Besides its journalistic innovations—pioneering the newsletter format and personal finance coverage—Kiplinger was an early adopter of a variety of new methods for selling subscriptions.
In the 1920s, Paul Babson, a Boston business publisher who invested in W. M. Kiplinger’s new company, encouraged Kiplinger to broadly mail its Kiplinger Letter subscription solicitations to national lists containing thousands of business managers and owners. Kiplinger perfected these direct-mail techniques throughout the ‘20s and ‘30s, eventually building its circulations through multi-million-piece mail campaigns in subsequent decades.
Kiplinger is thought to be the first publisher to sell subscriptions through the new medium of television. When NBC launched "The Today Show" in 1952, the network had difficulty convincing advertisers that Americans would be willing to watch TV from 7 to 9 a.m. NBC was unable to land even one advertiser until Kiplinger bought commercials for its magazine (then titled Changing Times) and drew a very strong viewer response for its sample-issue offer, even before the era of toll-free phoning. NBC used Kiplinger’s success to prove that America was watching the new program, and other advertisers quickly signed on. In the 1950s and ‘60s, Kiplinger also bought 15-minute chunks of local radio time for commercials that combined its personal finance advice with a sales pitch--an early version of an "infomercial."
When Ted Turner launched his 24-hour-a-day Cable News Network in 1980, national advertisers were skeptical that many viewers would want to watch national and world news at all hours of the day and night. But Kiplinger took a chance on the new network, and it was one of CNN's heaviest advertisers that first year, using commercials of unusual length (two minutes or one minute) to sell thousands of subscriptions to The Kiplinger Letter. Later in the decade, Kiplinger was a charter advertiser on another TV program that blazed new ground—Charles Kuralt’s Sunday morning feature program on CBS, a pioneering and successful experiment in a broadcasting time slot then devoted entirely to religious programming.
During the 1980s, cable television and late-night broadcast TV became highly effective media for subscriptions sales of magazines and newsletters from many publishers (Time, Inc., Forbes, Dow Jones and others). But as commercial air time soared in the 1990s, low-priced products like periodicals were priced out of that market, and publication offers, including Kiplinger's, disappeared from the airwaves and cable.
Another new source of magazine subscription sales in the 1980s was the sweepstakes offer from “stamp sheet” sales agents like Publishers Clearing House and American Family Publishers. Kiplinger, like other publishers, sold hundreds of thousands of subscriptions to its magazines and newsletters through these agents. Eventually, however, the sweepstakes programs were criticized as deceptive by several state attorneys general, and they soon faded as a major subscription source for publishers.
By the 2000s, all publishers, including Kiplinger, were once again relying largely on their own direct-mail selling, while beginning to experiment with direct-response banner ads on Web sites, sponsored-link ads on Google search, etc. In addition, Kiplinger sells subscriptions and content packages to corporations and associations through enterprise-wide electronic site licenses.
Meanwhile, the proliferation of free content on Web sites (including those of print publishers) has made it difficult for publishers to maintain their pre-Internet circulation levels, even at deeply discounted prices. So many large-circulation magazines, including Kiplinger’s Personal Finance, reduced their circulations to trim subscription marketing expense, while simultaneously devoting more capital to building their "new media" products—Web sites, podcasts, DVDs, custom publishing, etc.
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