Circulation Building in the Digital Age

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Article ImageFew, if any, would argue that the internet has dramatically and permanently changed the publishing industry. As print publishers have scrambled to find ways to compete with and, ultimately, embrace the digital world, some are excelling through a combination of traditional and online options. Others, new to publishing, are operating in the online-only world, but everyone is dealing with the age-old problem of circulation building.

In many ways, "the legacy of circulation hasn't changed at all-it's a numbers game and it always will be," says Lawrence Lerner, who has been tracking the change from traditional print circulation to online circulation for 15 years. Based in Chicago, Lerner works with clients to improve their businesses through IT strategy, interactive media, and ebusiness. Circulation building is about getting the right number of "qualified" individuals into your list, he says. It is as simple, and ultimately as complex, as that.

While some aspects of circulation building may be the same in traditional as in new media environments, there are some decided differences that can represent both opportunities and challenges. Lynne Brennen, head of circulation marketing for The Wall Street Journal, believes that circulation in a digital world is "very different." Brennen's days are typically spent considering how to drive consumer value and revenue across a range of news platforms including print, web, mobile, social, and "a whole host of yet-to-be-launched media," she says. Brennen says that there are five attributes that drive "commerce viability," or consumers' willingness to pay for content:

  • Broad reliability of content (30%)
  • Vertical nature of content (30%)
  • Longevity of content (30%)
  • Immediacy of information (8%)
  • Social "trustworthiness" (2%)


In terms of platforms, Brennen considers print, browser-based websites, smartphones, social platforms (such as Facebook and Twitter), and tablets. Of these, she says, tablets as a platform seem to possess all four attributes and come closest to emulating the print reading experience.
The digital space is not a monolith, she notes, at least not today with the proliferation of mobile and tablet devices that allow consumers to consume media in a variety of formats across a variety of platforms. Decisions around how to deliver content across these various devices, and, importantly, whether and how to charge for it, are becoming increasingly complex.

Free versus Paid Content

At The Wall Street Journal, belief in the paid model is strong. "We feel very strongly that quality content is valuable and that the consumer should pay for it, but that the way we go at that needs to be dynamic-it needs to be ever-changing."

Of course, the free model of information distribution is not something that has emerged with the advent of web-based content. Controlled circulation has long been a practice for various trade and professional publications whose revenue was derived through paid advertising. Online publishers have the same choices related to generating revenue through paid circulation, paid advertising, or a combination of both that publishers have always had. The challenge today, of course, is that with the proliferation of free content, building the case for paid subscriptions has become increasingly challenging for many publishers.
In an online environment, the value of a paid audience may be more than it might have been for advertisers in a traditional print world. In other words, delivering a massive audience of people who have opted into a free online subscription likely holds less value to advertisers in the online world than it does for trade publishers who can deliver advertisers a qualified audience clearly linked to advertisers' demographic requirements.
Chris Seper is a founding partner of MedCity News and previously worked as the online medical editor and assistant metro editor at The Plain Dealer in Ohio. Publishers in any environment, says Seper, "are either selling audience or they're selling expertise."

Selling Your Online Audience

Many online content providers share information widely-and freely. The Huffington Post is an example of one organization that has done this quite successfully. In other cases, aggregators sell content to other sites that pay for the content but provide the information freely to visitors to their site, recognizing the value of those visitors in luring online advertisers.

For publishers such as The Huffington Post that choose not to charge for content but to base their revenue model on advertising, building a large audience that is attractive to online advertisers is the key to success. It is not surprising, then, that a certain number of these online publishers will be tempted to take controversial steps to do so.

There is, says Lerner, both a light and a dark side to the world of circulation management in the online world. The light side is permissionbased. The dark side represents those who don't seek permission to add people to their lists, but instead rely on "scraping," the process of cultivating email addresses through more nefarious means.

But it's not numbers alone that draw advertisers to support online publications. The availability of analytics that provide the ability to track even the most minute movements of online readers creates a new dynamic for publishers.

Selling audience online is more challenging than in the traditional print environment, notes Seper, who has done both. With print publications, advertisers would commonly ask, "How many subscribers do you have?" and of course they wanted to know a little bit about those subscribers. In the digital environment, they want to know more, he says. "You're asked how many subscribers do you have, what are their demographics-and what are your open rates." That last one is critical, he says, both from an advertiser's perspective and for the publisher.

Seper points out that when he mails to his distribution list he's paying for all of that distribution whether recipients open the email or not. Ironically, the same was true in traditional publishing; publishers paid to print and mail their materials to subscribers whether they opened the publications or not. There's just something about knowing, though, that makes all the difference. In the digital environment, data can be both a blessing and a curse.

In addition, says Seper, he's much more focused on controlling his online list to ensure a large and engaged audience, with a focus on "carrying as little dead wood as possible."

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