign values to the lines (I use 5 for a primary, and 3 for the top 2-3 secondary lines.). Now look at the language; words that are repeated and use your numbers. Generally, you will begin to notice patterns immediately.

Reviewing recent magazine covers, note the primary cover line of the Sept. issue of Runners World: “Run off 5 pounds, no diets, no gimmicks, 3 fool-proof plans.” The second cover line is “Win your next race” and the third is “Nutrition breakthroughs.” This small sample of a publication in the Fitness category suggests that runners aren’t all in it just for the “runner’s high”– looking good, and health are also motivators.

Casting an eye on the recent women’s category of fitness magazines, “Fitness” bears the primary cover line “42 quickest get-firm tricks.” Other lines are about losing weight, toning body parts, and beauty makeovers. Interestingly, a comparison of magazines in this genre with those of several years ago reveals some changing trends: strength is more of a focus than in the past when slimness and leanness were emphasized. Arms were mentioned less on covers, and now it’s more common. On the language front, “totally toned” or its variants are more popular than “lean” and its variants.

If you were a marketer selling fitness or nutritional products to women, this information could help verify your marketing direction, and also provide useful clues about how to write your own marketing pieces.

I was director of marketing at Asimba, a health and fitness site, and our original concept was to deliver training programs on endurance sports such as running, biking, and swimming by email. We thought there was a market for endurance sports aficionados who just loved the sport for itself.

But after reviewing covers of approx 30 magazines in health and fitness I concluded the weight loss category was too big to ignore. As a result, we retargeted our product to weight loss, with endurance sports as an aside. The result was a product that delivered daily menu and exercise plans to thousands of people. The product is still around today. But that wouldn’t have happened without that visit to my local newsstand where I gazed at the covers of $5 rags.

Mark Alexander Posth specializes in creating exceptional content strategies. Prior to the Internet, he made his living working on $5 rags as a magazine editor. Email Mark at