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Subscription Boxes Are Generating New Revenue

Who doesn’t like swag? In the past, we’ve only gotten these exhibitor and vendor gifts mostly at conferences and trade shows we attend. But, of course, that’s now gone away.
Or has it?
Subscription boxes are the latest publishing trend. FIPP, the international trade group, just did a whole special report on them, complete with case studies. Basically, publishers send subscribers and would-be subscribers physical boxes of cool items. Yes, it’s mostly been consumer up to this point, but it doesn’t really have to be.
The idea has proven an effective one for our homebound times. A month ago, I wrote about a new online show called The Present starring magician Heider Guimaraes, where ticket holders are mailed a box with surprise contents that they are directed not to open until their Zoom show starts.
“How do you reach out of the computer and into the audience?” asked Matt Shakman, artistic director of the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, where the show keeps selling out extensions at hundred-dollar prices. “The idea would be to hold something in your hand and be part of the process.”
Here are some concepts that The Present and subscription boxes are taking advantage of.
We’re home. It’s boring. “For subscribers, subscription boxes provide tangible benefits,” the FIPP Report states. “The experience of opening boxes is like Christmas.” In the past, getting something sent home might be more trouble than it was worth. Now, it’s easy and fun to break up our day.
It brings in revenue. Hearst Group Autos launched R&T Crew (Road & Track) Magazine in January with a subscription box geared to kids. “The first box included a beanie with a designable patch, trading cards featuring different cars, socks with auto graphics and a car kids can put together and paint,” wrote MediaPost. Subscribers receive six boxes for $225/year. Of course, adults like cool stuff, too. Michelle Panzer of Hearst Autos said, “The goal is to find ‘white space’ in the market where you can fill a need that no one else has already identified.”
The boxes can also be digital. “Many publishers now have a range of events, master classes, special talks and other digital goodies that they could package as part of a monthly ‘box,'” the report says. “Is it a money-can’t-buy 30-minute fireside interview with the publishers’ crossword-setter? Or a free ticket to a session” with your favorite writer? Digital “goodies” can also be personalized by seeing what the customer has shown the most interest in.
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It shouts sponsorships and advertising. That same swag we get at conferences and trade shows can be used in subscription boxes. We know that vendors and exhibitors still very much need to connect with customers. “We work with sponsors and brand partners to acquire products, and we also go direct to factories to have specific products manufactured for every box,” says David Webb, editor-in-chief of Explore. “Our brand partners are a big part of the box—they appreciate that they can get their materials and products directly into the hands of active users and buyers through us.”

The boxes can even be geared to one event, like The Present. Like the magician Guimarães whose idea it was to send the viewer a package with contents to be revealed as the show unfolded, a publisher’s subscription box can also be geared to an upcoming virtual event. Pardon the pun, but we could think outside of the box on this. Maybe it’s a special clicker or flashlight that a Zoom speaker would ask everyone to use when they have a question. “Let’s light up the Zoomisphere and take a screenshot!” I received a harmonica at an in-person event last year that became part of the show later.
It can be made easy. Subscription box vendors have started. In fact, Explore now has a warehouse and factories on contract. They learned quickly that it’s not easy to do so now they do it for others. “We had to learn everything from the ground up,” Webb said. We packed the first test box in our office, and the next one at a warehouse space. We learned it all on the fly, and used these lessons to be better with the next one.”
Added Panzer: It’s about providing “subscribers with an experience they’re not getting elsewhere.”