Lost lists: What happens to subcriber databases when magazines close?

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Many magazine publishers coping with the current economic meltdown, as well as rapidly changing reading and advertising practices, have sought relief by shuttering some print publications. A few have gone to an online presence only, but a great many more have closed entire brands both online and off. Amid the shakeup, an inevitable question arises: What's to become of these brands' subscriber lists? Subscriber databases—valuable both to direct marketers intent on reaching similar demographics, as well as in-house in prospecting for new subscribers—may, when untethered to any viable publication, wind up as mournful orphans with nowhere to go. “The hard part, obviously, when you shutter a publication is how to maintain a list, keep it fresh and current,” said Tom Fowler, senior VP-media division at Summit Business Media. “Quite frankly, we've closed publications here and we're not trying to maintain those lists.” In December and January, Summit ceased publishing Insurance Marketing and Bank Advisor. Fowler said Summit may use those lists internally to drive traffic to similar Web sites or publications, such as Summit's Investment Advisor and Boomer Market Advisor. According to, an online database of U.S. and Canadian publications, 95 magazines folded in the first quarter of 2009, while 16 magazines ceased publication of print editions and now publish online-only magazines. Of the closures in the first three months of the year, 30 were b-to-b. Publishers and list managers alike are agreed that once a publication ceases, its list has a very short viable lifespan. “At the point of shut-down, that's the zenith of its value,” said John Papalia, president of Statlistics, a list manager and broker that handles Summit Business Media's lists. Papalia said such lists might have some rentable value for about a year, although their rates will continually decline over that time. “It's possible to keep the database as responsive as possible by doing direct marketing hygiene on it,” he said. “I've had clients where the list still makes money four or five years after the publication closes, although those were mostly in the high-tech field or a very targeted niche.” That's the exception, Papalia said. More typically, an orphan list faces a triad of possible outcomes: Continuing to be rented to direct marketers at ever-diminishing rates for about a year until its value evaporates entirely; being combined within the circulation database of another brand within the same company; or being sold to another company that publishes in the same space. The going rate for the outright sale of an orphan list is about three times its rental value, Papalia said. Since the beginning of the year, Crain Communications Inc., publisher of Media Business, has closed the 25-year-old RCR Wireless News, with a deep and valuable subscriber database, as well as three relatively young publications without strong lists, Automotive News Europe, Business Insurance Europe and Financial Week. “RCR... [had] an established on- and offline audience,” said Patrick Sheposh, corporate circulation director at Crain. “We are going through some things now in getting interest in the sale of that list.” What to do with a list once a publication shuts down depends on the condition of the publisher's business as well as the market, Sheposh said. “Is it a viable list that over time can make you more money until it withers and dies, or do you get more bang for your buck by selling it and letting someone else nurture it?” he asked. “In my opinion, with what's been happening with direct marketing these days, especially with postal lists, the signs point to getting rid of it now.”
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