Publications: smaller, but smarter?

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The news that Time magazine will reduce its rate base by 750,000 was mind-boggling to anyone dealing with total circulations of 30,000 or even 300,000. Equally staggering was that Time advertisers will be guaranteed an average audience of 19.5 million readers per issue, not just a rate base.

Who are these readers? Are they loyal? What are the conversion, pay-up and renewal rates?

These are the immediate musings of circulation/audience development managers when we read industry news like this. These are also the concerns of smaller niche publishers. I sometimes think they are luckier.

While major media companies worldwide are reducing staff and budgets, the smaller companies, whether consumer or business to business, have always had to do more with less money and staff support. Let's look at what smaller media firms have going for and against them.

On the plus side:

• Extremely loyal readers accustomed to (or perhaps demanding) highly targeted content and excellent customer service.

• Spunky circulation managers who know their readers, sometimes personally because they call so often.

• Readers ripe for ancillary product and combo offers (calendars, books, clothing) or donation and gift subscription solicitations. It's not junk marketing for these readers; it's value-added services.

On the minus side:

• No opportunity for error. If you alienate a portion of your readers, you don't have a big pool of prospects and replacements from which to draw.

• Limited time and budget that may preclude testing, premium offers, free trials - all the good stuff audience development managers at larger media firms may have.

• No colleagues or mentors like in a larger department. No one to brainstorm with. No one else who understands your world of tip-ons, back-starts, gracing and audits. This is especially tough if you're outside major media centers. And now the Independent Press Association has folded. Fortunately, we still have resources like the Direct Marketing Association's Circulation Day, DM News, NTCFI, FMA, WFMA and the Red 7 Media shows and products.

A case study. Let's look at what one small niche publisher is doing to build and retain circulation. I'll use a growing consumer special-interest sport magazine as an example. It is doing the following without a full-time circulation manager:

• Partnering with summer camps to give a free subscription as part of camp registrations, with the camp paying a special group rate.

• Offering magazine subscriptions in combination with its popular yearbook.

• Promoting gift subscriptions.

• Providing an online shopping cart for the magazine and ancillary products, linked directly to the fulfillment service for order processing. More about the cart to follow.

• Sending targeted direct mail with discount coupon incentives for these products.

• Offering two free issues for early renewal.

• Getting issues into sports shops for single-copy sales and to build brand awareness and subscriptions.

• Blasting an online newsletter with the latest news to those who register.

• Providing excellent customer service.

Ancillary product sales. We've seen one-off marketing balloon in the past few years. The shopping cart referred to earlier provides one-stop shopping for sport-related products such as a yearbook, calendar and clothing, plus the magazine subscription and back issues, along with a chance to advance renew and auto renew, thus saving future renewal efforts.

Having the orders all processed at one fulfillment center makes record keeping and customer service easier on the publisher.

Other smaller publishers are hosting seminars and conferences, expanding their brand. And they are hooking up with online subscription agencies. Note of caution here: If the subs are controlled or free trials, the publisher needs to have a clear understanding with the agency as to disallowing nonqualified orders, such as intra- and inter-file dupes, incomplete registrations or genuine garbage.

Circulation also can be increased through digital editions, especially as a sample issue, a trial to convert to pay or as a way to reach international audiences without the high freight costs. We've talked before about the digital edition bandwagon. It's not for everyone but it is worth looking into carefully.

Top-notch customer service. Nothing is worse than losing a good customer and not knowing why. A reader who had a good experience with a gift order will come back next year. A reader who is frustrated because the order line is always busy or the Web page is not user-friendly will shop someplace else. And small publishers cannot afford to lose that good customer.

An online customer service page with a box for open-ended comments, hosted by the fulfillment service, lets a reader compliment or complain about subscription service or editorial content so that you can react appropriately.

The key to maintaining and increasing your rate base or audience with a limited universe is to keep each reader happy and make it easy for each one to get in touch, renew, buy other products and connect with you and your brand.

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