In support of downtime: Free time for idea development for circulation success

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Ken Sheldon
Ken Sheldon

Sometimes it may look like the circulation team at New York magazine has a lot of free time to gather and chat. It's not that we don't have enough to do; our work process may just need some explaining.

Informal brainstorming for ideas to grow the business is a priority, one that ranks much higher than excessive reporting and analysis. Things are run efficiently at New York and all key circulation sources are being covered. On top of that, we've done more than our share of work on nontraditional projects such as launching an event series (NYxNY) and chipping in on initiatives. There isn't a shortage of responsibility but rather a deliberate focus on generating new ideas.

New York magazine has seen paid subscriptions continue to grow, and it's largely the result of a lot of small wins. Most were simple suggestions that developed into significant improvements. A recent example was the rollout of promotions utilizing special issues as premiums. This went from an idea to live promos within 48 hours during the Lindsay Lohan Spring Fashion issue traffic surge.

Formal brainstorms bring the big ideas, but more regularly generating and implementing smaller initiatives can drive growth nicely. We don't schedule internal staff meetings to hash out new thoughts, but they seem to happen almost daily. An experienced staff coupled with an entrepreneurial atmosphere allows for timely marketing changes without excessive justification. Everyone on the staff has worked in places where more than 75% of the work was reporting and forecasting — running at a fraction of that at New York has directly led to the continuous rollout of marketing wins. If Google employees can free up 20% of their time for innovation, there must be room for ad hoc brainstorm sessions for circulators managing decades-old sources.

Assuming you can find the time for new thinking, here's one helpful technique: Nail down your cost per order, or “allowable”, and use it as a primary filter. An understanding of how much you can lose in subscriber acquisition based on the out year returns makes it easy to evaluate new ideas. Additional allowables may be helpful, such as those for generating a unique Web visitor or for collecting an e-mail address. Knowing the acceptable cost to bring in the new customer really narrows the window of ideas that are worth evaluating further.

New York magazine's NYxNY Event Series looked like an extreme way to generate subscriptions but a quick estimate of the economics shook out at a cost per subscriber that was on par with lower tier direct mail. The series was launched a year ago given those economics and a desire to expand New York magazine's marketing to younger segments. The fact that New York magazine's median reader age just dropped eight years was a resounding validation of the numerous sessions spent kicking around ideas about how to create compelling NYxNY events and other new programs. Clearly we'll continue to have these impromptu brainstorms to generate ideas for new subscription sources and improvements to current ones. The only cost is less time to over-analyze subscription numbers, and I feel pretty comfortable with that tradeoff.

Ken Sheldon is the director of circulation for New York Media. You can reach him at

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