When management talks about strategy, they usually mean tactics or goals. If your strategy is to grow circulation year-over-year by 10%, or to spend more on pay-per-click campaigns, then you’re not really talking about strategy. Growing circulation is great, but just stating that you want to grow it is a goal, not a strategy. Along that vein, investing more in search-engine marketing or direct mail could be part of a broader strategy, but by themselves they are just tactics.
So what is a strategy? Putting it simply, it is using a point (or points) of leverage to your advantage over your competitors. A circulation strategy is therefore focusing on a core concept where you have a competitive advantage to grow your list of subscribers or attract advertisers. That core concept could involve your brand, various pieces of content, price, market reach or some other area where you possess a key competitive advantage.
For publishers who rely on paid circulation, this will be a one-step process of targeting a certain profile, providing content that satisfies some real or perceived need, and positioning your publication vs. competitors so that it occupies some unassailable niche. For publishers who rely on advertising, a strategy can become more muddled because revenue comes from selling access to the community you build. Your content needs to be focused to build your community, but you’re targeting a certain profile so you can sell them to advertisers, not necessarily so you can make money directly from circulation sales.
Let’s take The Economist and Business Week as two examples. The Economist charges about $110 per year for a subscription while Business Week only charges $40 per year. With almost 1.5 million subscribers, The Economist could take home more than $150 million in circulation revenue whereas Business Week would only take home around $37 million with its 923,000 subscribers.
What point of leverage could The Economist use against Business Week? The Economist is an international magazine with in-depth political, economics, business and financial coverage from a global perspective. While a CEO of a local, Midwest retailer may not read The Economist, a globe-trotting marketing manager at a specialty publishing company may. The opposite holds true for Business Week. Therefore, the leverage point for The Economist might be the internationality of its coverage, how it provides in-depth reporting and analysis on politics, business and economics in various parts of the globe. Business Week, on the other hand, could focus its message on being the everything-about-business publication, leveraging that message in a mainly American market.
For both these examples, content becomes the key to differentiating the publication. But in multi-brand publishing companies, this kind of focus does not always remain clear. In fact, a fundamental law of physics applies to the business world: corporate entropy. Over time, powerful editors or publishers may erode an initial positioning strategy by bringing more features into their own, favored publications. This cannibalizes other brands within the same company. Without an overarching positioning strategy with strong guidelines as to what constitutes focus, brands become muddled, and will not drive the circulation or advertising margins needed to survive.
What sort of circulation strategy will you pursue? What points of leverage exist that you can take advantage of? Here’s where effective market research can help you. Most of your subscribers are aware that other brands compete with yours in terms of content, attitude, coverage and format. In fact, many will have considered, or even subscribed to, those other brands while choosing your publication. Therefore, asking your own subscribers and prospects to rate your publication on various features separately, and in conjunction with their thinking on other publications, can help you determine whether the marketplace has already chosen your core focus.
A subscriber survey will help you see the competitive landscape for what it is, evaluating the positioning of your own publications vs. the array of competition they face. You will spot whether your publications even have a core content focus, or if the initial positioning strategy has eroded in the face of powerful corporate interests who want to promote their own content at the expense of the business as a whole.
Not only will focused content on a niche audience provide an effective strategy to grow your circulation, but it will also help advertisers judge the context in which they will promote their message. For example, if you want to sell a US-focused investment product to prospects within the United States, Business Week may be your best bet. But if you want to infuse the prestige of your luxury brand into an international audience of CEOs, you may choose The Economist. These are, of course, simple hypotheses based on a cursory look at each publication’s marketing messages. But testing similar hypotheses among many content features, across brands and with different audience segments will give you the quantitative validation you need to test your initial strategic hypothesis.