The Surfer’s Journal Media Model Stands the Test of Time
The modern media landscape has not been kind to many industry magazines, and many are no longer around at least in print form including Surfer, Surfing, Transworld Skateboarding, Transworld Surf, and Powder.
But the Surfer’s Journal has defied all those negative trends and currently has the most subscribers it has ever had.
The business model started by owners Debbee and Steve Pezman 30-years ago has proven to be ahead of its time.
An emphasis on editorial quality allows it to charge more for subscriptions and rely more on its readers for revenue while working with a small number of high quality sponsors that sign on for a long-term commitment.
We spoke with Publisher Brendon Thomas about how business has taken off in the past five years, the positive impacts from COVID, and how a creative idea in the midst of lockdowns helped propel a subscription rush.
How has business gone for The Surfer’s Journal the past few years?
Publisher Brendon Thomas: We’ve had steady growth for the better part of five years now and got some jet fuel poured on when COVID hit. We’ve been growing at a very rapid pace. That’s obviously very encouraging for us.
What do you think has been driving the growth?
Brendon Thomas: Probably the modernization of the back office to be honest. When I came in as Publisher, there wasn’t a lot of attention paid to marketing product, to how we manage the subscription software, and the website was in a bit of a low place. We’ve spent a lot of time and energy on that side of it. There’s now a lot of efficiency in the way we run the business and it’s freed us up to spend more time on marketing.
The editorial team obviously has continued to do what they do so well for a number of years now. But, we really were able to speak to our subscribers and get better and more personalized and find new subscribers through marketing channels.
With COVID has readership gone up because there’s more surfers out there or are existing surfers surfing more?
Brendon Thomas: It’s hard to say. When COVID hit, we were pretty scared of what was to come like everyone else.
We had a number of back issues still in stock. Over the years we’ve printed a few too many issues of certain editions. We thought it’d be fun to lighten the mood and lift everyone’s spirits by offering a COVID relief package.
So people just had to pay for shipping and we’d send you a copy of the journal. That kick started things for us because when people actually got one in their hands, they were amazed by the quality of it.
Thousands of people took us up on the offer and then a lot of them converted into subscribers. So, that started it, I think. Then there’s been a general lift and surfing has made out pretty well through the pandemic as far as it’s a great exercise to do that’s inherently socially distanced.
So, there are a lot of surfers out there. We also had the unfortunate demise of Surfer magazine, which took a competitor off the table.
I didn’t expect that to have an effect on our subscriptions. But if you’re looking for something physical that lives in your living room or on your bookshelf, then we’re pretty much the only place to get it at this point.
You mentioned that you have your highest subscription base that you’ve ever had right now.
Brendon Thomas: Yes, by quite a margin. Our renewal rate is probably the biggest factor in that – upwards of 70% have always renewed their subscriptions every year. But, now we’re well over 80% renewals year-in, year-out. That tells us what we’re doing is resounding with the readership.
And then we’re getting a bit more sophisticated on how we retain our readers by offering increased value beyond just the six magazines a year.
We’ve also introduced the premium subscription tier, which includes deeper discounts on the stuff in the store and a gift every year from one of our sponsors. It’s a pretty good value and in addition to the book people get something really cool that’s cobranded and this year it’s from Patagonia.
When did you add that premium level and what has the response been?
Brendon Thomas: It’s been very encouraging. We’re only about six months into it. But, we’re numbering over 1,000 premium subscribers already and we haven’t really marketed it very hard.
We’re obviously very careful to not inundate our subscribers with marketing. That’s not our mode. So, we sparingly tell them about it and I think we’ve only had two touch points at this stage about the premium subscription. So, it’s been well received.
How has your advertising model has held up? It’s stayed the same, right?
Brendon Thomas: We haven’t changed at all. We’ve got six sponsors, as we’ve had for decades now. It’s been great. We’ve got a couple of new brands that have joined us over the last couple of years, but we’ve also got our staple of cohorts who have been with us since the beginning. They just believe in the vision and I work really hard to try and get their message to the readers in ways that are actually useful to the readers.
I work with the brands to come up with something cool to talk about, whether it’s new limited-edition item or discounts in the store or whatever.
So, there’s obviously the piece that goes in the book, the print ad. But, they’re listed on every page of the website. They’re on every editorial email we send out
Who are the sponsors now?
Brendon Thomas: Patagonia, Rainbow, Vans, Yeti, Birdwell, and Vissla.
What’s next for you guys?
Brendon Thomas:. We’ve got a couple of really fun projects in the works. We’re currently putting together a collection of the best of Steve Pezman’s writing and turning it into a book that we’re delivering this year. Digital content is behind a paywall that’s free for subscribers to access, and that’s improving.
We’ve found a lot of traction in our newsletter that goes out every month that’s free to sign up for, which is really like a curated collection of items of interest from both the journal and from around the internet.
So, we’re doing a lot more editorial-focused emails to subscribers, especially during our 30th anniversary with collections of the “best of” and little curated collections of travel writing and whatnot that we can pull from our archives and deliver digitally.
And how is The Golfer’s Journal connected to The Surfer’s Journal?
Brendon Thomas: Steve and Debbee and I reached a point a couple of years ago where we were very concerned about the rising cost of overhead – employees, production costs, shipping costs, etc.
We had a couple of options in front of us. One was to raise the subscription price, which we didn’t really want to do. The other was to add more sponsors, which we didn’t really want to do either.
The final thing left for us was to create a different title to share some of the overhead costs. That’s had some good positive outcomes for us in that we’ve been able to hire dedicated marketing people, invest in our subscription management software, do things that we wouldn’t probably have been able to do if we were just a single entity.
That’s smart. I don’t have any more questions – is there anything you want to add?
Brendon Thomas: I’m continually amazed how Steve and Debbee’s vision 30 years ago has withstood the test of time. It’s the model that most media companies are now following.
I’d also say that people really love the journal. It’s pretty cool to have these fans who are your customers interact with you day-in and day-out. That’s a great part of the job.