Is Your Fulfillment Fulfilling?
With all the talk of digital platforms and new pay models, it needs to be remembered that there is room for innovation and improvement in the realm of print circulation and fulfillment, which for most publishers still makes up the bulk of their businesses. Inbox asked Bill Billick, president of Hellertown, Pa.-based Media Research Corp. of America, for his views on the need for publishers to keep an eye on these fundamentals.
INBOX: Do you believe magazine publishers are putting less emphasis on good circulation practices than they should? If so, what's driving the neglect?
BILLICK: For those publishers who reduced their circulation staff/budgets, something has to give. That may mean fewer lists being tested, less time available to adequately evaluate options, and reduced morale due to increased workloads and hours. So much to do, so little time to do it means that the quality of the work will often suffer.
INBOX: What promotion/fulfillment-related things do publishers do that are most likely to annoy existing subscribers? How can these be remedied?
BILLICK: Receiving renewal offers within a few months after starting (or renewing) their subscription; being bombarded with too many renewal offers; receiving too many promotions for other products being sold by the publisher; automatic renewals that subscribers don't remember ever agreeing to; and [logistics issues that cause complaints like] "LL Bean can send me my order the next day while some publishers need eight weeks to mail me my first issue".
Solutions to the above are mostly self-evident, but several could be more costly to resolve than others and/or conflict with advertisers' preferences.
INBOX: What about courting new subscribers? Are publishers missing opportunities?
BILLICK: The increased cost of list testing may be causing some publishers to test fewer lists or test less often. Evaluation of other titles' lists can be readily accomplished via research-based list-testing models. In addition, since the research-based models are inherently more cost-effective, they'll also allow a publisher to cast a wider net to catch more fish — and possibly fish in places they haven't yet explored.
INBOX: What's the nature of these research-based models?
They combine survey research data with ABC circ data via a proprietary statistical model to develop a ranking of (up to) 30 magazine titles. Magazines at the top of this ranking would likely be quite productive if their lists had actually been tested via direct mail, while magazines closer to the bottom of the ranking would likely bomb.
INBOX: Some of the publications that have weathered the recession best charge a premium for subscriptions (e.g. The Economist, Cooking With Paula Deen). What's behind the seeming disjunct between a thrifty populace and these type of success stories?
BILLICK: All publishers will always charge as much as they can for their subscriptions, but, in the end, the price of a subscription will always come back to the value that a reader places on it along with how much their competitive field charges. If you're delivering content that's highly valued, then you'll be at the top of that price range.
Another contributing factor, in these tight economic times, will be the subscribers' ability to pay for a subscription. Obviously, if your subscribers have a median income of $200,000 you'll be able to charge more (assuming your content meets their needs). But if your subscribers only have a medium income of $50,000 and they're sinking in a sea of constantly rising prices, then their subscription decisions become far more difficult. In our recent research, we're seeing about 40 percent of all U.S. consumers either cutting back or seriously thinking about cutting back their subscriptions. Mass-circulation magazines are being especially hard hit.
INBOX: When it comes to subscriber data, to what should publishers be paying the most attention? What metrics are most significant, and which are somewhat deceptive or simply distracting?
BILLICK: The most important subscriber data will always be content-related: what subscribers most want to read about; which improvements are most desired; which content areas should be cut back vs. expanded; which departments should be cut or reduced in frequency; and what new departments should be started.
It's also imperative that a publisher gets a good handle on renewal intentions, but simply asking subscribers whether or not they plan to renew won't deliver the data needed. For accurate and projectable data, it will always require more sophisticated multivariate modeling techniques. Those renewal models will also empower a publisher to analyze all of their survey data by renewers vs. non-renewers. Armed with this insightful data, tougher decisions become easier.