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Tell us what we don’t know

Publishers love the killer insight – that nugget of knowledge that propels a step-change in performance. As James Ormiston, managing director of subscriptions bureau Circdata, tells James Evelegh, having the data infrastructure and analysts in place to deliver deep level insights to their publishing clients is one of the things he’s most proud of.

By James Evelegh

Tell us what we don’t know

It’s simple really. The better the database structure and management, the better the insight. The better the insight, the more money Circdata’s clients make on their marketing campaigns and the better the return on their marketing investment.

Meaningful insights come from having a well-constructed database platform and a team of data analysts skilled at mining the data for actionable insights. Circdata’s platform, which they’ve developed in-house over the last ten years, is called Fusion, because it “fuses” fulfilment and marketing capabilities. Fusion houses the publisher’s core data and this is regularly supplemented by a series of data feeds from the publisher’s other data centres, internal and external, to build a single customer view (SCV) – a comprehensive view of each customer’s interactions with a publisher’s brand.

A SCV is a prerequisite for publishers in today’s multi-platform world, where customer interactions are spread across an ever-increasing number of revenue streams, says James Ormiston. Every publisher has the raw data, but usually it’s stuck in silos, which means there’s no way to interrogate it properly.

A SCV is a construct and setting up the data feeds and parameters is part of Circdata’s onboarding processes for new clients, although new feeds can be added as and when needed. “As a concept, the SCV has been over-promised and under-delivered for many years, leading to a degree of cynicism on the part of publishers,” says James, “but at Circdata, it’s a reality, not a pipe-dream. To deliver the SCV, you need a flexible platform, the tech skills to handle the integrations and the organisational discipline to spec out and quality control the data feeds and deliver them to a set schedule.”

“Our SCV database coupled with our in-house data analysts are an incredibly powerful resource for publishers. We like nothing better than to be challenged by one of our clients to ‘tell us what we don’t know’. Data consultancy is a growing part of our business.”

In search of a new bureau

With the recently announced demise of leading subs bureau Dovetail, the big data capabilities of Circdata and other bureaux in the market are coming under the spotlight like never before as Dovetail’s large client base of publishers look for new homes.

Circdata is a subscriptions bureau and event registrations specialist, founded by James in 1996. It has a staff of 47; 37 of those based in a new purpose-converted 10k square foot facility in Newbury and ten in a dedicated software development office in Kraków, Poland.

With probably more publishers looking for new subscription management suppliers now than at any time in the last twenty years, what, I ask James, should publishers be looking for in a new bureau? What questions should they be asking? James suggests seven:

Q1. How up-to-date is your database platform?

No good database platform stands still; it’s constantly being developed. The first iteration of Fusion was unveiled ten years ago. Over the last twelve months, it has undergone a significant amount of re-engineering to enhance its back-end data warehousing capacity and front-end user dashboard. The aim is to further facilitate deep analysis of data and to make the client interface with the data more intuitive and user-friendly. The fruits of this investment will start being served out to clients at the end of Q2 this year.

Any database platform, says James, should be transparent, cloud-based and sharable. Beware anything that looks like barriers to accessing your data.

Q2. How adaptable is it to our special needs?

Whilst most requirements are common across most publishers and are already plumbed into the Fusion system, which all Circdata clients use, there will be instances where publishers have unique requirements which require system modifications. If these are important to your business, then you should ask any prospective bureau how they will cope with these requests. The Fusion platform is owned and developed by Circdata, so the company can be more responsive to the need for system changes than other bureaux who might use third party platforms, says James.

Circdata is also highly flexible in how it provides the core fulfilment services. Gone are the days, he says, when fulfilment was either done at a bureau or in-house, with no half-way house. By making its Fusion platform available as a software-as-a-service offering, Circdata can provide either full bureau services or cater equally as well for publishers who want to manage their fulfilment operation in-house. Increasingly, Circdata is finding publishers opting for a hybrid model, where the different functions are split between Circdata and the publisher, depending on the client’s requirements. For instance, the publisher might want to handle all in-bound customer service calls from their own office but leave everything else to Circdata. Essentially, Circdata’s modular approach to its products and services allows publishers to do as much or as little as they want and that mix can change over time.

Q3. Can you do everything we need you to do now, and everything we might need you to do in the future?

Bottom line, the key requirement of any new bureau is that it can handle the way you manage your subscriptions now. If it can’t, says James, them probably best to move quickly on, but, assuming it can, then you should try and get a sense of whether the bureau will enable you to develop your business and your subs offering in ways you might not even have considered yet.

“Fusion is extremely function-rich; no subscription portfolio is too complex – issue-based / time-based, single item / bundles, print / digital, individual / group, sterling / multi-currency – the list is endless, and we can handle it all!”

And, of course, it’s not just about system functionality, but also other facilities. Depending on your brand, you might have a current (or future) need for storage (back issues, gifts), customer service call centre, print-shop capabilities (renewal letters, badge labels). Circdata offers all of these.

Q4. Do you have the necessary breadth and depth of skills?

As a client, you need to be confident that the bureau you choose is capable of dealing with your needs. If the service level drops whenever Bob takes a day off, then the relationship will quickly turn sour. The Circdata team divides up as follows: account management: 8; data analysis: 7; customer service / call centre: 10; IT support: 4; IT development (Kraków office): 10; exhibition technical support: 4; admin / marketing / management: 4. There is cover and support in all areas, assures James.

Q5. What else can you do?

Long gone are the days when publishers relied on two or three revenue streams. Publishers are diversifying into areas such as e-commerce, consultancy, workflow solutions, data services and, in particular, events. In this digital world, ‘face to face’ is ironically a growth area for publishers. Can your chosen bureau assist in these other areas?

“In addition to our long standing and extensive subscription management experience, we are also one of the UK’s leading events suppliers, providing, amongst other things, ticketing and registration services. These services are all managed off the same Fusion platform. If you are interested in getting into events, or think you might be in the future, then the fact that we can provide ticketing, subscription management and data mining all under one roof should be of great interest.”

Q6. Do you have a positive, can-do, forward looking approach?

This is quite subjective and you’ll only really be able to tell this by visiting the bureau and meeting the senior management. The publishing world is changing rapidly, says James, and you want your bureau to embrace the changes and be wanting to work closely with you to make sense of new commercial opportunities. We all know the industry faces challenges, but the right mind-set can make all the difference. If your enquiries about new revenue models, subscription bundles, app opportunities et al are met with an intake of breath, a shaking of the head and a rolling of the eyes, then think twice.

“I believe passionately in the future of publishing and that is why we’ve invested such large sums of money in the office relocation and expansion, new staff, software development and new hardware. We’re ramping things up. Publishing is all about finding new revenue models, data mining, building and monetising communities. As a sector, I think publishing is perhaps still emotionally tied to print, and true platform agnosticism is where I think everyone needs to be, but they’re getting there. Content is the glue that binds everything together, and whether your main output is a magazine, an event, a data service or a website, it’s all about delivering content.”

Q7. Will you still be in business in ten years’ time?

With the painful closing of Dovetail this year, it’s a highly pertinent question for those publishers caught in the fall-out. Once bitten, twice shy. Now you’re unlikely to hear senior management at any bureau you visit answer ‘no’, but it’s still worth asking the question and coming to an intelligent assessment yourself based on their answer and what you observe of their operations and set up.

“This is a stressful time for a lot of publishers, as they look for new subscription management suppliers,” says James Ormiston. “You should assess the market carefully and talk to a number of players. As one of the leading independent bureaux in the country, we would like to be included in your discussions. We are both a forward-looking company and a safe pair of hands… and in it for the long haul. Data transfers and system set-ups don’t happen overnight, so the sooner we start the conversation the better! I look forward to hearing from you.”


Unit K, Venture House, Bone Lane, Newbury, Berkshire, RG14 5SH

James Ormiston, Managing Director


Tel: 01635 869 868