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DMA Circ Day: Cosmo Girl Talks Covers to Circulators

NEW YORK — Kate White was glad she attended the 20th Annual DMA Circulation Day yesterday.

The editor-in-chief of 2-million-circulation Cosmopolitan magazine was the luncheon keynote speaker at the circulators' event. She was a bold choice for an event accustomed to discussing rate bases, auto renewals and gift subscriptions.

“If I wasn't here, I'd be working on cover lines like 'Mattress Moves So Hot His Thighs Will Go Up in Flames,'” White said.

The Hearst executive decided to devote her time to covers and cover lines, a topic that resonates as much with editorial departments as with direct and interactive marketing copywriters and art directors.

She acknowledged that the past few years were brutal for newsstand sales. Most titles reported falling sales, bar the celebrity books. Covers, therefore, are a paramount selling tool.

The audience was treated to a rundown of the seven best things White knew about covers. Her first guideline was to follow the 80/20 rule: 80 percent of the great ideas come from 20 percent of your staff, she said.

Though the cover is a small part of the magazine, she spends two weeks a month on cover lines and collaborates with her art director on images. For example, White retains control over the cover model's dress, and not the celebrity. She and the art director also spend lots of time choosing the background color for the shot.

“The more time you put into a cover, the more sense of control it gives you,” White said.

Her second rule is to choose your own cover “cocktail” — what goes into giving your cover its persona. Take the model. White's yardstick is simple.

“Would I or one of my readers want to drive cross-country with her?” she said. “I wouldn't put Sharon Stone because at the very least, when you got home, she'll steal your boyfriend.”

Physical attributes like hair and chest play an important part in Cosmo's cover, but so does a certain trademark expression on the model's face. White wouldn't specify the exact formula of a Cosmo Girl's gamine look.

“If Jay Leno isn't talking about the cover every four or five months, then I know I'm doing something wrong,” White said.

She cited examples like American Media's Star, Rodale's Men's Health, Seventeen and CondŽ Nast's Vanity Fair that have perfected a trademark look readers associate with their brands.

White's third point was to trust your gut but train it first. She uses focus groups, reader polls and online surveys to get a sense of who the reader is and what she wants. She does field surveys, too. She once introduced herself to a shopper in a mall and asked her about a cover model's clothes. The woman wanted to know the month for which the cover was planned. That told White about the importance of clothes and seasonality.

White does the carpet post-mortem in her office: Throw past Cosmo issues on the floor and see what pattern emerges. White's predecessor, Bonnie Fuller, ran some dark-haired models on several covers. Those issues bombed on the newsstand. So White put Rebecca Romijn on the cover, and that copy sold in record numbers.

“So we put only blonde models on the cover,” White said.

At Hearst's Redbook, where White was editor-in-chief for four years before joining Cosmo, they heeded reader requests and put a male on the cover. The issue featuring actor Harrison Ford sold extremely well, White said.

“Harrison Ford was a good husband — at the time,” she said.

Unsurprisingly, a cover with Kevin Costner sold poorly on newsstands. He had a reputation as a womanizer.

White's fourth suggestion was to write killer cover lines. She brought in direct response people to help. She wasn't born a cover line writer, but learned the craft. Magazines should find their voice. Again, she cited Men's Health for its distinctive tone. Then there was Oprah's title O.

“I feel like I hear Oprah's voice in those cover lines,” White said.

Another tip: Find where the universal meets the specific, make hard promises and sell it like “a can of corn.” The last reference brought back memories for White. Michael Douglas and his first wife once were a major story. Then he checked himself into a clinic for addiction to a physical act. White put on a brave face and crafted an appropriate cover line.

In another instance, singer-actor Ashley Simpson was the cover girl — in red, which signifies serious physical appeal, White said. But that was just a few days before Simpson was caught lip-synching. How to retrieve the situation? This was the final cover line: “Don't Judge Her Till You Read This.”

White's sixth tip: Ensure you have a dream team. Have a boss who doesn't want to do the cover story by committee. Hearst, White said, lets you be the editor. On the non-writing side, have a great art director and a production director who goes to the printing plant each month to see how the cover turned out. Much rides on the cover for a magazine like Cosmo. The circulation director at Cosmo is a valued partner for consumer response, White said.

Equally important, have great cover line writers. Cosmo was White's first gig where she wasn't part of the reader demographic. So her younger staff helps her understand the audience terminology.

There were other parts to her sixth tip. For instance, return to the T — the intersection of the left and right boxes on one side of the tennis court — if things are not working. She meant back to the drawing board. She also suggested auditing the magazine inside as much as the cover.

Magazines should innovate constantly, too. White said Cosmo innovated stickers on the cover. Now every magazine has that icon. So now the magazine has something else to call attention to its features.

Finally, White cautioned the attending circulators — from small presses as well as major publishers like Time Inc., Rodale, Hearst, CondŽ Nast, Reader's Digest and National Geographic — to try not to let the whole business eat you alive.

Cosmo's efforts under White have paid off. The magazine now outsells Glamour and InStyle by 1 million in copies sold, she claims.

“They're not our competitive set anymore,” White said. “Our competition is In Touch and Us.”

Mickey Alam Khan covers Internet marketing campaigns and e-commerce, agency news as well as circulation for DM News and DMNews.com. To keep up with the latest developments in these areas, subscribe to our daily and weekly e-mail newsletters by visiting www.dmnews.com/newsletters

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