Progressive Farmer Plants the Seeds for Success

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Progressive Farmer, a publication for operators of commercial farms, plans to expand efforts to target its audience demographically by printing more varieties of magazine covers for specific sets of readers on a monthly basis.

The 113-year-old publication began emblazoning issues with separate covers to pique the interest of individual subscribers this year. Farmers of cotton, for example, might receive a magazine featuring pictures of a cotton operation, and editorial content in the issue would include stories on the crop as well. Now, Progressive Farmer, Birmingham, AL, is looking at more specific targeting of beef producers, said publisher Ed Dickinson.

"They feel somewhat isolated," Dickinson said. "They look at a corn cover and say, 'Hey, what's in this for me?' " Beef cattle producers make up 300,000 of the 620,000 farmers who subscribe to the magazine, which is published by Southern Progress Corp., a division of Time Inc., New York.

Progressive Farmer said it varies its covers more than any other publication. In addition to delivering different covers to farmers based on what they grow, the magazine prints four separate regional covers and alters its stories and cover wraps depending on who is receiving the magazine.

The magazine varies advertising not only demographically but breaks down its four main regions by ZIP code, resulting in thousands of separate editions every month. Taking into account all content, advertising and cover-wrap variables, Progressive Farmer printed 3,000 different editions in March alone, Dickinson said. The magazine's targeting is so razor thin that about 50 editions went to only one farmer each. Usually only general content on topics like equipment and farm management run across all the editions.

The publication collects subscribers' demographic data through direct response cards in the magazine and 150,000 annual telemarketing calls. The firm updates its files with data such as U.S. Department of Agriculture lists of farmers who participate in government programs. The goal is to update each subscriber's data at least every two years, Dickinson said.

Progressive Farmer first experimented with varied content before the last presidential election, when the magazine began printing updates on a large slate of agricultural legislation pending at that time. Farmers received news on how their individual congressmen voted on proposed laws.

More recently, the magazine's market research showed that cotton producers -- an important 60,000-strong farming segment for which advertisers pay a high premium -- were passing over issues with covers that didn't highlight their crop. So the magazine began shifting its covers for those farmers this year, using printing technology from Prograph Management Systems Inc., Pittsburgh.

"We were selectronically delivering a special cotton section in every issue to cotton growers, but it wasn't getting through," Dickinson said. "Our feeling was that cotton growers were not really giving us credit or they weren't understanding the kind of coverage [in the magazine] or sometimes weren't even locating the section in the magazine."

Progressive Farmer publishes in time with the rhythm of its industry as well, putting out 13 issues annually. The magazine produces two issues each in February and March, during primary planting season. In mid-summer, when farms are less active, the magazine drops out a month.

"We gerrymandered our production to get the right information in," Dickinson said.

About 55 percent of Progressive Farmer's subscription base is paid, with the remainder receiving the magazine at no charge if they meet certain demographic requirements for advertisers.

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