Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Magazines: Unfulfilled Fulfillment?

Magazines: Unfulfilled Fulfillment?
by Rob Frydlewicz

When I worked on the agency side, I gained a reputation as being a friend of the magazine medium. This was due largely to an analysis that compared the 25 most popular magazines to the 25 most popular TV programs. It positioned them in a favorable way, and the Magazine Publishers of America (MPA) still updates and uses it. I continue to be an advocate and a strong believer of the inherent strength of the medium. With that established, there is one nagging concern.

For those who plan and buy magazines for a living, rate negotiations, merchandising deals and monitoring closing dates are part of your daily responsibilities. On the publishing side, meeting rate base, pitching new accounts and controlling paper and postage costs are paramount. However, because of the focus on catering to clients and dealing with media suppliers, perhaps you've lost sight of what the consumer experience is with the medium. This came to mind after I glanced at the fine print on one of the subscriptions cards imbedded in a typical issue of any magazine.

When I ordered a number of subscriptions for myself, I was discomfited by the inordinately long time it takes for the first issue to arrive. Depending on the title, it's generally four-to-eight weeks before the first issue arrives.(Perhaps because they are weeklies, Time Magazine, People & Entertainment Weekly are faster, coming in one-to-three weeks.

Why such a slow, drawn-out process?

We're not talking about custom-made furniture here. Nor are the issues being individually hand-stitched by monks, the exception may be Martha Stewart Living. What's going on at the fulfillment centers? Are they doing background checks? You can get a firearm in your hands quicker than your first issue of Good Housekeeping!

Perhaps we'd be a lot safer if Conde Nast, Hearst or Meredith were in charge of firearm purchases, and we let the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms (BATF) approve magazine subscriptions.

I don't care it there are good reasons for this lengthy wait.

In today's world of overnight delivery services and with amazon.com and eBay purchases arriving in days, this consumer unfriendly aspect of the magazine industry is inexcusable. Why is there such a lack of urgency to get the product in new subscribers' hands? I don't know about you, but that tiny hard-to-read type on the subscription card screams to me in boldface: Magazines are stuck in the simpler times of rotary phones, black-and-white TVs, transistor radios and The Saturday Evening Post.

Invariably, what happens is that when the first issue finally arrives, the impatient subscriber has probably already purchased it at the newsstand. This is considered subscription fulfillment? Maybe new subscribers put up with it because of the give-away subscription rates they are offered. And perhaps, publishers don't give it much attention because they feel low subscription prices don't warrant the cost or effort.

Granted, this may seem like a trifling matter when you consider the various issues the magazine industry faces. But I find the dissonance between this lag time and the industry's strides in regards to its online presence striking. Magazines have been adapting to the importance of the Internet to compete in today's media environment. Cutting the time for a subscription to start should also be addressed.

It's not sexy, but neither is watching paint dry, and that's what it's like waiting for a subscription to begin.

In an age of channel/communications planning, where every aspect of the consumer experience is worthy of consideration, the lengthy wait for a subscription to begin is a detail that needs attention.

Rob Frydlewicz, former research director at Carat USA and FCB/NY, is a media research consultant and can be contacted at RAFconsltg@aol.com.


Bob Cohn said...

All of the observations in the column are valid, but it is also important to note that:

1. the price of magazine subscriptions has not increased in many years

2. Most of the delay in subscribers receiving their magazine issues is a function of the US Postal service delivery time, which takes 7 to 10 days for periodical class mail.

Would Mr. Frydlewicz be willing to pay an extra $7 or $10 for his subscription to have the first issue delivered by Federal Express? If so, most magazines would gladly offer such an option. However, in general, consumers have not been willing to pay more for expedited delivery.

-- Bob Cohn, Consumer Marketing Director, Bonnier Corporation

Doug Newton said...

There is a simple explanation for why it takes so long to receive the first issue of a magazine. Look for the job description that states: “Responsible for timely delivery of product to customer?” You will not find it. A more complicated explanation of the “6- to 8-week delivery syndrome” elevates the problem to senior management because the reasons for delay typically cross departmental boundaries and budgets. Senior managers, the only folks in a position to fix it, do not assign it a high priority and, in fact, may not know how bad the situation is.

I draw this conclusion from painstakingly tracking thousands of “unsexy” magazine orders over the past 5 years for scores of companies as well as my own research.

Awhile back, we looked at 88 titles from 12 major magazine publishers. There were significant variations between best and worst companies at 1st issue (39 and 60 days on average) and 1st invoice (16 and 52) delivery. However, the key to know whether senior managers are watching is the difference between issue and invoice delivery. Those numbers were 26, 15, 22, 10, 31, 12, 13, 21, 0, 35, -6, and 14 days on average for each company. As Bob Cohn notes, the U.S. Postal Service delivery time for periodical mail is 7-10 days. So, the reason for any greater variation than 7-10 days is . . . no one is paying attention.

The scope of this problem is larger than just first issue. It affects not just new orders, but also credit and renewal reinstates. In our experience, in any given year the typical magazine will produce supplement labels equal to one main run. It impacts a lot of customers, but it flys under the radar of senior management.

Doug Newton