Circulation gets a lift with high-class mail efforts

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How does a magazine publisher - after years of declining returns on its subscription offers, and sitting precariously within a rapidly changing industry - turn itself around and make a profit off subscribers? In the case of MetroCorp, publisher of Boston and Philadelphia magazines, the answer was simple: quality direct mail.

MetroCorp suffered dropping subscription rates on its local niche magazines for more than four years, hitting a low 3 percent response rate at one point. Not seeing success with its old mailing system, and faced with bleak circulation prospects, the publisher turned to custom printer Vertis Communications.

Marianne Kerr, circulation director for MetroCorp, had worked with Vertis VP of sales Ed Muscio before. Muscio suggested that MetroCorp overhaul the look, feel and creativity behind its mailings. He showed the creative and editorial teams at MetroCorp a successful business-to-business mailing as inspiration, and the new MetroCorp pieces were born.

The new mailings for Boston and Philadelphia included a statement of benefits, were printed on high-quality paper, and had four-color images of MetroCorp's magazine covers running down the sides of the paper. The offers were sent in personalized envelopes printed with a faux address label. They looked like high-quality pieces, the personalization helped them stand out from other mailings, and, most importantly, they worked.

Although the pieces drove MetroCorp's printing and production costs up 133 percent, the returns received more than offset these expenses. With such success, the mailings also cut down on the net cost per subscription.

In pursuit of affluence

MetroCorp magazines, such as Boston and Philadelphia, are designed with a high-end consumer in mind. In fact, the tag line for Boston magazine reads, "Your guide to the good life."

The magazines are glossy and carry ads from plastic surgeons, jewelers, interior design firms and luxury car dealers, including Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen. Events sponsored by the magazines also cater to a higher-income demographic, offering wine tastings and gourmet foods.

The sorts of people that read Boston magazine - or that MetroCorp wants as readers - are investors. They have the money to buy into more than just a magazine subscription, and they are the sort of audience that appreciates value-added benefits. Kerr describes the Boston subscriber base as "definitely upscale, affluent citizens." The average household income for Philadelphia and Boston readers is in the $150,000 range.

"Mostly, if you're talking regional pubs, people have seen your product already," says Elaine Tyson of Tyson & Associates. "You would hope that people in the market would want the information [that] you can tell them about where they live."

Niche audiences

As regional magazines, Boston and Philadelphia have a limited potential subscriber base; only people in those cities can be considered as possible customers. It is therefore essential for the titles to deepen their subscriber bases - with subscribers who are able to invest - rather than attempting to widen them.

A focus on quality was a large component of the MetroCorp success story. Both the design of the mailings and the mailing strategy were conceived with the idea of strengthening MetroCorp's relationship with existing customers, rather than expanding circulation rates.

The closed-face mail package, which featured an official-looking envelope, is something Muscio had used for three successful BTB magazines. "That design," Muscio says, "helps break through the clutter on your desk. It breaks through because it looks important."

Aside from looking high-end, the mail piece offers extensive benefits to subscribers. The offer included discounts, access to exclusive news, a choice of newsletters and a city restaurant guide. MetroCorp also hired a trusted out-of-house copywriter to ensure the relevance of the content.

"The whole package - the look, the feel, the statement of benefits - not only allowed us to market Philadelphia magazine, but also the branded value of the relationships of subscribers to Philadelphia magazine: the events, relationships with media partners, newsletters, etc." says Kerr.

Furthering its commitment to quality over quantity, MetroCorp used test panels across more than 30 lists to target the audience for the offer. With these lists, the publishing company knew it was reaching an interested audience, and one more likely to invest in MetroCorp products.

"Our goal in circulation is to continue to meet the profile already defined by our advertising partners," explains Kerr.

"We're clearly targeted to a subscriber profile," she continues. "We've been looking at this package for four or five years, and we've come up with something new and different that can speak more to our audience, but can give them preferred discounts if they are customers with relationships."

Jane Giles, director of business development for Cambey & West notes that the trend for many consumer magazines over the past year has been to actually reduce the rate base to get a higher-quality group of consumers.

"There was that trend, saying, æWe're not playing the numbers game,'" Giles explains. "æHere's our audience, they're paying good money, they're renewing - take it or leave it.'"

Success through simplicity

MetroCorp didn't use quirky designs or bizarre gift offers to lure its new subscribers. It looked to tried-and-true methods that had proven successful in the past. The statement-of-benefits idea has been cycled through BTB magazines for years, and it continues being used because it works. Consumers like benefits - it's not rocket science.

"[For] city and regional magazines, the advantage is we're not competitive because we are local and regional," said Kerr of using traditional mailing strategies. "We steal from each other, frankly. We all have the same package, so if you see something that's working, we're going to use it."

Giles adds, "A zillion people have been doing this [type of benefits package]. People are finding out that sometimes maybe you should go back to basics and to the tried and true because it does work."

A detail as simple as a close-faced envelope or a personalized address catches a consumer's attention without hitting him over the head. It can be argued that such an understated approach is more appealing to an upscale audience and better loans itself to the relationship building that's so essential to the success of publishers like MetroCorp.

"With very visual, upscale subject matter like food or wedding gowns [in MetroCorp's Boston Weddings], publishers have to think about how they look," says Tyson. "So they have to do something that reflects their product and reflects the value. You can't send out something that makes your company look bad or cheap."

In sending out high-quality, personalized mail pieces, MetroCorp was sending out visual proof of the valuable relationship that it was offering its customers. Personalized envelopes helped the company connect with potential subscribers. The visual caliber of the mailings showed that MetroCorp could deliver a good-looking, worthwhile product. The statement of benefits sealed the deal by offering extended information on, and interaction with, the magazine's subjects.

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