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Web pumps up print subscriptions

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The get-it-now promise of the Internet is pushing publishers to re-engineer their circulation fulfillment processes as more subscription orders pour in from the Web.

"Web consumers are developing certain expectations of the fulfillment relationship," says Steve Sutton, who is group circulation director for Ziff-Davis' Yahoo! Internet Life, PC Computing and Internet Computing and is in charge of online subscription marketing for all of Ziff-Davis' paid circulation titles.

"These expectations revolve around speed of transaction," Mr. Sutton says.

They want confirmation fast

In other words, new customers who subscribe to print magazines online want to know their order has been received and is rolling forward right away.

Web fulfillment is a hot issue these days. The American Business Press, New York, is surveying its members about their online fulfillment experiences and strategies.

It's clear everyone is struggling to change their models to fit the speed of the Internet.

"In working with publishers, we try to help them to understand the whole idea of Internet time," says Pat McNamara, manager of Internet Services for Neodata Services, a Louisville, Colo.-based fulfillment house that estimates it will handle 3.3 million online subscription requests for 129 magazines and 29 publishers in 1997.

"In going from a static magazine subscription order model to an interactive environment, the immediacy of the Web prompts customers' expectations for that immediacy. To foster that notion of immediacy, certain response strategies have to be put into place," Ms. McNamara says.

Specifically, Neodata recommends that publishers work with fulfillment houses to install auto-responder software that confirms via e-mail an online order within just a few minutes.

Speed avoids problems

Bothersome things can happen if that confirmation isn't sent quickly, says Richard McCarthy, promotions manager for International Data Group's PC World.

"Sometimes you get multiple orders from the same source," Mr. McCarthy says. "If you don't get an immediate confirmation bounced back to them via e-mail, they are likely to think that the order was not received and resubmit it again and again."

Speed remains critical once the order is placed.

"The successes we've seen revolve around those publishers who indicate what the cycle time will be up front" in the e-mail order confirmation, says Sue Corser-Jensen, a Neodata customer service general manager.

"Then, our goal for customer service is to process your order within a three-day interval."

The customer generally doesn't receive the first issue much faster by ordering online. The time saved in the ordering process amounts to the difference between the few minutes it takes to fill in an online order form and the few days it takes for a mail-in card to reach the fulfillment house via snail mail. Once the order is received, the rest of the fulfillment process is the same.

But online subscriptions can promote a better customer relationship, if done right.

Mr. Sutton says customers feel more in control if they are able to complete the entire transaction online, to view and alter their account information and check on the status of their order, all in a secure environment.

Fixing typos

Another problem with Web orders is that people don't always type their data correctly.

"Address quality has been a big issue," Mr. Sutton says. "People don't always type in their own addresses the way the Postal Service would like. Also, we get a lot of foreign orders, which are tough for fulfillment systems based on U.S. addressing to handle."

Neodata handles this problem by using CGI (common gateway interface) scripts tied into a database that knows the algorithms credit card companies use to create account numbers, and can correctly match up a town, or even a specific street address, with the right ZIP Code. ZIP Codes can usually be corrected without contacting the customer, but credit card number typos require that the customer receive an error message on his or her PC within two or three seconds.

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