Magazines have always prided themselves on their longevity as a medium and their pass-along circulation — the additional readers each copy gains when it’s passed from hand to hand.

Today, social media are providing opportunities for readers to share content and experience their favorite magazines as part of their social activity online. As a result, this is the dawn of a new era of pass-along.

Building a Community of Readers

So far, Facebook and Twitter have both been tested as ways to market print subscriptions and publicize magazines’ online content.

Seventeen magazine tried offering a special subscription deal to its over 64,000 Twitter followers. If readers paid up front, they could get a $5 year-long subscription to the magazine through a link in a tweet.

“We had 170 paid subscriptions in 24 hours, which is a great number,” said Julie Hochheiser, the senior web editor for the Hearst Teen Network, which includes Seventeen’s online content. “We definitely thought that was a success.”

Tweets and Facebook posts also help promote the magazines’ websites, though Hochheiser said that posts should offer more value than just a link.

“With a content brand, your business is mostly driving traffic to your site, but Twitter users don’t necessarily want to be driven to your site,” she says. “They want what they’re finding in those 140 characters to be useful.”

Showcasing a Real-Time Voice

On the smaller end of the magazine spectrum, Lapham’s Quarterly, a magazine focusing on history and culture, is also active with social media. Web editor Michelle Legro said Lapham’s began using Twitter and Facebook simultaneously in October 2009, and that their efforts have grown steadily since then, mainly to showcase the ongoing research and discussions of the magazine staff.

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Lapham’s Quarterly’s Facebook page includes contests and historical facts

“It’s allowed us to give a real-time voice to the magazine,” Legro said. “We’re both a historical and a quarterly magazine, so social media let us give a voice to things we find out every single day.”

Lapham’s tweets, written by Legro, are noticeable for their frequent use of dates from the past and their placement of contemporary events within historical context. “I can see what people are talking about on Twitter, find a historical source in the archives and post that, then people share it around,” she said.

The response to Lapham’s social media efforts has been positive: Twitter and Facebook are now two of the site’s main traffic sources.

“We’ve found that Twitter acts like a stock and Facebook like a bond,” Legro said. On Twitter, “when people really like something, they join in bursts. With Facebook, people join slowly and steadily, but continue to join all the time.”

Magazine Advertisers Join In

Magazines are just now beginning to find ways to make partnerships with advertisers work via social media. Katie Tamony, editor-in-chief of Sunset magazine, described the magazine’s Facebook page as a “little laboratory” for new marketing ideas.

“We have 11,500 fans, so we can come to them not just with content, but also with some marketing ideas,” Tamony said. This small group of generally younger readers and fans posts about 500 “interactions” weekly to Sunset’s fan page, and offers real-time feedback to questions and offers presented by the staff.

Matt Milner, vice president of social media and community for Hearst Magazines Digital Media, described the careful balance required to integrate advertisers into a magazine’s social media efforts.

“Advertisers or partners can pay to join the conversation, but it’s equally as important to show that we realize that there has to be value added to these communities,” Milner said. “We give clear guidance to our advertisers: ‘It’s great you’re joining the conversation, but you’re not here to sell your product — you’re here to build your brand within our community’.”

For example, Seventeen has used both sponsored tweets and sponsored Facebook posts to involve advertisers in its social media content.

“Our audience didn’t really see the difference. As long as the content is interesting to them, they’ll click on it,” said Hochheiser, who works with Seventeen. “We make sure it’s something useful to them and not just a blatant ad, but it has the sponsor language right there.”

Enhancing Print Editions

Magazines’ social media efforts have also paid off for their print products.

“We pose questions to our readership to feed into future stories,” said Tamony from Sunset. Past queries included readers’ favorite ways to use spinach and their favorite road trips in the West. “We give a sampling of the Facebook responses we’ve gotten, and it’s fun for readers to see their names end up in print.”

In another example, Tamony said a recent Facebook question about favorite weeknight meals revealed how often readers used chicken in their everyday cooking, and how much they wanted new ideas for those meals. Her staff can use this feedback to craft relevant stories in future issues. “So even if we don’t use their comments, we’re still using their ideas in the magazine,” she said.

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Seventeen engages readers with Twitpics from fashion shoots

The conversation with readers has benefited Hearst magazines as well. “Sometimes we just listen. What do they want from content? What do they want our web editors to be writing about?” said Milner. “We feel like there’s a huge benefit to hearing that.”

Magazines’ use of social media also echoes and enhances the voice of the magazine itself. Legro is the social media “voice” of Lapham’s, and she works to maintain a specific style in her tweets and posts.

“I try to be light and accessible, because often with history, it can be perceived as dry, but really it’s extremely fun,” Legro said. “My goal is to entertain. History can entertain in itself. It just takes an editor to find the right things.”

For Sunset, using social media is like “having an event or a party going on all the time,” said Tamony. “It feels that way because Sunset is all about enjoying life and pleasurable things, so you get this kind of happy buzz from it.”

The lines distinguishing magazines’ print and online content, their social media projects and their advertising will probably continue to blur.

“It might take 10 years until we figure out how to master this,” said Milner. “Social media transcends departments — it’s beyond edit, beyond sales. It will inform more and more content decisions in a good way, but it’s going to take a little while.”

Susan Currie Sivek, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Mass Communication and Journalism Department at California State University, Fresno. Her research focuses on magazines and media communities. She also blogs at sivekmedia.com, and is the magazine correspondent for MediaShift.