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The Magazine for Magazine Management: Tracking the Elusive Reader

Tracking the Elusive Reader – Publishers of business periodicals using telemarketing companies to update databases

Susan Thea Posnock


In corporate mailrooms across the country, the in-box that’s most often overstuffed these days is the one marked “undeliverable.” Jammed in that space are the communications for people who have been laid off, squeezed out or otherwise ousted from companies that are consolidating and cutting back in a worrisome economy.

Where does all that mail go? A fraction may be rerouted, most is tossed, but some actually is returned to the sender–and that’s how June Sargent knew she had a problem: The returned mail at The Industry Standard was starting to pile up.

Today’s higher employee chum means magazine subscriber and prospecting lists must be updated much more frequently, says Sargent, the senior vice president of consumer marketing and strategy. And so Sargent, along with a growing number of other business-to-business circulation directors, has turned to the phones to chase down readers as pink-slipped personnel resurface in different companies, and new employees replace the old in realigned businesses.

“It was important for us as a company to know that we were not delivering magazines, renewals or event invites to people who were no longer employed,” says Sargent. “Why mail a magazine or a renewal that’s not going to be delivered?” And so in May, The Industry Standard hired a telemarketing company to begin a list verification process for both its controlled and paid subscribers.

“We’re doing what we need to do now to dean house,” she says. And not just for delivery assurances, she adds, but for advertiser confidence. “We want to be sure we’re delivering a quality audience to the advertiser. We promise a certain demographic and subscriber, and we wanted to make sure we were still delivering it.”

Unlike traditional requalification efforts in which telemarketers are asked to resign current subscribers while gathering a long list of demographic data, this process seeks only to confirm reader information. The caller checks to verify that the magazine, with the current address and e-mail, is reaching the right person with the right job title at the right company.

And while The Standard’s audience may have been tossed around more than most, keeping tabs on b-to-b customers has become an onerous task even for those outside the dot-coin debacle. Job titles change much more frequently– circulation managers, for instance, have become audience or customer managers. And publishers who think a yearly requalification is enough to keep mailing lists current may be mistaken.

“Everybody is reducing staffs; people are moving around and wearing more hats; job functions have changed,” says Christine Oldenbrook, vice president of audience marketing for lOl communications LLC. “We need to be aware of that, especially if we’re going to drive more revenue out of [current customers].”

Therefore, the need for list verification is definitely on the upswing, she says. “We may have requalified somebody in January, and they may change jobs in February, and we may want to promote a conference to them in March.” In this climate, she says, if you lose track of your customers, you lose sales.

Fighting increased costs

A couple of years ago, few publishers would have considered breaking out the checkbook to pay for this type of telemarketing effort–no matter how elusive readers were. But a number of other monetary factors have emerged to make list integrity a priority. First, direct mail costs have increased exponentially. And as postage and printing costs escalate, list verification is more easily justified as a cost-savings measure.

“Publishing houses do a ton of mail. If they don’t get the response they’re expecting, they want to find out why,” says Bob Aloisio, vice president of sales and marketing for The Telemarketing Company. “Plus, people are trying to find a more economical and efficient way of doing things. And if you can save a couple hundred or thousand mail pieces, or redirect them, that ultimately gives a lift to your bottom line.”

And while telemarketing costs overall have become much more affordable, the simplest forms of list cleansing can be especially economical. Verification checks are generally less time consuming than, say, requalification efforts. “Those calls are relatively fast,” says Aloisio. “You’ll verify maybe 20 people an hour.” On average, telemarketing costs range between $25 to $30 an hour, so the final bill can work out to be less than $2 a name. (Most publishers, however, say costs are more in the vicinity of $2 to $5 per name.)

Still, not everyone agrees that this is exactly a bargain. “I think it’s important to have clean lists, but as part of that I’m not sure telemarketing is the best route to go,” says Scott Cravens, director of circulation, Cygnus.

“The amount of revenue you would generate out of it isn’t there,” adds Eric Schmierer, vice president, strategic circulation operations for Computerworld.

But others say it’s all in the way you use it. For example, a number of circulation professionals will use telemarketing verification only for certain troublesome slices of their files.

Info World exclusively targets those tech job titles that have the highest turnover rates, says Barbara Ruffner, vice president of audience development. In a recent study, the magazine found that 78 percent of chief technology officers surveyed said they had worked for two or more companies in the last three years. That number was only 54 percent for chief information officers. As a result, Info-World segments CTOs for telemarketing verification, but may pass on anyone with a CIO title. On outside lists, Ruffner will also put prospects who work at Fortune 500 companies on the call sheets. “We want to at least verify that these people are still there,” she says. “Because there’s been more rapid movement at those companies in the past three years than before.”

The upfront costs pay off when the subscriptions start to roll in, says Ruffner. “You’ll get increasing response because you’ve verified the list. You’re not just throwing it out in the wind.”

Total reader value

Improved direct mail response rates are not the only payback for reaching out and validating reader information. Most publishers sell much more than just magazines–trade shows, books, research services and award programs are just a few of the items publishers are marketing in this integrated media world. Therefore, the value of each customer has reached new heights. This is especially true in the b-to-b sector, where audiences tend to be much more finite and the price tags on ancillary products can be steep.

At The Industry Standard, Sargent says the company views customers with a 360-degree perspective. “It goes beyond the fact that somebody could be a magazine subscriber,” she says. Readers of the magazine are also event attendees, Web site visitors and e-mail customers.

When you consider how much money each customer might potentially spend with you, tracking the right readers becomes all the more critical, say publishers. “Readers are our product,” says Joe Levy, founder and CEO of CIO and Darwin. Without them we don’t have any of this other stuff.” Levy calculates that the total value of each of CIO’s 140,000 controlled subscribers is about $500, based on revenues of about $70 million in 2000. When you take everything into consideration–revenues from advertising, list rental or events–losing a single reader means losing a sizable amount of business, he says.

Keeping subscriber lists clean is particularly crucial in marketing events, adds Ruffner. For instance, Info World runs two high-level, invitation-only forums for CTOs. That means Ruffner must be especially careful to target the right audience, because sending offers to the wrong people, or to people who are no longer with the company, can jeopardize the integrity of the event, she says. “We don’t want someone else picking up the invite and using it. We want the best coverage of that job function,” Ruffner says.

Getting access and assurances

For those publishers who are in pursuit of hard-to-reach readers, verification acts as a homing device that drills deep in to a very specific demographic. It’s an indispensable tool, says Levy. “We make sure our advertisers are getting the people we promised them in our ratebase,” he says. To qualify, CIO subscribers must work at companies with annual revenues in excess of $50 million. “There are only so many companies that have people who fit our model,” says Levy.

And finding those people within those companies involves more than just renting a few lists, mailing a couple of direct mail pieces, and hoping you come up with your target audience. “What publishers typically do is look at their competitors to see what their reported circulations are,” he says. Then they set out to acquire more readers than their competitors at a lower CPM, without much regard for-getting the right people. “Because to a lot of publishers, a name is a name,” he says.

But more and more, advertisers want a guarantee that they’re getting what they pay for. List verification is one way to provide that assurance. “The publishers who are really good are providing advertisers with an audience that is truly relevant,” says Mark Facey, president of the eponymous telemarketing firm. And telephone verification can help get you to the right people much faster, he says.

From an advertiser’s perspective, the call for increased scrutiny is understandable. “If you’re selling a technology product that costs $50,000, there are only so many people who can justify that expenditure on behalf of their organization,” says Levy. So to many advertisers, audience size doesn’t matter. Peripheral readers hold no value. But assurances that the person who’s reading CIO is authorized to make that $50,000 purchase is important.

Upgrading list market value

Some publishers aren’t using this type of telemarketing to keep current files fresh, but to keep old lists alive. At this point, Oldenbrook says 101 communications doesn’t use telemarketing to verify lists across the board. But it has made calls to clean and better position some older lists for rental opportunities. The company employs telemarketing to verify data on lists of magazines that are no longer being published, such as Internetwork. “At some point you’re going to want to invest the money to keep them from aging,” says Oldenbrook. Once the lists are updated, they are not only better candidates for list rental opportunities, they become much more valuable for in-house marketing efforts such as conferences and trade show offers.

You can’t expect to make any money on a list that’s allowed to sit and collect dust, says Oldenbrook. “Some people will not even look at a list that hasn’t been updated in the last six months, so verification keeps it viable.” Plus, it boosts your chances for increased usage. “If someone does a test of your list and gets poor results, they’re not going to come back. You don’t get return business.”

Oldenbrook reiterates that this type of telemarketing is no longer cost prohibitive. A receptionist or an assistant can confirm the information, so it tends to be less expensive because you don’t actually have to talk to the subscriber, she says. “But we wouldn’t want to spend more than $5 per call.”

As long as I have you on the phone …

In some verification efforts, publishers are looking beyond the customary name-rank-and-serial-number approach. At the end of the call, they’re tacking on a few marketing and demographic questions–information that differs from the data collected for auditing purposes. “We include questions that we don’t report on an audit–that circulation doesn’t use–but that the sales staff may want,” says Peggie Kegel, circulation director for Advanstar Communications.

Some sample questions: What new equipment are you buying? Are you interested in trade shows? What kinds of tools and software does your company use? This is not the only means of amassing such information, says Kegel. But if you already have a customer on the phone, it can make sense to probe a little.

And, says Levy, this type of polling can create real leverage with your clients. For instance, if a reader says he plans to purchase a certain kind of software, the next question becomes, “Whom are you considering for the purchase?” he says. “Then we can go to advertisers who sell the software and say, ‘Based on this survey of people planning to purchase software, you rank eighth on the list.’ Knowing how you stack up is very valuable.”

In some instances, publishers will custom design the questions for specific advertisers. At Bill Communications, telemarketing verification efforts include “Teleleads” a value-added program for advertisers, says Joanne Wheatley, vice president of circulation.

If a resort hotel is advertising in Successful Meetings, she explains, telemarketers are asked to gather information on certain subscribers to find out who plans meetings, what time of year they like to hold them, and the types of facilities they want to use. “It matches the advertiser’s need with what our subscriber is going to purchase,” she says.

The program is bundled as part of a total ad package. “For Successful Meetings, it’s been a unique selling proposition. It sets us apart from our competitors,” Wheatley says. In fact, she credits the program with helping the title maintain over 50 percent marketshare in a crowded field.

Sometimes these questions are timed to events and circumstances in the market, says Levy. If major changes are occurring in the business world, for example, readers are asked about those market shifts. “Right now the conventional wisdom is that nobody is buying anything, so we’re asking if budgets have changed because of the current economic environment,” he says.

“To keep your magazines vibrant, you really have to have your hand on the pulse of your audience,” says Levy. So he often adds editorial-based questions. But even those can be used to benefit an advertiser. Levy offers this example: “Let’s say we wrote an article on customer relationship marketing and [the article] determined that it is tough to implement.” During telemarketing, vendors in the customer relationship business could potentially ask Darwin readers a follow-up question based on the article. The query might be, “What do your readers think would be the best way to implement customer relationship marketing?” Asking an additional marketing question or two can up the cost of the telemarketing by about $2,000, says Levy. But this type of value-add “has helped us to improve and solidify the relationship with the client.”

The intensified effort to track readers via telemarketing is a sign of the times, say publishers, because, in general, it’s become much more difficult to reach people. “Often there are lots of things competing for one moment of your attention,” says Levy. “You have to be much more aggressive than in the past, simply because the noise level is greater.”


1. Helps find readers who are moving from job to job, ensuring that the magazine and direct mail offers don’t end up “undeliverable.”

2. Helps keep the high cost of direct mail in check by making sure that the right person is targeted.

3. Can solidify relationships with advertisers by verifying that the readers they were promised are the once the magazine reaches.

4. Can produce unique marketing information for your own ad department and for outside advertisers, as well.

5. Can refresh older lists, and thus improve rental revenues.

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