The weak economy, staff reductions, and magazine shutdowns in the last few years have forced many publishers to lean more heavily on their fulfillment houses for services. But fulfillment and publishing executives say that underlying those factors is, perhaps, an even bigger driver: Subscribers who are increasing their use of online channels and expecting publishers to keep up.
"We need to know as much about our customers as possible," says Heather Perry Holmes, senior vice president of audience development at Technology Review. "For example, if they’re Apple users, we can share with them anything we’re rolling out on iOS, the Apple platform." The goal is to tailor content to the user, "so if we notice customers in one specific channel, like energy, I can tailor our [energy] offerings to them quickly," she says.
Consumers have more access to content online than ever before and they use multiple channels to access that content and make purchases, says Tony Pytlak, president and COO of Strategic Fulfillment Group. "They’re much more multimedia than they were in the past," he says. While this has challenged publishers’ revenue streams, it has also helped publishers to view their fulfillment houses as partners to facilitate movement between print and the various online channels.
To that end, the role of the fulfillment provider’s account executive has become more high-tech than it ever was. "Fulfillment houses on the whole are doing an excellent job in keeping up with the changing industry but, in my opinion, the account executive is the critical area," Holmes says. "The roles have changed so rapidly that what we used to expect from an account executive no longer applies," Holmes says. They must understand the publication and all of its digital offerings, she says.
"No longer do I need an account executive who quality controls printed mailing labels, writes Fed Ex tickets, or ships me green-bar reports," Holmes says. "I need one that says, ‘You know, I was testing this landing page in Google Chrome and it works there, but not in Safari.’ I need someone who is technology savvy, who is a partner. I need a trouble shooter."
"We’re the keeper of the most current, up-to-date customer information," says Stefan Beeli, CTO at ESP Computer Services. That means the challenge is around being an expert at keeping track of what has become a complex web of data. "It’s all about knowing who your customer is and what they are doing," Beeli says. "We know if the customer is a subscriber; has attended an event; if they bought a product related to the publication, like a hat or sweater; if they get an e-mail newsletter; and how they want to receive their content."
By analyzing buying behavior and tying together that type of data in a meaningful way for publishers helps to decipher customer interests, Pytlak says. Fulfillment providers can help with analytics by supplying technological tools for flexible reporting, data mining, and ad hoc queries, he says.
Having a broad technological skill set is increasingly making fulfillment providers the first stop for publishers seeking to extend their digital platforms, Beeli says. "We are being asked to provide a lot more [technical] advice to publishers. They want to know how things are going to work," he says.
While the recession has hit the publishing industry hard, the industry’s expansion into digital offerings, including Web- and mobile- only publishing, is also raising demand for service providers with this specialization, Beeli says. "We see growth from existing publishers who put out traditional [print] magazines and are pushing content on hand-held devices, but also from publishers where hand-held only is their target delivery platform," Beeli says.
Even so, mail processing still accounts for the lion’s share of business at fulfillment houses, although, volumes are slowly declining as readers move to the Web. Fulfillment executives say they expect this side of the business is here to stay as some print publications, such as the 100,000-circulation WWE magazine, have no digital editions.
"Even for ESP, where 50 percent of our publishers have digital editions, mail processing is still the majority of transactions," Beeli says.
Still, much of the recent mergers and acquisitions as well as investments in fulfillment have been geared toward boosting capabilities for digital services, executives say.