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Circulation futures in an electronic era?

As newspapers evolve into brands – in which the print product is just one of a number of content delivery platforms – are publishers going to set up parallel circulation teams to deal with each? On the evidence so far, the answer is ‘probably’, yet, says David Owen, this is a wasteful replication of skills and resources. The answer is to keep all circulation activity together and place it under the management of those currently responsible for newspaper sales.

By David Owen

The publishing model is changing before our very eyes and with it the traditional role of circulation management. At every newspaper conference from Harrogate to Seoul we are learning of new threats and opportunities ushered in by rapidly changing technologies and lifestyles. We are getting to grips with the stunning notion that UK national and local newspapers might actually be in direct competition with Google, e-bay and Yahoo rather than with each other. Quite how much of this is reality for today rather than hype for tomorrow is unclear but for all of us engaged at the mucky logistical end of the business these are particularly challenging times.

Remembering hot metal

When a physical paper based business seriously starts to migrate on-line what future is there for the old production and circulation skills that have served this industry so well? (This is not to mention those other businesses that make a tidy crust from paper distribution but this is not the time to discuss the future for distributors, wholesalers and retailers). Already in my working life time I have seen skills obsolescence sweep through the newspaper business wiping out thousands of jobs and helping to produce the black profit figures most publishers enjoy. Only going as far back as the mid 1980’s national newspapers employed over 100 compositors each, for instance, to produce the hot metal editions and these well paid jobs were deleted overnight by the introduction of new technology.

Of course you can’t compare the step change of moving from hot metal to on-screen pagination with the slower migration from print to web but the risks to production and circulation staff are still written very large on the screen. It must be wonderful to be part of the heady process of opening up a new future for a mature and struggling business but this is less exciting if your own section has no future. Business altruism only washes so far before each bright young spark starts to question where they and their skills will fit in this new picture.

The key skill set: IT

One thing is certain and that is that the model will change and new skills will be required in all sections of the business. In editorial terms new media investment sparked the recruitment of younger more flexible journalists who played by different rules and produced different copy. They were not necessarily better than the traditional print journalists (often quite the opposite) but they were prepared to work for less money and at odd hours. In advertising terms publishers counter new and aggressive competitors with a different breed of sales executive that are as comfortable with electronic publishing as they were with traditional media. IT literacy has become the key skill set in the modern publishing model and a quick count of heads in the technical support areas will prove the case. In the circulation world there is a clear choice between ignoring the electronic future and embracing it.

What then is the future for the more traditional hirsute bottomed circulation managers in this new world? Right now one might say ‘just carry on as you were before’ because the electronic Tsunami has not yet hit the beach. The proportion of sales and revenues from print sources dwarfs that of the web business and looks likely to remain the case for some time to come. Most publishers have already had at least one false start with web publishing and some cynics will question whether it will ever happen to the extent that the experts are predicting. The fact is that this time the technology is better, advertising revenue is more available and the momentum is now huge. Customers will always be the drivers in this business and they will demand more flexible service from their chosen providers or go elsewhere if their needs are not met.

Inexorable decline of print

All predictions from the publishing crystal ball show an unstoppable path of electronic publishing competing in the maelstrom of weblogs, personal lap-tops and on-line auction houses. Paper sales are bound to dwindle faster as more people exercise choice and no amount of fiddling about with paper shapes and sizes will slow it now. Publishers will end up with higher and higher levels of fixed production costs attached to lower levels of sales in the paper channel. Of course this matters less when the overall project is making money and the customers are happy but it cannot help but be a crimp in the day of a circulation manager.

The question is, should the existing circulation staff stake their claim now for management of the whole delivery process regardless of channel? Or is their role forever confined to management of the traditional paper channels. Subscriptions are already a mixture of paper, web and electronic delivery and someone needs to step in and manage this explosion. To my mind there is a great opportunity here for expanding the circulation role and safeguarding the circulation manager’s place at the electronic publishing table. Why should the fact that a subscriber wants to receive an electronic rather than a paper edition make any difference to the relationship. They still need to have their finances managed, their delivery counted and controlled and the transaction audited. The means of delivery may change but the fundamental interaction does not.

Broadening circulation’s remit

I see many publishers creating special business areas for the new publishing business replicating existing skills (and increasing headcounts) rather than expanding the remit of the existing staff. Sure, this requires a new approach and new skills but it also requires many of the same skills that have been tried and tested over the years. Why should subscription marketing be any different when applied to an SMS service or to electronic editions? The engagement and execution are the same and the role of expanding electronic sales should stay with those currently charged with managing paper sales. The benefits are huge in terms of motivating younger circulation managers who must be fed up with hearing of the demise of paper based sales. It should also attract the right sort of new entrant into the business with graduate intellect and top notch IT marketing skills.

Keeping the management of circulation sales together regardless of delivery mechanism will pay off massively for publishers as opportunities will be seized that otherwise would be missed by staff less experienced in the art and mystery of circulation.

Auditing organisations like ABC are under pressure to measure audience in a more flexible way. As publishers sell through more and more channels it will require a different measurement environment that will reflect the reach and value of a publishing brand to its advertisers. There is great value for the publisher to centralise the management of all of these customers rather than perpetuate the myth that these are different customers in different commercial pockets. The relationships between customer and publisher are becoming increasingly complex and we need a deeper understanding of all of these contacts. Web access, casual purchase of the edition and subscription to an SMS alert service may reflect the activities in a single day from a single customer and yet this may not be fully recognised. The cross over between advertising sales, marketing and circulation activities have never been so blurred and there is a strong case that the circulation team can play a much fuller role.

As in all new media, business success is a mixture of quality content, creative marketing and efficient delivery. Circulation managers have always been good at efficient management of processes and quality customer service and these values will remain as important as ever.

Three key stages

In the future I see the publishing model having only three key stages. Firstly the creation of content, secondly the sale of that content to the advertising community and thirdly the management of the delivery of the content to the outside world. The means of production and distribution will vary from ink to electronic but it will all be managed through a single channel. The delivery channel will be vital to this new style enterprise because they should also be able to track exactly what customers want, not just in terms of delivery service but also in terms of content. The tracking of customer reading preferences will become much clearer on-line and the answers may come as a big surprise to those in editorial ivory towers who today assume they already know the answers.

The IT departments will believe that they alone can master the new technologies in all business areas, but this comes at a high price both in dollars and in lost opportunities. An IT person learning circulation is nothing like as useful, in my opinion, as a circulation guy who has IT literacy. Now is the time for the diversification to happen and for the key skills to be acquired, not after the devastation that will happen after the wave hits the shore.