Publisher turns programmer

Publishers do lots of things well but writing software isn’t usually one of them. For good reasons we tend to leave that to our suppliers. However, faced with challenges but no available third part solution, the team at the Herald & Post Series, decided to create their own system. James Evelegh takes up the story.

By James Evelegh

In the spring of 2002 the distribution team of the Herald & Post Series, headed by Colin Peter and Steve Malcolm were tearing their hair out. They were faced with the prospect of remapping their entire distribution area. This task, using time honoured methods of walking the rounds, held no appeal given the vagaries of the Edinburgh weather. Furthermore they had a strong sense that the traditional way of managing rounds, with its emphasis on legwork and paper was fundamentally the wrong way of doing things.

The Herald & Post Series team faced four challenges: oversized rounds, imprecisely drawn rounds, inefficient distributor management and blunt management tools.

Oversized rounds

Like many VFD publications, the rounds for the Herald & Post Series were manually mapped in the 1980s. Recent trends (including increased pagination, the growth of the leaflet business and the welter of health and safety legislation) have meant that the original rounds were producing bags which were simply too heavy and there was a real likelihood of lawsuits from disgruntled distributors if changes were not made.

Imprecisely drawn rounds

These manually routed rounds were not based on precise postcode boundaries. Back in the 1980s this was not a problem, but due to the increasing use, on the part of the national leaflet booking agencies of postcode sectors to define leaflet campaigns, this lack of alignment has lead to problems. Firstly the administrative one of trying to create leaflet distribution plans to match the criteria set by the booking agency, and secondly the problem of "out of area delivery". According to Colin Peter, typically you would find 10% of leaflets being delivered "out of area" on leaflet campaigns based on manually mapped rounds.

Inefficient distributor management

Until last year, distribution had been handled by a team of thirty two agents and approximately twelve hundred distributors. All recruitment and distributor management issues were handled by the agents. Real doubts were beginning to surface about the efficiency of this system with the role of the agent particularly coming under the spotlight. Colin Peter began to toy with the idea of centralising the operation, taking the agents out of the equation and managing the distributors direct from the office. However how could they do this with the poor management tools at their disposal? For all their perceived inefficiencies, the agent did at least shield them from the administrative horrors of distributor management.

Blunt management tools

In this information age, they were becoming increasingly frustrated with the cumbersome nature of the management tools at their disposal. Everything from dealing with matters of round coverage, the administration of leaflet sales and handling of customer service issues all relied on paper. Information was not at their fingertips, took a long time to find and because of the complexity of the manual process, could not always be trusted.

Colin and Steve came to two conclusions: firstly, processes that were done manually should be automated and secondly, information that was held in paper based systems should be held electronically.

What to do

Ideally when a publisher comes to this juncture, it should be a simple question of picking up the phone, sourcing potential suppliers, getting quotes, organising demos and making a choice; problem solved! Unfortunately there was no supplier with a solution to their problem.

They had a clearly defined need (and presumably one shared by other VFD publishers) but there was no product currently available on the market that could help. Colin and Steve had a choice; either admit defeat and revert to traditional means, whatever the frustrations or devise a system themselves. Generally speaking I can think of a hundred and one reasons why publishers should leave software development to the professionals. Three things drove them to take the "unsafe" option; first was their complete aversion to the thought of having to rewalk every round, secondly was the fact that Steve Malcolm was extremely IT literate. Thirdly, as luck would have it, Steve was, at this time, in the process of applying for planning permission to extend his house. This necessitated the purchasing of ordnance survey maps of his street. He was amazed at the level of detail on these maps and started thinking; if this level of detail was available on hard copy versions of the map, would it also be available on electronic versions? He was on a roll, did some digging and found that electronic versions were indeed available. He had stumbled on an embryonic round mapping system. Eureka!

Developing the software

Once they had crossed the threshold there was no turning back. They had a number of things running in their favour; firstly, being part of the Scotsman group they were part of a large enough organisation to have its own dedicated IT resource, secondly Colin and Steve had the publishing knowledge and ease with IT issues that enabled them to clearly specify the required functionality to the programmers, thirdly they went into partnership with a company called Geowise. The result of this collaboration was the birth of their Electronic Round Information Creation System, or ERICA for short.

The raw ingredients

In developing ERICA the team made use of two main ingredients: firstly electronic versions of ordnance survey maps overlaid with postcode boundaries and secondly PAF (Post Office Address File) data. By marrying these two together it gave them a high definition onscreen map with houses and roads clearly visible along with the all important postcode boundaries together with the data which gave them accurate counts of building and delivery points for each postcode. The onscreen representation of a postcode with the accompanying building and delivery point counts was the key to the whole system. From here it was a short step to develop the functionality that enabled the user to build rounds by selecting (by simply clicking on) adjacent postcodes which are grouped into rounds. As each postcode was added to the round, ERICA gave them a running total of buildings and delivery points allowing them to carefully control the size of their rounds. Often the yardstick of a good idea is its simplicity and this was breathtakingly simple.

Tested in battle

The Herald & Post Series team began using ERICA almost two years ago and according to Colin Peter it has made a big difference. The quarter million distribution area for the Herald & Post Series was totally remapped by one person in six weeks – and he remained dry throughout. Because they had created ERICA so as not to allow rounds to cross postcode sector boundaries, rounds were now totally synchronised with postcode sectors so the problem of "out of area" delivery was solved at a stroke. In August 2003 they bit the bullet and centralised the management of the distributors into their central office. The use of ERICA as an administrative tool meant that most of the work previously done by the thirty two agents could be done now by two full time staff without an A-Z anywhere to be seen.

It should be remembered that, previously, any administrative task that required reference to the existing round network took a long time and invariably involved a call back. Be it investigating a complaint from a member of the public reporting a dumping or fielding a call from a prospective distributor wondering if there were any available rounds in his area the process was incredibly time consuming and required referencing the main distribution system, leafing through A-Zs or gazing at wall charts and invariably a call back. At a guess, a distributor recruitment call handled using ERICA would take perhaps five minutes as opposed to fifteen plus using the old methods.

Leaflet sales

One unexpected, though very welcome, by-product of the development of ERICA was as a sales tool for the Herald & Post Series leaflet sales team. Since ERICA was essentially a visual representation of the distribution area it could help the sales team either as a back office tool in helping them to prepare quotes but, even more attractively, via a laptop, as a face to face sales tool. They found that showing the prospective client the area and effectively allowing them to construct their own campaign (and seeing the count rise and fall with each selection or deselection of a round) prompted high levels of client buy-in and increased sales.

Marketing the software

With all the effort that had gone into developing the software and the evident benefits they have got out of it, the obvious question was whether ERICA could be packaged and marketed to other publishers. The fact that they were publishers and not software providers was a cause of some soul searching, but these fears were at least partially allayed by what they saw as a very positive reaction to ERICA when they demonstrated it at the 2003 door-to-door practitioners conference at the DMA. The latter part of 2003 was thus spent tidying up the software, bug fixing, repackaging as well as adding extra functionality. With the realisation that some publishers actually will be perfectly happy with their existing rounds and so would have no interest in the round creation functionality, they created two stand alone modules of the software: a "creator" which enabled rounds to be created and edited and a "viewer" which enables existing round information to be queried, interpreted and analysed.

Will it take off?

Who knows? Seeing it demonstrated I couldn’t help but be impressed by the simplicity of the concept and apparent usability of the product. The product has clearly been wholeheartedly embraced internally, but the acid test will come when they make third party sales. Will it survive the scrutiny of other publishers? Will Steve Malcolm and Colin Peter be able to support and maintain what they hope will be a growing number of external users? We will soon know. ERICA is currently in trials with a number of publishers. If they give the thumbs up, then the sky’s the limit. Goodbye publishing, hello software sales!