Internet tapped for circ leads

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The Internet has transformed most aspects of business publishing, and online subscription agents are proving that circulation directors aren't immune to its power either.

Such agents-including, Freebizmag and Web sites that attract, qualify and aggregate readers in ways that are particularly appealing for controlled circulation business publications on the hunt for new subscribers. The sites typically make potential subscribers fill out a qualification form, and then they put multiple subscription offers in front of the subscribers based on their responses.

These online subscription agents have a simple value proposition: They can bring qualified readers to publications generally at a lower cost than alternative methods such as direct mail. "The reason that online subscription agencies have emerged is simple: the failure of direct mail," said Cliff Mulcahy, VP-business publications for

Carmel McGuiness, circulation director for Ziff Davis Media titles including Baseline, eWeek and CIO Insight, has used all three major online agents, saving as much as 60% in circulation-building costs compared with a typical direct mail campaign.

"You have to be really careful the first time you get any output," McGuiness said. "You have to analyze the [subscriber] titles and all of the data that come from that source. In addition, you have to track and see how those sources convert in years to come. These are people that you weren't necessarily directly targeting with your brand."

Not all circulation directors have had success with the approach. Don Ross, circulation director at Thomas Publishing, whose titles include Managing Automation and Industrial Equipment News, said he worked with one agent with limited success. "They weren't really reaching our prime audience," he said. "We ended up eliminating 99% of the names they sent us. In the end, we mutually agreed the relationship wasn't working out for either one of us."

Ross said Thomas later had a bit more success with another agent that culled potential subscribers by placing offers on third-party Web sites related to his titles' markets.

Circulation directors looking to use Internet agents should be aware that although all the major players take a similar approach to audience acquisition, they have their own unique tweaks on the process. Pricing varies by category and market.

The Web site encompasses both consumer and business titles, giving it a wide reach. In 2003, it acquired the b-to-b-focused Subscription Network, a pioneer in the online agent business.

"The reason why an agent is such an attractive option is that it costs nothing to list with us," Mulcahy said. "We hunt down subscribers and set off the process. Publishers only pay for the subscribers we deliver; it's a no-risk proposal."

Prices for new names vary depending on the market segment, Mulcahy said. "In competitive markets, like high-tech, a new-subscriber cost can top $10 per name," he said.

While most agents focus on print subscribers, Mulcahy sees a big opportunity in helping publishers acquire opt-in e-mail and Web subscribers. works only with b-to-b titles. Its key strategy is to form co-branding relationships with third-party sites such as industry associations and content portals.

In addition to enabling readers to qualify for titles via its own Web site, works with more than 2,000 partners to spread subscription offers around the Internet, according to David Fortino, director of business development for NetLine Corp., parent company of takes another approach. "We go out and try to find business people and match them to magazines," said VP Michael Borchetta. In particular, touts its ability to qualify a reader for multiple publications via a single form.

"They tell us who they are and what they do, and then we tell them the magazines they are eligible to receive, based on prescreened criteria," Borchetta said.

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