Circulation: Forget Everything You Thought You Knew

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by: Gretchen A. Peck

Circulation: Forget Everything You Thought You Knew

Circulation as a role within the newspaper organization is but a shadow of its former self.

Kerry Turner agrees. As circulation director at The Frederick (Md.) News-Post, she’s worked in circulation for nearly a decade now and has seen the job grow into a whole new species.

“As far as audience development is concerned, one of the hardest things is that none of the traditional sales channels work like they did even one or two years ago,” Turner said. “When you’re looking at growing audience, you think of things like telemarketing. But nobody has a home phone anymore, so that is one sales method that’s almost completely gone. Kiosk is another, where you have more interest in larger papers than smaller publications like ours. So, some of these methods are fading, and that has caused us to get much better at targeted marketing and knowing who and where we’re spending our dollars, so that it makes sense.”

Mining and making sense of data is also critical now, she added. “It used to be that you could be very operations oriented and do just fine. Now, you’ve got be very data savvy and computer-systems savvy. If you don’t have that background, circulation is going to be a very challenging position.”

Lance Gayle Pryor, vice president, audience growth and distribution, BH Media Group Publishing Solutions (a Berkshire Hathaway Co.), noted how the job is evolving: “If you think about circulation directors today—and it doesn’t matter what size the newspaper is—they have to be logistical experts, meaning they have to know how to get things delivered 365 days a year. They have to be part accountant. They have to be a marketing expert, and now they have to be digital marketing experts. It has always been a difficult job, but it’s even more so now that the approaches we’ve used forever in print are not as effective when selling digital. So we all have to re-educate ourselves, and that’s not a bad thing.”


Eliminate Prejudice

As newspapers have cautiously entered this era of digital content and new media, a lot of old mythology about readership and reading experiences has been brought along—not the least of which is a misconception that young readers don’t want print or older readers are averse to technology. Those types of demographical prejudices have no place in contemporary audience development.

“We have certainly seen that not only are older people using digital technology, they’re the ones with the disposable income to buy those devices,” said Maria Ravera, vice president of audience development at The Sacramento (Calif.) Bee. “We absolutely have readers who are both younger and older reading us in print and digital.”

Social media is another facet of audience development that is often misunderstood. To engage greater audiences that span the ages and even reach beyond the newspaper’s geographic zone, publishers have to leverage social media in more meaningful ways. While sites like Facebook and Twitter may have initially been thought of as just another channel for content distribution, a means for generating comments and sparking conversations with readers, or even to crowd source news, these sites inherently impact circulation too.

At the Bee, Ravera reported that the newspaper’s Facebook page has a community of more than 50,000 “likes.” Though the page is administered by the newsroom, the audience-development department also leverages it to spread some buzz.

“The newsroom is a great partner for us. For example, we’ve used the Facebook page to promote things like a special promotional poster of our NBA team, which they can find in the Sunday paper. We also have a few social media sites that we oversee directly,” Ravera said. “For example, our loyalty program has one. Using special codes, we are beginning to build that community.”

Pryor concurred that social media is an essential tool for newsrooms and circulation drivers alike, deserving of commitment and subject to ROI.

“We all need to do a better job with social media, not just newspapers. Every company is now trying to figure out how to utilize it. Here, we use social media to promote what’s coming, whether it’s a story in the paper or an event we’re hosting, or some breaking news. Most papers do that now,” he said.

One way in which circulation teams can better deploy social media strategies is by using the sites not just to push eyeball-grabbing content, but to also “toot their own horns.” The story of the importance of newspapers is one that’s often untold, and circulation can leverage these digital forums to do just that.

“We need to tell our own story. We need to say to our readers, in effect, ‘You wouldn’t know this if it weren’t for the press and this newspaper, in particular.’ We’ve got to do that on social media and elsewhere,” Pryor said. “We’ve got to get the message out that we’re still vitally important in the communities we serve, and then we’ve got to prove it.”


Create a New Culture

There’s no denying that audience-development teams have had their fair share of challenges in recent years, but they’re starting to figure some things out as publishing’s Old World and New World strike a balance.

“We are starting to have clarity around the transformation of the revenue model for newspapers, which is clearly moving toward a revenue structure more reliant on audience- and content-revenue, versus advertising driving it,” said Curtis Huber, director, circulation sales and marketing, The Seattle Times Co. “You’re now hearing phrases like, ‘We’re focusing on profitable circulation,’ and ‘We need to make sure our readership levels are high.’ It’s all about the quality of customer, and I think if you look at the trends out there, audience revenue is beginning to overtake advertising revenue…My biggest focus in planning for 2015 and beyond is not losing sight of the customer—and more specifically, the customer’s experience.

“In the print world, we used to call that service,” he continued. “It was simple and straightforward. We understood and perfected it. It was about delivery times and location, and when the customer called, whether we’d satisfied what they wanted. Did they want to stop the paper, start it, or did they have another problem? But with digital content delivery, the very nature of it has changed. We’re really becoming an e-commerce company, and we need to reflect the sensibilities of that, including something as simple as how they pay. They expect certain e-commerce capabilities, so the user experience isn’t just about whether or not the paper arrived on time and is dry. Now, it’s about how the website performs, whether it has the functionality they need, and how we can interact with the customer. That may be a phone call or a chat or a special app of some kind. Some may want a live agent, and of course we still support that, as well. We’ve got to make sure we support the ‘old ways’ where necessary, while still growing in new ways—not just in our practices but in the technologies and solutions that support them.”

Collaboration is also increasingly critical to audience development, and that may require some organizational morphing.

“In the Old World, we could sit in circulation and control everything around the customer experience. We took care of the delivery, the customer service. Content was always part of it, but now, we also dynamically work with other departments,” Huber said. “I can’t think of many initiatives we work on these days that are not like that. We’ve often got somebody from marketing in the room, someone from audience. There’s someone from product and IT. Unless we’re talking about an advertising-only project, there’s usually someone from content.” The product department helps to efficiently manage these collaborations, while ensuring continuity, according to Huber.

“In terms of workplace satisfaction, growth, and personal development, this is the best era,” he said. “There is so much that needs to be done, so much innovation, so much to learn. As our publisher has said many times, it’s less about structure and hierarchy these days, and more about getting the right people in the right room at the right time to solve the right problem.”


Fill Your Toolbox

Turner suggests to her colleagues in the industry that they embrace some of the tools that can help make better sense of all the data coming at them. Two years ago, The Frederick News-Post began talking to then-startup LEAP Media Solutions. At the time, the newspaper was considering bringing in a full-time marketing expert to join the circulation department—someone, according to Turner, who could make some sense of the information they were gathering with their circulation and advertising systems.

Two years later, LEAP Media has built a systems architecture with a layer of demographic database, which gleans and shares insightful information derived from that data.  The results have been invaluable, said Turner.

“They helped us to identify who are best customers are because they know the type of rate they’re paying. They know how long they’ve been a reader and information like that, which allows us to identify a best-customer profile, and then gear our marketing dollars to trying to get people just like them. The whole concept is about making sure you’re spending money in the right place rather than just shots in the dark. It used to be that direct mail was very expensive for us, and now we’re getting a much better cost per order. And though we hadn’t been doing email marketing before—which we knew was an issue—LEAP Media has helped us to launch that, and that’s been huge for us, both in terms of retention and acquisition.”

Turner added that if she could appeal to publishers across the industry, it would be to get them thinking about single-copy sales and the challenges associated with how sales are measured and the data derived from those relationships and transactions. “I think that’s somewhere that the newspaper industry really needs to focus some energy; looking at single-copy sales and how we can build better relationships with the stores.”


Become a Service Industry Again

Data itself isn’t very personable, but it can reveal a lot of intimate details about the individuals it represents. At The Sacramento Bee and its sister papers, Ravera noted that data is increasingly important and has transformed the very job of circulation or audience-development manager.

That’s not to say that readers and reading habits weren’t always important to customer relations, she stipulated: “Last year I was re-reading Papers of Permanence—The First 150 Years of The McClatchy Company, and it reminded me of the turn of the century, back in the 1900s when they had circulation boys, and the circulation boys who delivered the paper would keep books that tracked the houses they’d delivered to, who lived there, how many kids they had. They kept that information, and it was used to court advertisers.

“I point this out because there’s a misconception that data is new. It’s not. We’re using it today in a bigger way than we ever have, but we’ve always used data to target readers. Today, there’s Big Data, and we are collecting information in ways we never were before. We’re able to connect dots between not only our print and digital readers, but those of other products we’re creating—whether they’re subscribing to newsletters, what their shopping habits may be, the times of day they read—all of that. And we’ve used that in our marketing in a much bigger way than we ever have.”

All of this rich information needs to not only be gathered, but parsed, made sense of, and turned into actionable strategy. At the Bee,  there are numerous channels and systems in place for doing that, including a legacy circulation database, information coming in from Press+ on digital reading habits, as well as data gathered by Salesforce Marketing Cloud, an email marketing database.

Knowledge about audience and potential audience has enabled Ravera and her team to create a loyalty program (Bee Buzz Points) that rewards subscribers and even occasional readers for interacting with the news organization in some way.

“It’s a points-based system,” Ravera explained. “It’s free, so it’s not tied to a paid subscription. You can earn points based on different ways you interact with us. We offer special codes in the newspaper. You can earn points by subscribing to newsletters or for visiting with us at an event. We insert codes into email campaigns, and we’ve begun using trivia questions. We’re trying to encourage people to develop daily habits with us. Then, they can redeem points for prizes, which can be anything from free movie tickets to a tour of our newsroom to lunch with the publisher.

“The numbers have been fantastic. The retention improvement, for example, of new subscribers who start with us and log on to Bee Buzz Points right away versus those who don’t become a member? We’re seeing double-digital percentage improvement thanks to our loyalty program. It’s really made a difference for us.”

The very culture of circulation has changed since Ravera began her career in circulation, particularly in recent years. She said, “The very nature of going from ‘circulation’ to ‘audience’ is really the crux of it because our focus now as a company is on the audience. There is much better cooperation, our departments working together, always looking at what’s best for the consumer, what the consumer wants, what’s in the consumer’s best interest. It was like that before, of course, but it’s on a much more accelerated course today.

“Just this week, for example, we met with the news team to discuss a particular project, and a question kept coming up, until we said, ‘Let’s ask readers!’ Within a couple of days, we were able to create a survey, and within 24 hours of sharing that, we had 1,800 customers tell us what they thought. That’s powerful…Asking the consumer takes all of the ‘I think’ out of the equation because you’re starting with fact-based decisions—so critical for our success today. Most of our committees these days, particularly when we’re launching something new, include someone from finance in the room, someone who represents news. Advertising and IT are in the room. We’re really bringing everyone in on the front end, designing things together.”

The greatest challenge Ravera faces in her role—and she suspects that other audience-development professionals share this concern—is trying to keep the scales balanced so that print operations and digital publishing are equally served.

“Today, print is still very important for us from a revenue and readership standpoint. The traditional circulation part is still a big part of our role,” Ravera said. “As we evolved into more of an audience focus, now we’re dealing with other products, as well—the digital version, other language products, our Sunday Select, and specialty publications. So we need to balance all of that, while at the same time continuing to learn how to do a better job of using social media, how to use new technologies to help us acquire and keep audience. It’s that balance between the print and digital world that’s the greatest challenge.”

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