Silver Lining in Circulation's Dark Cloud

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Here are the facts of 2001: Newsstand sales of magazines have experienced an estimated 7.6 percent drop in overall unit sales, a 2.6 percent drop in overall dollars and the worst sell-through performance to date of 35 percent. With postal rates ready to do more damage to an already shaky magazine circulation economy, is there a silver lining anywhere in sight? There is only if circulation directors know how to get back to the basics and add a bit of sparkling marketing flair.


Circulation issues are receiving growing attention for many reasons, one of which is the impending postal rate noose around the necks of mailers as the U.S. Postal Service looks to save its own future without considering the bigger picture of the health of magazines and publishing enterprises as a whole.


The Direct Marketing Association has tried to fight city hall. Now it is time to accept the inevitable and devise creative ways to take action. Here is an outline, from a marketing standpoint, of what types of circulation support and options are viable for direct marketing and strategic initiatives.


I am aware of the time and resource pressures that circulation directors are under, not to mention the budgets that seem to go through a daily interaction with a red pen and the financial version of a meat slicer. The idea is to identify desirable goals and work them within the restraints of dwindling budgets and mounting costs.


Traditionally, circulation directors would direct-mail an offer for a discounted subscription rate with the promise of a free clock radio, pen or golf cap. But the business-to-business and business-to-consumer magazine audience is wise to these offers - and though no one probably can have too many canvas tote bags, golf umbrellas or imprinted T-shirts, it might benefit circulation directors to rethink both their marketing mediums as well as their marketing messages. With the upcoming relaxation of Audit Bureau of Circulation rules on these methods, there will soon be a flood of all sorts of premium "stuff."


Of course, the renewals from these subscriptions will suffer just as they have in the past (said with all respect to good editorial).


E-mail and Web-based marketing campaigns offer circulation directors a real opportunity to dodge the postal bullet while prospecting to new markets and developing stronger relationships with existing subscribers.


Circulation directors probably could argue that using an electronic medium to get a subscription to a print magazine may be counterproductive. There may be some truth in this argument; however, the numbers may tell a different story.


Here are a few tips to keep in mind when re-evaluating your e-mail and Web marketing efforts:


•Be proactive about gathering useful data. One of your biggest marketing assets could be sitting in your own computer centers. Oftentimes circulation directors as well as marketers do not always tap the huge wealth of valuable information in their own databases. Work your existing databases for everything they are worth. Not just for promotional efforts, but for customer relationship management as well. Gather as much data from your readership as possible and use it smartly. For example: Say that you are an information technology magazine. You know that you have an article in your upcoming issue on mail server solutions. Why not work your database and send an e-mail blast to mail server administrators?


But if they did not opt in, put that on your subscription form and tell them the great benefits they will receive from your publication in between issues.


This strategy shows your existing subscribers that you have taken an interest in why they have subscribed to your magazine in the first place while showing them how to use the publication to their best advantage. Give them a few tips from the article with a link to special information and renewal pages on your site.


The difference here is that before you ask them for the renewal, you have made the publication more valuable. So when you do ask them for the online renewal, you have given them more of a reason to click.


By the way, special "bonus" features sent via e-mail from your editorial staffs coupled with a renewal extension or cross-sell offer can go a long way.


Leave no stone unturned. E-mail marketing offers circulation directors the chance to prospect to potential subscribers in places they may not have previously considered.


In a minute you will probably read concepts that you have used countless times for postal promotions - they all work with e-mail. One of the beauties of e-mail is the ability to test copy, price and offer for relatively little money and in very short periods of time and to get the results as soon as possible.


If that were not the case, the USPS would not be in all the trouble it is in.


Here are those tried-and-true statements that still work for e-mail.


•When considering a list to test, look beyond the list's name to the demographics. Who are these people? What are their interests in particular categories or product types?


•Take a deep look at how your own circulation file reflects trends within the overall industry. Then translate that demographic information into your list selection process. Strategic planning efforts benefit from an understanding of areas of similarity.


• Look around. Those who are succeeding and those who are folding both have lessons to share. Look and learn. We have all been programmed to look at the goings-on of our nearest competitors, but take the time to look at the industry as a whole. A publication that goes after an entirely different market may be doing quite well. Look at what it is doing and translate its efforts into a plan that makes sense for your audience. Take the "what" and "how" and just change the "who."


• While you are out there looking for ways to uncover new leads and looking for success strategies, be sure to develop friendly working relationships with your competitors because your best leads might just be sitting in your competitors' own e-mail databases.


Face it, you are both going after pretty much the same audience anyway. E-mail exchanges among friendly rivals offer one of the most budget-friendly alternatives available anywhere. We have been doing these exchanges in the postal world for years.


In most cases when an exchange is negotiated, the list rental costs are waived, and both parties pay only transmission costs and other nominal fees. An e-mail exchange helps circulation directors and marketers reduce costs through the Internet and develop online audiences and communities that have far-reaching implications such as driving traffic, registration and maximizing the power of databases.


• Coordination is king. Introduce your left hand to your right hand. Making your e-mail marketing a true sales tool means that everyone from editorial to ad sales to subscription telemarketers all stay on theme and reflect changes in the marketing focus. One of the reasons many direct mail campaigns - not just e-mail campaigns - fail is that there is no follow-up.


•Update the sales force about everything to do with an upcoming e-mail blast. If possible, let your salespeople see your jump page, and inform them of the list you are using. Even points that you consider routine or minor may be useful as follow-up sales tools when you are talking about prospects. An example would be any new services offered to subscribers and the actual message that will be sent out.


It used to be that direct mail was the simpler form of marketing. But now the complexity of postal regulations is mind-boggling, not to mention frustrating. The operational marketing reality is that in order to survive in a challenging marketplace you need to consider options that you may never have considered before or rethink those you have tried and use them in new ways.


Looming over this uncertain marketing and publishing economy is a shared concern for financial health. As we watch publishing structures change, there needs to be a universal acknowledgment that with rising postage costs it could be costly to rebuild prospect channels. While we look for the clouds to part, we might as well bide our time by adopting a universal acknowledgment that new ideas must be uncovered.
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