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Setting your circulation

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Whether it's a brand-new publication or one that has been around for years, deciding how many people should actually be on the circulation lists can be a tough call, particularly if there are major shifts--such as massive layoffs--occurring in the industry your title covers.

"The first step is to define your universe," said Gloria Adams, VP-corporate audience development at PennWell Corp. This means figuring out how many people are actually in the field your title is targeting.

In some instances, that should be fairly simple, said John Crewe, executive director of circulation at Source Media. "You can easily find how many practicing dentists there are in America," he said. But when the criteria get more detailed, it becomes harder to nail down that precise segment of your audience. "It can be more difficult to find how many dental hygienists there are from particular regions of the world or something like that," Crewe said.

"I often go to associations and industry experts to give me guesstimates on how big they think a particular universe is," Adams said. Once that is defined, then the publisher needs to determine how much of the universe the title should target.

For existing titles, the numbers can shift annually. At PennWell, Adams and her circulators meet with publishers annually and discuss whether the size needs to change. "We look at our numbers, our competitors' numbers and how the universe has changed," she says. Back in 2001, she recalls going to these meetings and asking publishers how much they would cut circulation only to be met by astonished stares from the other side of the table.

"When there's a marketplace implosion like that and tens of thousands of people are being laid off in different industries, you have to cut circulation," she says. "And if your competitor doesn't, there's a real story to be told because someone is sending issues to people who no longer exist in that industry." Because of experiences like these, publishers and media buyers are much more in tune with finding quality subscribers today than a decade ago, when it was more about quantity rather than quality.

Crewe said that the definition of quality has changed in the last few years. "Advertisers are looking for more-targeted audiences where they can measure their response rates and success," he said. For him, that translates into having to dig even more deeply for customer information.

For Hugh Dowling, circulation director of NASA Tech Briefs, those annual meetings generally mean defining a shift in what advertising market his publisher plans to go after. Because of the war in Iraq, there has been increased spending in the defense market. So this year, the title will focus more of its efforts on finding circulation and advertising in that specific market. "Then we'll cut back in areas that might not be as beneficial that year, such as consumer products," Dowling said. "It's kind of a little leaning back and forth more than big changes."

Dowling said one of his biggest challenges right now is trying to create more international circulation by using PDF editions. Ascertaining international circulation can be difficult, he said. "The information overseas might not be as concrete and stable," he said. "Associations might not have all the kinds of numbers and information that we seek out here. And I've found that people aren't as willing to give personal information. They may want our magazines, but they don't want us to necessarily know how much money they make."

Dowling would like to move as many subscribers to PDFs as possible, whether they are domestic or international. "With paper costs constantly rising and postal being a constant financial drain, it would be a huge savings to us," he said. But PDF versions?even if they grow the overall circulation?can be a hard sell to advertisers. "New concepts are generally hard to sell," he said. And because of that, he doesn't want to lose too much print circulation too fast.

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