November 11, 2014 Last Updated 8:50 am

Circulation managers, seeking to maintain reader levels, are often at the mercy of the digital team

Many magazines are looking to digital subscriptions to make up for declining print readerships – but buggy apps, malfunctioning subscription services, can impact circulation as much as the loss of a newsstand distributor

This morning I watched a magazine’s digital circulation crash. Well, not literally, but I could see it, nonetheless. Readers inside the Apple App Store were writing reviews of their favorite magazine and screaming, pleading with the publisher to fix the app. Since the launch of iOS 8, the Apple Newsstand app had not been updated and now the problems were adding up.

“App not working once updated for iOS 8,” wrote one reader. “Same as other users,” wrote another. “Doesn’t recognize my subscription after several weeks of no problems. Log out and back in, delete app, nothing works. Called 800 customer service, no ideas.”

Although few publishers like to admit it, only a small group of their employees know what is going on with their digital editions at any given time. It is not the editor who dives into Xcode or the digital publishing platform they are using. It is the digital team, or often the team at the vendor being used.


If publishers and editors feel at the mercy of the digital team – or Apple, or Google, or the vendor – think about the circulation manager who is judged by whether they can maintain or grow the overall circulation of the magazine. Their job is to maintain the rate base, while at the same time not blowing out the budget or discounting the magazine too heavily.

Wired magazine sold 24,000 copies of its iPad app in the first 24 hours it was available in Apple’s iTunes store, company executives said. The app was released shortly after midnight Tuesday.” – May 2010

Many outside the business automatically assume, wrongly, that circulation is a profit center. But for the vast majority of magazines, the goal is to maintain readership at a certain level and not cost the company too much money. The favorite tool of many circulation managers a decade or so ago was the promotional mailer offering annual subscriptions at a discounted price. In the B2B game, readers would be mailed notices, or faxed. Then when not enough renewals were gathered they would use telephone rooms to scoop up the rest (many still do this).

But digital editions were supposed to change the equation. In theory, readers would buy new digital devices and immediately start buying their favorite publications in the digital newsstands. For a few months this felt like it would revolutionize the circulation game.

After spending over $500 on a tablet, the thinking was, owners would want to fill those devices up with music, films, and published media. Some did.


Wired UK recently updated their Newsstand app



But the app game is a different beast, and many publishers have still not adapted. Each year Apple throws a wrench into the gears by releasing a new version if iOS which some are beginning to think intentionally breaks things. This is a pain for digital publishing platform companies that must keep up with the changes and make sure their platforms are functioning as expected. They do a fantastic job of this, for the most part, with most of the major platforms fixing bugs they encounter quickly.

But when it is the job of the magazine or publishing company to update their apps there can sometimes be a big lag between the release of the new version of iOS, the platform’s fix, then the magazine’s app update. Device owners, eager to update their devices and get new features, then are surprised (though I don’t know why) when many of their apps no longer work as before. There is still a disconnect in the minds of many device owners between what Apple sends their way, and the apps they use every day.

Because of this, readers flock to iTunes to express their displeasure and threaten to cancel their subscriptions. How fast they do this determines whether readers actually follow through on their threats.

Wired UK, for instance, has issued an update that fixes many of the issues readers complained about in reviews. Their swift action probably saved current digital subscriptions, but also reassured those readers that they could be counted on to keep the app working as promised.

But other magazines, including some very popular titles, remain not updated – and readers are noticing.

But do circulation managers know what is going on, are they always aware of the condition of their magazine apps? Obviously, it depends on the company and on level of digital expertise of the circulation manager – as well as the level of communication to be found at the company.

But this issue will surely grow over time. This summer, several major U.S. consumer magazines reported declining digital circulation for the first time ever. The only pattern I have been able to detect is that readers had been complaining for a long time about their digital editions. The two biggest issues readers found were app bugs, and subscriptions services that did not recognize them as a reader after buying a digital subscription.

At one B2B publishing company I worked for, it was the circulation manager that controlled everything involving digital publishing. The circ manager managed the websites and tightly controlled the web traffic reports. It was a disaster.

The manager, at one point, decided to close down the reader forums because they did not like having to monitor new registrations. When the publishing team protested and said they would monitor the reader forums they were shutdown – this was the responsibility of circulation, the company said. Later, we learned that the web traffic reports were completely falsified for reasons one can only assume had to do with proving what a good job the circ manager was doing with managing all things digital.

It is often a tough decision to make at a small publishing company: who manages the digital publishing initiatives, who has final say?

If it was wrong to put that job into the hands of the circulation manager at the company mentioned above, it is equally wrong to shut out the circulation department completely. With many magazines needing to make up for lost print readership through growing digital readership, the circulation manager needs to be informed and involved. Their jobs depend on it.

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