The Saturday Evening Post’s Subscription Secret Revealed

Long before Time magazine, or People, or even the National Enquirer the king of magazines was The Saturday Evening Post. Founded by Benjamin Franklin, it was reenergized in the late 19th century and became a powerhouse in publishing. America’s leading writers and illustrators appeared in its pages, and during its glory years the magazine overflowed with advertisements.

A primitive address system leant itself to drive subscriptions

Like most publications, though, the Post was faced with a challenge: how to get people to keep subscribing. A change of just a few percentage points in subscribers — a key measure for determining advertising rates — could spell the difference between acceptable profits and excellent profits.
So there were letters, similar to the ones we’d see today urging us to resubscribe. Sometimes there would be special offers, such as two years for a reduced rate. But, unlike modern subscription letters (or, today, email notifications) the Post had a secret weapon:

The Addressograph Plate

Before the 1970s magazine address stickers were made by a huge machine called an Addressograph. When you subscribed to a magazine, a machine operator would make a small printing plate (usually out of lead!) for an Addressograph. Thousands of these little metal plates would be loaded into the Addressograph, and labels printed from these. And yes, we’ve come a long, long way.

The Post used the Addressograph plate as a last-ditch effort for resubscriptions. After exhausting the series of subscription letters, the now-lapsing subscriber would receive an envelope containing his/her Addressograph plate, with a note saying that since the subscription had lapsed, the plate was theirs. This was a very powerful tool — after this mailing, subscriptions jumped, and often the renewing subscriber would return the plate to the Post!

The Post’s lesson from the 1940s and 50s still rings true: personalize an experience. Make something intangible (communication with a company) very tangible (a metal plate bearing your identity). In a depersonalized work, personalized appeals still work wonders. Here’s hoping that next year’s subscription has some more Norman Rockwell covers!