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Part 2: Retaining Readers; It’s Not Too Late

Strategies that won’t break the bank

Part 1 of this article focused on some of the most important, but lesser known, reasons consumers are leaving newspapers:

  • Newspapers need to do a better job differentiating their products; many consumers are confused what they’re offering, what content they provide, and on what platforms.
  • Many newspaper brands have deteriorated; most consumers don’t consider printed newspapers, or their websites, as their primary sources of local news; which is a fact but wrong.
  • Newspapers not only do less marketing than many other industries, much of what they do doesn’t engage consumers, focusing more on product features than reader benefits; which are much more important.

Fortunately, there are strategies to increase reader retention and frequency without breaking the bank. Digital may be the future, but print still pays the bills, so hold onto as many readers as long as you can.

Our findings are based on thousands of interviews conducted in markets across the nation by American Opinion Research (AOR), of Princeton, N.J.

Everything Old Gets New Again

iStock-496277488A large majority of former subscribers, and about half of current subscribers, believe printed newspapers and their websites provide pretty much the same information. And, sometimes they do right down to the lead story. This perception is costing newspapers print readership and digital usage.

One solution: develop a content plan to differentiate your platforms and exploit the benefits of both.

Years ago, when I was Deputy Managing of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Times Union in Rochester N.Y., afternoon newspapers like ours faced a constant challenge: how to cover the news when the morning newspaper or television often had it first.

The same is true today for the vast majority of newspapers; they are rarely the first source for breaking news, even local news.

Like the afternoon newspapers of a generation ago, printed newspapers today need to be creative in developing “second day angles,” content that is more timeless, but still timely. Even feature stories should have a “news peg,” a reason why they’re in the paper that day.

And, that requires a new plan for coverage.

Even the venerable Times of London is cutting its breaking news coverage and moving to other types of content, including on its website. Early results look positive.

“People don’t come to us for breaking news; they can go to the BBC and Twitter for that, which is free,” said Alan Hunter, head of digital for The Times, in an Editor & Publisher article titled, “The Times of London is swearing off breaking news.”

“They come to us for the authority of our reporting, opinion and analysis.”

Devising a content plan, just like a business plan, allows you to develop the most effective strategies, based on reader needs, carefully identify opportunities and, perhaps most important, make sure everyone on your staff is on the same page.

The two most important questions in developing a content plan:

  • What information can you provide that consumers can’t get elsewhere; the single-best predictor we have of readership and reader frequency
  • Provide content that’s useful in their daily lives, the second-best readership predictor

One suggestion: people are looking for ways to enhance and improve their lives; AOR research shows that’s what is most important to them. Newspapers have generally reported actions and issues, not answers, which feed the perception that newspapers don’t provide unique information and don’t care, and, probably, adds to the appeal of television.

You can change that, but you need a content plan that goes beyond brainstorming. That’s not that difficult, but is something most media companies have not considered. This should help differentiate your products, an important priority mentioned in Part 1 of this article.

Identify Unmet Needs

When working with non-media companies, our research often focuses on identifying the “unmet needs” of their target audiences. Many newspapers take a different approach: looking for an audience that wants what they have to offer, rather than developing products people want to buy.

Newspapers can distinguish themselves and be perceived as providing unique, useful information by identifying consumers’ unmet needs and providing that information.

There are different ways to identify unmet needs. One approach we have found successful:

  • Measure the importance of very specific types of content consumers say they “must have”.

(Identifying specific content is a must; not just local news, for example, but what types of local news. We also base the analysis on “must have” topics. Simply measuring interest usually doesn’t measure intensity.)

  • Identify the primary source of information for each specific topic consumers must have (including print subscribers)

In a surprising number of cases, consumers have no one dominant source, even for content they care most about. This represents an opportunity.

  • Determine on what platform, print or digital, consumers are most likely to read or access this information, and how best to bundle content so print and digital platforms complement, not duplicate, each other

Do What We Tell Advertisers

Newspapers tell their advertisers to market harder when times are tough. Most do just the opposite.

There are many ways to market and promote without relying on expensive, external marketing plans. And, even those often tend to be poorly positioned and unproductive.

A large New Jersey newspaper once ran an extensive, and expensive, radio campaign promoting the backgrounds and experience of its editorial staff members. The concept: build credibility in the people who bring them the news.

Nobody cared, and it didn’t affect image or readership.

iStock-502510376Consumers care what’s in the newspaper for them. This is the most important element of any successful marketing program, internal or external.

Tell people why they should care.

Upcoming and same-day content promotion in the newspaper can help retain subscribers and increase reader frequency among single-copy buyers and former subscribers, most of whom still read at least occasionally.

For almost every product, in almost every industry, frequency equals loyalty.

I’ve run several newsrooms and visited more than 100 others as a media researcher and consultant. The vast majority either don’t appreciate the importance of in-paper promotion, or need to do a more effective job.

Just a few strategies:

  • Same-day content promotion: focus on what’s in the newspaper that day to entice readers to spend more time with it, an important predictor of readership
  • Upcoming content promotion: Build anticipation about the unique and useful information that’s going to be in the newspaper, tomorrow, the next day, Sunday, etc.

Clearly, this won’t be breaking news, no longer the strength of newspapers anyway. But virtually every newspaper plans some content in advance. Focus on content that is useful, local and unique, and you can cut churn and increase retention.

If you can’t identify any, there are bigger problems.

Here are some guidelines in making internal marketing more effective:

  • Make a compelling promise there is helpful and useful information inside the newspaper

I remember seeing a magazine cover promoting the story, “The best place for you to invest your last $5,000.”

How would many newspapers promote this story?

Maybe something like, “Personal finance, Page 5d”; no direct promise of personal benefits, useful information and certainly not very compelling.

  • Be short, to the point and engaging; again, promise personally important benefits. Start looking at magazine covers. Most are very good at this, because they live and die on discretionary readers which are more like newspaper readers today.

These strategies are relatively inexpensive, but will be successful if done correctly—with the reader in mind.

Perhaps the best advice I ever received about selling newspapers came from my old boss at USA Today, the late Al Neuharth, USA Today’s founder and then Chairman and CEO of The Gannett Co.

Al walked over to my desk in the USA Today newsroom one evening, handed me a piece of paper and said, “Every one of our stories needs to answer this question.”

The question, “Why should I care?”

He was right.

For more on American Opinion Research, click here.

Contact Anthony Casale at 609-683-9055 ext. 202 or email [email protected]