Tips and Insights on Choosing the Right Circulation Vendor
SpecComm International is a publisher of 16 magazines and guides for both the b-to-b and consumer markets. Founded in 1981, the Raleigh, N.C.-based company also produces a host of newsletters, Web offerings, research and analysis, and data and custom media products. After investigating and negotiating with nearly 10 circulation vendors over the course of this past year, SpecComm announced this week that it settled on ARGI, a provider of subscription fulfillment, reader service and database marketing solutions headquartered in Montvale, N.J.
Two of SpecComm’s executives who were at the heart of the selection process, Lesley Castle (vice president) and Victoria Gardner (director of information technology), agreed to offer their thoughts on the process of choosing a circulation vendor.
Inbox: Was there an “Ah-hah!” moment that caused you to realize you should look at outsourcing your circulation and fulfillment operations?
Lesley Castle: When we found out what the cost of upgrading software was going to be, the decision at that point was that we needed to look at all of our options, including outsourcing. I don’t think there was really an “Ah-hah!” moment because Vicki and I have spent the better part of a year now looking at about eight to 10 different vendors. Trying to get apples to apples compared from different vendors is a very difficult task. I’ve read many magazine articles that tell you to have a very [specific] request for proposal, but the problem is that [the vendors] aren’t all quoting the same things. So a lot of it was give and take in trying to figure out what the right fit was for us.
Vicki Gardner: In the initial contact with the vendors and in looking at their Web sites and reading their marketing materials, I found it very difficult to determine who was good at what. There are some vendors who concentrate on consumer [magazines] and others who concentrate on controlled and b-to-b. It’s just very difficult to even narrow down the range of vendors we should be looking at. Once I got into discussions with a couple of vendors, it was pretty clear that we were going to be an extraordinarily different kind of fish than they had ever dealt with before.
Inbox: During the vendor-selection process, did you solicit advice from any other publishers who were already outsourcing their operations?
Castle: ... We went to [an industry event] and came away with names of several different circulators which was very helpful to us in knowing that so many of these companies were outsourcing and not keeping that function in-house anymore. So it made [outsourcing] sound like a much more appealing process to us. We hadn’t looked at circulation outsourcing in a very long time, and I think that ... you need to look at the process of how a publication gets out the door pretty carefully at least every five years. Things change so quickly.
Inbox: Can you offer any insights into the process of negotiating with a circulation vendor?
Castle: It’s like any other business negotiation in that there’s always room for maneuvering and there’s always room for some give and take on both sides. If you have partners who really see the long-term advantage [to a relationship with you], there’s a little bit more willingness to work with you and to give and take. ... As far as the pricing we got in on some of these proposals, they were all over the board. From there you have to figure out why the prices are so much different. You have to think that there’s a fair market area out there for circulation/fulfillment vendors. But it’s really hard to define it down to comparing apples to apples.
Gardner: ... And that was an extraordinarily difficult thing for us to arrive at. What is the “value” of the vendor’s services for us?
Castle: ... For us, it is going to be more efficient, and we hope to be able to use company resources for other efforts like subscription marketing and audience development.
Inbox: Aside from ARGI’s relationship as a vendor-partner with the Integrated Media Cooperative, of which you are a member, what would you point to as another major reason you chose to work with that company?
Castle: They’re very passionate and they’ve stayed in contact with us throughout most of this process. They’re one of the companies we’ve been talking to for close to a year. They showed a willingness to work with us throughout the process. Also, they have a lot of employees that have been there for a long time, and we’re one of those kind of employers who has long-term employees too. ... So it was a good fit for us. They’re interested in long-term relationships in addition to being a service provider to us.
Gardner: This Spring they purchased the Reader Service portion of Media Brains. That made for a nice synergy ... and I think was probably one of the tipping points.
Inbox: Now that the selection process is over, do you have any tips for other publishers considering outsourcing their circulation duties?
Gardner: Don’t be in a hurry.
Castle: ... Yes, realize the process is going to take a long time. And, quite frankly, by making this decision we’re really just starting the process. ...