Half the secret of circulation success is learning to ignore the misconceptions and misinformed "musts." Circulators need to get over risk aversion and think beyond the confines of what's “expected.”

In our business, it's often easier to say what success isn't rather than what it is. After all, your circulation success might be my disaster. It's all relative. That's particularly worth keeping in mind these days, as we slog through a confusing circulation climate.
While we obviously need to recognize and respond to the fact that some major factors (like consumer buying patterns) are changing our business in fundamental ways, it's sanity-preserving to remember that tough times come and go. We'll hack out solutions, and things will stabilize sooner or later (at least for a time).
In the meantime, it might be useful to take a critical look at some of the common myths regarding how success should be defined and achieved in the circulation arena. Some of these originated with non-circulation management. But at times, circulators can be surprisingly susceptible to buying into these misconceptions.

There's a “secret formula” for success.
Would that this were true, but it's not. Circulation success requires the hard work and close involvement of executives who understand their jobs and the markets of their magazines. Neither of these items can be expressed as a formula.

And let's not forget that success is comprised of many small victories, as well as an overall vision. Professional circulation and market knowledge enable sound strategic thinking and planning, but they also come into play in a big way on a day-to-day basis. Circulation is not a rote process in which numbers are fed into models and the right rate base and readership mix automatically emerge. Just like editorial or ad sales, circulation requires a good deal of vigilance and commitment, combined with an ability to think on one's feet and overcome short- and long-term obstacles.
One of my favorite observations about circulation is that you're either six months too early or six months too late. The underlying truth in this somewhat sardonic statement is that success requires close and continual monitoring of all of the pulse points. It's the only way to ensure that you don't get blindsided by a shift in pay-up, renewals or other critical factors.
On the other hand, no circulator can succeed for long without the creativity to pull through on those occasions when the truly unavoidable occurs. Anyone who's found herself alone in the office on a pre-audit holiday weekend struggling to figure out how to drop 600 duplicates off a file of 20,000 names with no time left for traditional solutions can attest to this. (Hmmm…What's that directory over there in the bookcase?) Ditto for anyone who's been told at the last minute that a mailing's delivery has run amuck, or that an agent's promised numbers won't be materializing after all, or…well, you get the picture.

Only large companies can succeed today.
The fact is that many different types of circulation operations in publishing companies of all sizes are achieving success. Within the context of what's appropriate to your market and budget, if there's a will (and the skill), there's a way. Granted, it's sometimes difficult to remember this when you're working at the speed of light.
Big success doesn't require big resources, and big resources in no way guarantee success. A large promotion budget can't compensate for bad management. If a circulator doesn't have testing savvy, or passively allows a policy of heavy reliance on low-pay soft offers, the circulation base will be shaky. The only question is the monetary scale of the fiasco.
Circulators at smaller companies would do well to remember that larger budgets generally come with larger circulations — and their associated maintenance challenges. Let's also remember that even big magazines have spending restrictions, and that inept or lazy circulators can only buy themselves out of trouble for so long. Creative thinking is the only route to making the most effective use possible of what money and resources are available. The process of finding the best, lowest-cost ways to maintain your magazine's circulation or move it to the next level is the same regardless of the circulation or budget size.
That's why, even in today's environment, there's no substitute for a sound understanding of circulation and direct marketing fundamentals. You can't reinvent the business. If you abandon the basics, you'll flounder. You have to use best practices and work to refine them for your magazine.

Success comes from innovation.
While there's a core element of truth here, this idea too often goes awry in the degree of its application. Pioneers sometimes hit a gusher on their first try. But far more often, they succeed only after many failures — or wind up face-down in the dirt. I'm all for innovation, and more power to those who have the resources to take big risks. But for most of us, there's a lot to be said for applying our creativity in calculated, measured ways. We should study the pioneers, learn from their missteps and then adopt that innovation successfully. We can bide our time, keep reading the trade press and watching our competitors, and be ready to leap after they've spent their time and budgets learning the hard way. Good circulation executives are opportunists.
At the same time, the best circulators aren't afraid of a reasonable degree of innovation. They're confident enough in their knowledge to try a limited test of an idea that flies in the face of the common wisdom or the current pronouncements of the “experts.”

If you believe that you've spotted a new trend or market shift, responding to it may call for trying an unorthodox method. Small, persistent efforts to push the envelope with new acquisition and renewal ideas will pay off over time, and may even produce the occasional bonanza. Don't be easily discouraged. Patience and persistence can accomplish a lot.

Success requires luck.
Being in the right place at the right time is always useful, but success favors those who are prepared to recognize and exploit opportunities. Those who keep their professional skills sharp and their eyes wide open are those who tend to end up in the right place at the right time. (Figuring out how to grow eyes in the back of your head would also be helpful. Frankly, I've become skeptical about evolution, because I figure that if it actually worked, all circulators would already have at least four eyes — and four arms, as well.)

Once success is achieved, you can coast and enjoy it.
Wrong. You're only as good as your last audit statement. Continuous effort and testing are required to exploit initial success and maintain achievements. Just about the time that you feel really successful, something new will come along or some major change will occur. And if you've gotten complacent, it will throw you for a loop.

You can succeed by maintaining a low profile and trying to keep everyone's feathers unruffled.
In today's publishing world, circulation is on the radar screen, like it or not. If you don't like it, be prepared to stagnate in lower-rung positions.

Successful circulation outcomes require developing the ability to think like a CEO. But that doesn't mean slavish attempts to placate management. It means figuring out their true goals and using your talent, skills and intelligence to show them how to achieve these in the most effective and efficient ways possible.
Circulators need to get over risk aversion and think beyond the confines of what's “expected.” Acting calm and controlled is key in demonstrating that you've done your homework and can manage any outcome, positive or not. But it's also important to take risks. You need to put your ideas out there and make it clear that you are (in that unavoidable phrase) thinking out of the box.
The quickest way to your CEO's heart is to demonstrate well-founded confidence. Be original. Be a straight-shooter. Be innovative and action-oriented. Just be sure that your ideas are well thought-out before you present them. Fumbling around while answering questions will overshadow a good idea.
Also be willing to keep learning and expanding your skills. And admit mistakes promptly and without apology. Everyone, including the CEO, fails sometimes. Don't be afraid to examine what occurred. Avoid placing blame. Figure out what went wrong and resolve to build on that knowledge. If you take this approach, apologies are unnecessary, because every “mistake” becomes an opportunity to learn and develop.
Be competitive and tenacious. Set clear circulation goals and push to achieve them. But never forget that achieving goals requires flexibility and generosity. You must be able to respond to constantly changing business environments. And a sure sign of a true leader is sharing achievements with everyone who's contributed.