Debunking the Myth of Controlled Circulation

A fund manager once quipped, “Conventional wisdom is the perfect hedge – long on convention and short on wisdom.” Whether sports, politics or business, there are maxims that have gone unquestioned for so long that they are accepted at face value despite changed environments.

In magazine advertising, the simplified form goes something like this: controlled circulation, bad; paid circulation, good. But like most conventional wisdoms, there is little motivation to re-evaluate old belief systems, resulting in a vacuum of much-needed dialogue.

So let’s ask the bold question: Is the magazine reader who is a paid subscriber actually a more targeted, relevant consumer for a marketer? It’s interesting how rarely that question is asked.

Conventional wisdom tells us that anyone willing to pay for something must be more engaged, and thus a more valuable potential customer. Though that logic is compelling, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

For starters, the line dividing paid- and controlled-circulation magazines increasingly is blurred. The majority of paid-circulation publications have high percentages of non-paid readers in their rate base. Whether the subscriber has a free subscription by entering a sweepstakes or has received a free issue from signing up online, the actual number of paid subscribers is a smaller number than reported.

Circulation auditors are building awareness of this trend, and so marketers are beginning to demand circulations that more accurately reflect the readership. Progress is being made here.

However, the irony is that this new valuable dialogue has served only to reinforce the conventional wisdom. By viewing any non-paid circulation as a problem to be addressed, we as an industry unfairly add to the stigma of a controlled-circulation readership.

So, back to our question: Is the magazine reader who is a paid subscriber a more targeted, engaged and relevant consumer for a marketer? Conventionally speaking, I’d say yes. But again, here we are comparing the paid subscriber to an unsuspecting and largely uninterested target of a free promotion.

The more interesting comparison is between a paid circulation – which includes some of these promotional subscribers – and a targeted controlled circulation. This is where conventional wisdom must be up for debate.

A publication that delivers a reader who is demographically important, efficiently targeted and engaged in the publication is generally an effective marketing vehicle. Can it be that paid-circulation magazines have a monopoly on such readers? Absolutely not.

In my experience, many controlled-circulation magazines can deliver equally targeted, relevant, important and engaged readers as their paid-circulation counterparts. By controlling the circulation through specific, difficult-to-reach distribution channels, these publications often offer greater efficiency to the marketer.

Conventional wisdom also presupposes that paid-circulation pubs can validate their readership more effectively. Not so.

The Audit Bureau of Circulations, BPA Worldwide and other third parties can audit both categories of publications. Both categories can provide independent, third-party research evaluating the interaction of the reader with the magazine, and both can provide relevant and important demographic data pertaining to the readership. So why is “paid subscriber” a proxy for “more targeted and engaged audience”?

From my perspective, it is simply a matter of perception. There certainly are controlled-circulation publications that offer little marketing value to their advertisers. They are printed in mass, with no targeted distribution system, no compelling editorial premise, no third-party validation and ultimately no engaged readership. These magazines feed the perception for all controlled-circulation publications, many of which do not share such characteristics.

Or perhaps it is simply easier to think that this proxy exists than to challenge it.

For example, marketing executives use standard tools to evaluate the targeted reach of publications. But almost all of these tools cater to paid circulation.

MRI, the standard-bearer for research in the industry, recently solicited a controlled-circulation publication to be included in its study sample. After several discussions, it was determined that because of the specific nature of the controlled distribution, the MRI research lacked the capability to reflect the magazine’s readership accurately.

The magazine then turned to another reputable research firm specifically designed to accommodate the idiosyncrasies of controlled-circulation distribution. However, these research firms do not publish studies that regularly reach the desks of the nation’s leading ad agencies.

This is just one example of how it requires time and energy for decision makers to evaluate and understand the benefits and differences of buying media in controlled-circulation publications.

Regardless of the underlying cause, it is time to re-evaluate the perception and challenge the notion that “paid” should be a proxy for “engaged.” We must question the conventional wisdom that a controlled-circulation readership is inherently inferior.

Just as publishers are being asked by marketers to reconsider their own circulation tactics, so should marketers be asked by publishers to take a more in-depth approach to understanding and evaluating nontraditional circulation and distribution methods.

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