What Makes a Best-Selling Magazine Cover?

No part of a women’s magazine is more critiqued, tinkered with, obsessed over, and polished to focus-grouped perfection than its cover. Magazine covers are meticulously designed for maximum grabbiness. Editors know what readers like and respond to, and what makes them put their wallets away. Want to know how to craft a best-selling magazine cover? Here are 159 shocking, sexy secrets about how covers convince us to buy. (See what we did there?)
Celeb Cover
Lots of Numbers
Clean Lines
Seventeen Magazine Cover
Big, Bouncy Hair
Provocative Keywords and Sensational Headlines
Eye-Grabbing Formatting

Eye-Grabbing Formatting

This cover’s layout is meant to draw your attention to a few very specific places: The circular inset draws your gaze to information that’s important—the theme of the magazine, not to mention three powerful keywords—while hot-pink colors highlight the best headlines. The biggest feature in the magazine is promoted in a giant font with two colors.

Related Stories: Women’s Magazines: Who’s Evolving, Us or Them? A Man’s Take on Advice in Women’s Magazines My Night as a “Cosmo Girl”
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Lots of Numbers

Numbers suggest value, and the higher the number, the greater the value of the information in the magazine—in the reader’s mind, anyway. Editors tend to prefer random, uneven numbers (like 832) to round numbers (like 800). They also know that it doesn’t really matter if there are actually 832 looks—no one’s counting.

Clean Lines

Adult women’s magazines tend to feature cover subjects styled simply, with few accessories or busy details. The layouts (like this one, Elle’s 2011 best-seller) are clean, featuring a simple color palette.

Seventeen Magazine Cover

However, research shows that teens prefer lots of detail on covers, so teen mag covers are an explosion of fonts, colors, and formatting, with cover subjects wearing louder prints, jewelry, and accessories.

Big, Bouncy Hair

When styling the model or celebrity for the cover of a magazine (like Olivia Wilde’s cover issue of Women’s Health, the best-selling issue of 2011), producers want big, bouncy, blowsy hair. “Not only abundant hair, but the blowing hair is crucial for us,” said Allure Editor-in-Chief Linda Wells in 2008. “The worst thing we can do is a really tight, pulled-back style or a hat.” Olivia—along with her hair—had the second-highest selling issue of Allure in 2011.

Provocative Keywords and Sensational Headlines

Women’s magazine headlines use lots of keywords—“shocking,” “secrets,” “love,” “now,” “easy,” “best,” and most importantly, “sex,” which appears a whopping three times on Cosmo’s August 2011 issue, the best-selling issue of the year. The headlines are short, concise, and easily digestible, promising a better you by the time you finish reading. Exclamation points suggest urgency.

Eye-Grabbing Formatting

This cover’s layout is meant to draw your attention to a few very specific places: The circular inset draws your gaze to information that’s important—the theme of the magazine, not to mention three powerful keywords—while hot-pink colors highlight the best headlines. The biggest feature in the magazine is promoted in a giant font with two colors.

Related Stories: Women’s Magazines: Who’s Evolving, Us or Them? A Man’s Take on Advice in Women’s Magazines My Night as a “Cosmo Girl”

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