Ryder Happy Where Reader's Digest Is Headed

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NEW YORK -- If you ask Thomas Ryder how he thinks Reader's Digest Association is doing since he took over the helm a year and a half ago, he'll say, "We're not declaring victory, but we are declaring progress."

Ryder, who spoke at the Direct Marketing Idea Exchange luncheon here yesterday, was relaxed as he talked to familiar faces in the DM world and outlined the company's downspiral and re-emergence.

"I like where we are with the magazine very much," he said. "The magazine made a lot more profit this year. I'd like the stock to be at $44 a share, not $31, where it is now." Actually, the stock closed yesterday at just over $29, but that's still much higher than its 52-week low of $16.

Discussing some of the changes since he came on board, Ryder pointed out how long the company used to take to put together a direct mail piece: "From inception to execution, it was 37 weeks. We're now at 13 weeks and doing it with half the people."

Another change is in its marketing efforts. The Digest tried its last nonsweepstakes promotion 15 years ago; this year, that category will make up 25 percent of its total strategy. To cut costs, the company slashed the amount of mail it sent out around the world by 40 percent. "In a very short period of time, response rates had dropped 50 percent," he said.

Two areas where Ryder sees growth are financial marketing to people over age 50 ("They have all the money") and the Internet. Expect the Digest to build its current Web sites and partner with or acquire more Web companies, like the alliance it announced in June with WebMD. He also touched on the oft-repeated notion in publishing to customize the magazine to individual interests - so a business junkie could receive a magazine filled with just business articles.

The Digest brand is strong. I, for instance, have been a reader my entire life -- my grandmother gave her children a subscription each year and kept adding to the list as my generation left home, and my father took over when she died. I hate to admit, though, that I told Dad a few months ago not to renew my subscription this Christmas. Whether I've changed or the Digest did, I don't see its value any more ... though if Ryder succeeded in giving me a magazine filled with the stories I'm interested in, I'd probably be back.

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