Distribution surveys

Perhaps you’ve already received one of these before, but if you haven’t yet, odds are that you will one day: a friendly request from our Customer Service to help with a Distribution Survey. With all the subscriptions I’ve had over the years, I don’t think I’ve ever received one of these, so I figured it might be a good idea to put together a little piece describing what it is, why we’re sending them out and what we do with them.

Let me first explain how magazine distribution works. It’s very simple: basically the publisher puts together a list of addressees and sends this list with a sufficient quantity of magazines to a packaging company. They print out the addresses on what’s called an address carrier – in our case an A4 size sheet of paper. This stack of sheets is then fed into a machine which puts one address sheet onto a single magazine, bags it in some kind of poly-bag and then seals the bag.

(By the way: this automated process is the reason why we are unable to add other items to a subscription mailing as is sometimes requested. It would mean packaging an entire subscription run by hand – obviously more laborious and expensive – and including exceptions to the standard ‘one magazine per label’ which increases odds of mistakes by quite a bit…)

The sealed magazines are then sorted by postal region. PostNL takes care of our Dutch readers and the EU and ROW (Rest of World) readership is serviced by DHL Global Mail. There is proof of pickup and DHL sends us a bill of course, but as in the case of your normal envelope, you have to trust the postal services to deliver your mailpack to the addressee. Getting tracking on these mailpacks – again, as we’re sometimes asked – is theoretically possible, but it’d about quadruple the posting costs for each individual mailpack. As the postage cost is already about one-third to one-half of the entire subscription fee that is hardly an option.

So, we hand over our precious magazines to the mailman, who splits the mailing per country, transports it there and then usually hands it over to the local postal services to deliver to your doormat / mailbox / post box. Of course, we have a rough idea when magazines ought to be arriving. In the Service Level Agreement we concluded with a postal service, it says how long an item can be in transit. E.g. a mailpack to North America should be there within 7-10 working days. And normally, after a magazine has been mailed out, indications start coming that they have arrived. Readers write in with their comments for instance, or people post reactions here, on the magazine Facebook site, on internet forums, etc. Advertisers (happily) often report that they get an uptick in the sales of something they have announced in the latest issue, and we too often notice sales of subscriptions going up after a new issue starts arriving.

But what worries me is those magazines that do not arrive. We are very fortunate in that we have very committed ‘addicts’ (I hope you don’t mind me calling you that). Some of our readers get jittery when eight weeks have passed and they email us to ask if their copy is in the mail yet. We can often tell them that their copy should be with them soon and to our (and their) great relief it usually does turn up within days. But not always. It is a sad-but-true fact of life that when you mail thousands of magazines across the world, not all of them get to their destinations. A very small number are returned with address problems: readers may have moved and their address notification hasn’t made it to our database on time (incidentally: thank you so much to those readers who notify us well beforehand!), or there’s a mistake in the postal code, house number, street address, you name it, we’ve seen it. But those returns are barely a handful per issue, a tiny percentage of what is sent out. Sometimes magazines do just not get there. They end up on the sorting room floor, a mailbag gets misplaced or perhaps the postman decides he likes our magazines as well (who would blame him, but let him get his own subscription!). Those are the issues that are hard to solve because it requires our readers to sound the alarm, to notice that they have not received the latest issue and contact us. I prefer to be pro-active, but I don’t want to check with each and every one of you every time. That’s where the survey comes in. Our system randomly selects 15% of subscribers and sends them a short note asking them to take part. When you click the link, it’ll use the information from the email to auto-fill out which issue it concerns and then there’s three questions:

  • in which of the postal regions are you located. This provides us with an indication of how long it’s been since your copy should have arrived using the indicated transit-time in the SLA as mentioned above
  • how long it’s been since your copy arrived. This indicates (roughly) whether the conditions in the SLA are met, or whether it’s still on its way.
  • And then there’s a dropdown box to indicate the condition the magazine was in.

Provided that a good number of you respond to the survey, it gives us a pretty good indication of how we’re doing. Fortunately, it has consistently been very good, but postal workers are people too and mistakes are made. Trust me, you recognize the patterns pretty quick if something’s wrong. And that helps us indicate whether we need to prod the postal services, send out replacements, consider changing our mailpack, service levels, or even postal services! Over the last six years – has it been that long! – we’ve done all of the above and as a result less than one percent doesn’t make it to its destination. But I’d like to get that to less than one-tenth of a percent. And when we’re there, we’ll see about reducing that…

So if you get the request to take part in our distribution survey, please do so! Thank you!

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