It’s been a while since publishing professionals had just one job… Now everyone is expected to be a multidisciplinary, multitasking, cross-departmental, cross-platform ninja.

In this series, we’re talking to people working in each of the key publishing roles, asking how their jobs have changed over the years, how they see them changing in the future and if there’s anything they miss about the way things used to be.

We’ve looked at Editors and Sales Teams. This time…

Circulation managers, you had one job

I really struggled to know what to call the people spotlighted in this part of our ‘One Job’ series.

Circulation, subscriptions, fulfilment, audience development, data insight and engagement, all of the above…

If there’s one job in publishing that has changed beyond all recognition over the last 10 years it has to be that of the people who take care of a publisher’s readers.

Ellie Crane, subscriptions manager at Conde Nast, says more and more circulation departments are being recognised as specialist marketing departments… not just ‘the people to deal with Royal Mail and stuff’.

“The improvements in marketing technologies make our efforts more trackable so we can take credit where it’s due and not just speculate about the reason for a spike in new subs.”

While editors still deal with storytelling and sales people still sell stuff, the people that make sure the readers can find, access and pay for a publisher’s ever expanding range of products are faced with an array of audience tracking technology that not too long ago would have been unimaginable.

“Over the past five years, we’ve moved from an operation that sold print subscriptions to individuals over the phone, to now selling face-to-face, digital, enterprise subscriptions,” says Ben Wood, Group Marketing & Subscriptions Director at Incisive Media.

He describes the changes for subscription marketing teams as ‘astronomical’.

“In the old world, you knew the equation and key drivers; manage your renewal rate and your RFT (request for trial) conversion rate, put in a yield increase and hey-presto, you hit budget.”

Now, he says, people have a completely different set of metrics to look at. “We obsess over engagement now and what percentage of our subscribers are logging in during any given month.”

Customer journeys

Lizzie Mooney, Client Services Manager at Dovetail Services says that the technology that surfaces audience behaviour now underpins everything in the circulation manager’s job.  “The biggest changes are around the insights and data we have based on behaviours and optimising the customer journey.”

She explains that the ‘Single Customer View’ means so much more now than it used to.

“From a subscription point of view this was always the ability to identify customers who were purchasing across your brands, this has moved on to be how they are interacting with brands and platforms.”

Wood says his biggest transformational project over the past couple of years was introducing an enterprise-level customer view. “Every piece of data entering the business is now tied to an organisation at site and country level.”

He says Incisive has gone from having lists of individuals, to working with over 30 Market Maps for the core industries their products serve, highlighting company penetration, cross-selling opportunities, and geographies where they can ramp up their efforts.

The enterprise approach has opened up their events business too. Wood explains that, historically, Incisive sold individual subscriptions to senior people within organisations but that event delegates were more often middle-managers that were keen to learn.

“By opening up enterprise, we now have a much larger database of these middle managers which is enabling us to super-charge our events. Delegate sales and subscriptions now fall under the same ‘User Revenue’ umbrella and that allows us to take a longer-term, customer-centric approach rather than a short-term, transactional one.”

John Diston, Senior Client Services Manager at Quadrant subscription services says increased customer focus has brought clear service innovations. Quadrant now has offices in the United States and Asia to manage a ‘follow the sun’ customer service requirement and views customers holistically rather than as a user of individual products. “That’s imperative as marketing teams and publishers continue to explore the wider potential of rolling up their services with continuous payments.

Has technology changed circulation?

Does all this change mean that a new type of person is needed for the circulation department?

Wood says that, without question, the type of person that will succeed in circulation has changed.

“We went from having a Controlled Circulation department, rebranded that as Audience Development, before we made a complete transition to a Data Insight team.”

He explained that the Data Insight team has three core functions; market specialists to obtain data; analysts to provide insight; and digital specialists to ‘obsess’ over user engagement and analytics. “A couple of people have made the journey with us, but the skill set is unrecognisable from even two years ago,” he said.

Incisive has a monthly conference call with teams in Hong Kong, New York and London to talk about a group of core customers, the products being sold to them, to which departments within those customers, and who the gatekeepers are.

Wood says the data insight team plays a key role in those meetings, working out engagement levels within customer organisations, looking at known bounces to see if people have moved jobs, and highlighting upcoming events to target prospective customers.

On the product marketing side, the team is now split into two core functions. Brand marketing with the job of understanding customers and anticipating market needs; and Communications and Engagement, responsible for communication and sales support, and automated and engagement campaigns. “They are two very different skill-sets, and a step change away from the all-rounders we used to hire.”

Mooney doesn’t think the skills required have changed, explaining that circulation managers will always need a strong focus on retention and understanding the customer. But she says the volume of data is much larger. You need to be able to analyse and pull out the headlines and to test – rather than suffer analysis paralysis.”

We’re always going to love pivot tables more than is probably healthy,” says Crane, agreeing that modern subscription people really need to care about data.

Less guesswork 

She says that less of what the circulation department does now has to be based on guesswork, in both the planning and the analysis of campaigns. “As time goes on we use the word ‘Probably’ a lot less”.

Crane thinks it’s becoming more and more important for subscriptions marketers to immerse themselves in their own content:

“The skill of designing a beautiful advert for an unmissable deal that will finally hit people’s letterboxes six weeks after you first devised it is still important to a lot of publishers. But now we also have to be able to react to content as it’s published and know how to use it for an immediate win.” 

Diston says the days of the traditional ‘circulation manager’ are long gone and that the list of skills needed to be successful in subscriptions today is a moving target:

“A successful person in pretty much any role in our business needs to have a working understanding or all manner of things that were far more peripheral in the past…  marketing, finance, logistics, distribution, data analysis and management, web tech, and customer experience.”

Diston believes the biggest plus about the changes in circulation roles is a new found diversity and flexibility. He says where there were solid lines clearly demarking where one publishing area or discipline started and finished, those are lines increasingly blurred:

“It allows subscriptions and circulation professionals to gain a better understanding of the pressure points that their colleagues operating across all disciplines have to deal with on a daily basis.”

Ranj Begley, MD at digital newsstand Readly, is a big fan of the cross-departmental view and thinks more graduate trainees or apprentices, doing at least six months on each area of the business, would help.

She thinks fresh blood, full stop, would be a good thing for publishers, saying they need to ‘quit the doom and gloom’ talk and learn from the ‘newbies’. “They have fresh ideas and a clearer outlook.”

Begley employs interns, letting them work in areas that they feel they can make a difference. “You need to give them a long leash, listen to their ideas, define the project at the outset and then just let them get on with it. They want to be given a chance to learn and have no reason to botch things up – they are building their own careers and reputation and it’s in their interests to get it right.”

Digital ready

Digital has driven huge change in circulation marketing and customer service, but it’s not the whole story.

Crane accepts that digital subscriptions and bundles have had a fantastic impact on the titles where audiences were ready for them. But for her, big investments in new digital products can serve to highlight when circulation departments are left to do their best in ‘business-as-usual mode’, sometimes waiting patiently for suppliers to catch up with new technologies.

“Too many of the changes we’d like to make have to be scrapped because fulfilment bureaus can’t support the initiatives.”

Crane says sometime the pace of change can seem very slow considering how much time publishers have devoted to talking about the death of print.

She expects some publishers will continue to plod along having a go at the odd digital innovation here and there before the really big changes eventually kick in. “The internet and mobile devices have still only done a fraction of whatever they’re finally going to do to – and for – print publishing. “

Mooney also sounds a note of caution around digital, pointing to research that Dovetail undertook with the PPA that showed 70 percent of consumer magazine buyers have no digital contact at all with their magazine brands. “Most of them prefer it that way, the feeling that print is a digital-free oasis.”

She sees a strong demand for print products with audiences willing to pay. “There is a resurgence for many print products – as well as the number of independent magazines.

Diston agrees, “The sharp decline of print volumes didn’t occur when forecast.” The challenge is to keep focused on being at the forefront of digital technologies while keeping the management of print subscriptions as a key capability. 

He sees print and digital in a symbiotic relationship where each has its one relative merits and core audience. “I think what we’ll see over the coming year or so is people starting to change their opinions on print, value it far more and not simply adopt the digital first approach that we’ve seen over the past five years.” 

The customer

The one thing that everyone agrees will never change about circulation subscriptions, audience development, whatever we call, it is the need to listen to the audience, and give them what they want through the channels they want it.

Diston says this isn’t just about content, but also customer relationships: “The ways in which users can communicate with the brands they are passionate about.” 

For Mooney and Begley this is about flexibility with more and more subscriptions moving to a membership model.

“Publishers need to create communities and give the customer more control, the freedom and flexibility to consume content as they please,” says Begley. 

So is there anything else circulation managers miss about the way things used to be? Anything about the good old days they would bring back?

Communication is seen as a problem; too many emails, not enough face-to-face. “We’ve slipped too far into the world of e-mail, Google docs and Basecamp,” says Diston. “There is no substitute for face-to-face meetings or actually picking up a phone – people seem to hide behind their computers and, in some cases, are daunted by calls and meetings.”

‘I miss memos,” says Mooney, “No, only joking… but it would be nice to reduce the emails, the noise, and make sure we are joining the dots with our communication. It was simpler when there were less platforms.”