All questions and no answers

“And what do you do?” That dread cocktail party chat up line is so easy to answer if you’re a dentist, lawyer, banker, soldier or dustman. But what if you’re a circulation director? Here, Dennis Publishing’s Julian Thorne tries to explain, in just 1600 words, what he does all day.

By Julian Thorne

One question that I always struggle to answer succinctly is ‘what does a circulation director do all day?’ Asked socially, my preferred response is to change the subject and ignore weak witticisms that for some unknown reason nearly always involve some convoluted reference to the functions of the heart – asked professionally the same tactic is beginning to prove career limiting. However it’s a valid question and deserves some sort of reasoned answer. The best I can come up with is ‘to build profitable distribution routes to market for our products’. Before trying to explain what I mean by this somewhat bland statement let me, in the grand tradition of ‘A’ level candidates, define the key terms:


In publishing, a ‘profitable’ distribution route is one that can be demonstrated to deliver advertising and/or cover price revenues in excess of costs. Sounds obvious but I’m still astonished when consumer publishers repeatedly fail to account for advertising revenues as a product of distribution costs – something any B2B publisher takes as a self evident truth.

Distribution route

A valid ‘distribution route’ is a method of getting content in front of a reader. Again, on the face of it, an obvious statement but it poses some nasty little questions about the validity as a distribution route of unsolicited free copies in particular. Has a magazine that stays in its polywrap while it sits in the bin been the beneficiary of a true distribution route? Also, you tell me what the increasing scale of early returns says about the newstrade distribution route.


In this context the ‘market’ is defined as a reader or potential reader who is going to generate revenue in exchange for your product either directly via the cover price or indirectly via your advertisers. In a broader sense the ‘market’ encompasses your on-going relationship with your readers and the revenues that subsequently accrue from selling additional products and services such as exhibitions, books, mail order goods etc.


How can we best define our products? A Soho advertising creative will talk mysteriously about how magazines are ‘experiences’ while your printer will happily define a magazine by paper weight and method of binding. A simplistic (and therefore attractive) way of defining publishing products is to talk about content – both editorial and advertising content. Increasingly our published content comes in many guises ranging from printed paper through to digital content on your mobile phone or your laptop.

It is clear that any modern circulation professional who defines their job as ‘to build profitable distribution routes to market for our products’ is no longer limited just to the world of regularly beating up their newstrade distributor and going for the occasional drink with the next new, wet-behind-the-ears magazine retail buyer. Just to ram home the point just look at a by-no-means definitive list of the different distribution routes for published content now available:

* Grocery retailers
* Travel point retailers
* High street retailers
* Postal mail subscription (paid for)
* Postal mail subscription (free requested)
* Digital subscription
* Free street distribution
* Paid web site content
* Free web site content
* Licensed content
* Exhibitions
* Overseas retailers

Matching reader with product

The obvious next question is ‘why would you want to do such a job?’ Not a question I’m going to answer. However, I will try and answer ‘how do you choose what distribution route is appropriate for what products?’ The answer to this has something to do with finding a route which effectively matches the market (reader) with the product. It would clearly be foolish to try and profitably distribute an academic legal services newsletter via Tesco Metro stores because the match between reader and product is simply not provided by the distribution route. Unfortunately this simple picture is blurred, if not totally distorted, by the effect of the chosen distribution route on the readers’ view or ‘experience’ of the product.

Reader experience

Anyone who has ever read the results of a reader satisfaction survey from a postal subscriber will be acutely aware that the reader views the distribution route as an integral part of the product experience they have purchased. A subscriber will form an opinion of your brand based on not only the content but the level of customer service, the efficiency of the postal system, the quality of the poly bag etc. This is a lesson that most consumer manufacturers completely understand. Just look at the control car manufacturers demand over their dealerships or the shopping experience the cosmetics industry works so hard to engender in the halls of our department stores. By comparison the retail distribution and display of magazines is at times nothing short of embarrassing; it’s not uncommon to find a beautiful magazine like Vogue, advertising those very same cars and cosmetics, displayed next to soft porn in a run down independent with a strong line in super strength lager sales. What does this say about Vogue? The point is clear; in choosing a distribution route for our product (content) we heavily influence the readers’ perception of the product. Perhaps the Soho creative is on to something when he pontificates about product ‘experience’.

So the chosen distribution route influences the readers’ perception of the product but does the distribution route influence the reader? Compare yourself to how you behave in Borders on a lazy Sunday with how you behave in WH Smith three minutes before your train is due to depart and you have your answer. Rather than adding yet another layer of complexity to the circulation professional’s job the relationship between distribution route and reader behaviour in many ways helps to clarify the picture. Increasingly the UK retail environment is becoming more and more polarised between what might simplistically be called cheap convenience shopping (grocery) and shopping as a form of more expensive entertainment (Borders, Waterstones, LK Bennett). It is stores that are in neither camp that are feeling the pressure (WH Smith High Street, Boots).

As the stores’ customer offering becomes polarised the ability to target our products by reader behaviour becomes more achievable. Readers in grocery stores are generally in a rush and make quick, emotive decisions hence the high sales and targeting of entertainment weeklies. Readers in WH Smith High Street stores have been compared to lovers of libraries and will take time to hunt out a specialist magazine to which they are loyal. It’s obvious, but how many times has a long suffering national account manager for a distributor had to tell a publisher that there is simply no point in proposing a title like Antique Garden Furniture Monthly to Asda? The principle that each distribution route will have its own reader profile remains true away from the retail sector. Consumers of a paid for subscription title are different in their behaviours from those of a controlled circulation title, those consuming web content different from those picking up a free sheet and so on. This difference in behaviours by distribution route is true even within the same individual.

There remains one further question that needs answering and that is ‘what are the benefits to the reader of the product?’ The reason for this question is to make sure that the reader benefits are not in direct conflict with the features of the distribution route. If one of the benefits of a weekly magazine is timeliness then export distribution is unlikely to work. Yet, again it seems obvious but I have had long slightly dull conversations trying to explain why a ‘coffee table’ magazine is not working as a digital product whereas an information rich business magazine is.

Three subsidiary questions

Hopefully it is now becoming clear that in order to partly answer the ‘how do you choose what distribution route is appropriate for what products?’ the circulation professional must first be able to provide answers to the following three subsidiary questions:

* What are the behaviours and profiles of readers split by distribution route?
* How does each distribution route effect how readers perceive the product ‘experience’?
* What are the benefits to the reader of the product?

Answer these and you should be in a position to confidently answer ‘how do I choose what distribution route is appropriate for my products?’. The final stage is to ensure that in providing your answer you have absolute coherence between your product benefits, your reader behaviours and your reader experience of the product.

Multiple markets

Simple job? Only in theory. In reality almost all products (content) have more than one defined market (group of readers). The Economist has students and CEOs reading the same content, FHM has a significant minority of female readers as well as lads which helps explains the plural in the job description; ‘to build profitable distribution routes to market for our products’. On top of that, how many people do you know that can tell you, even half convincingly, what subscriber life time value really means, whether it is better to have a fixed remit on export or take the exchange rate risk, what the impact of the privacy laws mean to digital distribution not to mention the likely outcome of the current retail supply chain pressures.

Anyway, I’m off to beat up my distributor and take the new buyer out for a drink to ask him to forget everything he learnt about buying cabbages and concentrate as I try to explain what a circulation director does all day…