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The 6 Rules of Controlled Circulation

The publishing business is notoriously fickle. Just look at the graveyard where good, even great, magazines lie. Many of the deceased were large, general-interest magazines, once an integral part of American life. But an equal or greater number of niche publications were buried as well.

What is the status of niche magazines, or as we in publishing like to call them, special-interest publications? There are more today than ever, but the failure rate remains high.

Today’s publishers fight the same economic battles that felled so many others: competition, paper costs, subscriber acquisition costs, rising postal rates, etc. Yet some are thriving, even growing in a recession.

To understand the success of controlled-circulation magazines, one first must understand the downsides, then strive to avoid them at all costs.

Rule No. 1. If you do not deliver on your editorial mission, renewal rates will dip – the first step in a publishing death spiral. It costs but a fraction to requalify a subscriber as opposed to replacing that subscriber. The most commonly acknowledged figure for acquiring a subscriber is $35. A renewal costs about 5 percent of that.

Rule No. 2. Incomplete data on the subscriber qualifying form require costly follow-up by circulation staffers or hired consultants.

Rule No. 3. No standard qualification forms exist in the industry to address what data should be collected, making it difficult, if not impossible, for interested parties such as advertisers to compare apples to apples. This can make it more challenging to offer a clear, irrefutable and documented competitive advantage.

Rule No. 4. Controlled circulation is open to selective and subjective scrutiny by competitors that will try to create market confusion through partial interpretation of the data. That is why it is critical for a controlled-circulation publication to stay true to its editorial mission.

Rule No. 5. Some qualification forms will contain inaccurate data – some from innocent mistakes, some from intentional misrepresentation. This can be avoided by careful checks and scrutiny, which, if performed properly, make your publication that much more attractive to readers and advertisers.

Rule No. 6. Advertisers always seek more specific demographic information than is contained on the qualification form.

These areas represent some of the challenges of publishing highly targeted controlled-circulation magazines. What are the opportunities, that come with highly refined subscriber lists? Consider:

· Because your target audience is so homogeneous, you know the title of the reader, the size of the company, budgets and future spending. How valuable is this to marketers wishing to reach and build awareness and relationships within a niche audience? Priceless!

· The publication can build stronger relationships with readers by understanding and addressing career and business needs in editorial content.

· Brand extensions can be based on the demographics of the readership, their mutual interests and unmet needs. Extensions might include conferences on specific topics, an online community, peer-to-peer exchanges or newsletters – all based on the readership and its interests.

· The advertising rate base of a controlled-circulation publication does not fluctuate, as opposed to a paid circulation with a newsstand component. Thus, publishers can build longer-term relationships with advertisers.

· More interaction occurs with the targeted readership supporting the editorial mission. This results in editorial content more in line with reader expectations. This leads to more pages being read than in typical mass-circulation magazines.

· Readers with a shared interest have a natural affinity for one another. They share mutual problems, solutions and goals. This enables a strong relationship to be formed with readers. It is not uncommon for readers to view your publication as an essential career tool.

· There is no bad debt from non-paying subscribers, as with the paid-circulation publication model. Every person on the list ideally has been reviewed and established as someone who belongs there.

When compared, the opportunities of a controlled-circulation publication greatly outweigh the risks, but only if the subscriber base is managed carefully. Mistakes, such as inflating circulation numbers (as we saw recently with both controlled and mass-market publications) or improper brand management, can challenge the publication’s carefully nurtured and well-guarded credibility and cause readers to turn elsewhere for information needs. It also can lead to advertisers seeking new marketing vehicles.

The exact nature of the circulation structure should be determined long before a magazine is launched. Critical circulation questions must be addressed carefully, and the editorial goals must be defined and understood by both the publisher and potential advertisers.

To reach high-level executives with common interests, controlled circulation generally works better, as you are more secure in knowing you are actually reaching the target audience.

It is the value proposition that each publisher must consider: whether to have a smaller yet more defined circulation, or a larger, more diverse one.

Other successful models built around a common interest, such as alumni magazines, can work equally well. Some mass-market publications reaching a niche audience, like Car and Driver or Bride’s magazine, can assume certain qualities of controlled circulation. They, too, can reach specialized, focused audiences. However, remember that without the proper checks and balances, they cannot offer the same guarantees to readers and advertisers as a controlled-circulation publication.

A first step in building controlled-circulation publications is the creation of an editorial staff of first-rate journalists who understand the issues, trends and topics of interest of the readership.

Editorial staff turnover at well-run publications is virtually nonexistent in an industry where it is otherwise rampant. Continuity provides journalists with a deeper understanding of the topic areas as well as stronger relationships with their audience.

One of the most rewarding aspects of a proven brand is the chance to create brand extensions. Successful extensions can generate significant revenue and foster even greater audience loyalty.

Brand extensions pay benefits on the editorial side, too. Writers and editors can sit in on executive conferences and participate in discussions with readers. They return to their offices with firsthand feedback on their published reporting. They also are exposed to new story ideas and sources for future articles.

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