10 September 2010

Newspapers: It's Over For Them & Online Will Not Save Them!

PART TWO: Circulation and Marketing>Models For Failure

If you have an opportunity to sit down and talk with any of the ever declining number of people still in the newspaper business, you will find, to a person, they will say the reason for the decline of newspapers is the internet.  They are abjectly and utterly wrong, and merely whistling through the graveyard! 

Yesterday, I gave you a perspective on how greed, arrogance, elitism and stupidity have driven off subscribers, readers and advertisers.  Today, we'll examine circulation and marketing practices that have all but driven the nails in the coffin and tossed on the first shovel of dirt.

Consider this.  The circulation department of any newspaper contains some of the best  and worst paid people in the company.  Managers generally make pretty good money...as is befitting their many responsibilities.  But, the worst paid, virtually within the entire company, not just the department, are the men and women who are most in daily contact with the customers--the carriers and customer service people and their direct supervisors.  This is more stupidity and short-sightedness.  You do not put your most valuable asset in the hands of under-paid, overworked employees, if you are wise.  Or, if you expect to succeed.

The circulation department should be any newspaper's "Consumer Marketing Department".  It seldom is, and is considered by most publishers and newspaper executives to have an operational orientation rather than marketing.  Oh yeah, it might execute some of those "sales" promotions with discounts and premiums that I wrote of yesterday.  Such campaigns usually feature some snotty, urban-sounding, telemarketer or else a shaggy solciitor or carrier at the door.  Precisely how you want to "image" your product, right? But, as to a real "deciding" voice in strategy, design, or content?  Forget about it. Never mind that this is the department most in touch with customers and most able to advise what they want.

As a result, too many circulation managers focusing on "sales" & "starts"  lose sight of (that is, if they ever had it) their primary responsibility: Acquiring and Retaining readers and subscribers by meeting their delivery/distribution needs with a product that is wanted or needed.  They blithely "hope" that their $7.50 an hour (or less) customer service people will be able to untangle the hard-feelings of customers aggrieved by the vagaries of some part-timer, netting a couple of hundred a week, hurling newspapers in the general direction of their home from a speeding car.  And since these delivery people are always "independent contractors", they get no supervision or training other than some cursory "best-practice" guidance.

It is a model fraught with peril begging for problems.  Most of those well-paid managers spend more time dealing with problem resolution, internal squabbles, angry customers, and dodging or explaining away complaints that find their way to the executive wing than they do on their real jobs.  As a result, most circulation managers dither around from project to project, staying busy while confusing activity with result.

I once made a publisher furious when I pointed out to him that people lined up just before noon on Sunday to by beer, but I never saw people standing around news-racks, or in C-Stores waiting for the newspaper to hit the stands.  This man rose to great heights in the Hearst corporation...but, he didn't get it; and as far as I know, still doesn't...Hearst's newspapers aren't doing any better than anyone else's!

There are plenty of products that people want and buy eagerly, while choosing one brand over another, based on some sort of advertising position or "branding" statement.  Those products use "pull" marketing to attract customers or buyers.  The market for these products are people who already know "what's in it for them" and when they buy, base their buying decision on which product or service will do the best job of meeting their needs.

Newspapers have to be "pushed".  Tell that to publishers or managing editors and watch their faces turn red and their eyeballs pop out.  They spend tons of money on branding, imaging, or promoting some new feature  without ever having done the marketing groundwork of researching market needs, and designing product and features to meet those needs.  They hardly ever engage professional survey firms to talk to former subscribers and readers to find out why they left.  Or, for that matter, to any other market segment.  Oh yeah, sometimes they mount amateurish in-house questionnaires for their poorly-paid, over-worked, barely-trained customer service people to do in addition to dealing with irate complaints about billing or delivery problems--yep, that's really a model that will give you some marketing insight.

Instead, the publisher, and a few other execs head-huddle, and churn out some new project or campaign based on their "experience, knowledge and insight".  Or, at the more "enlightened" newspapers there is a "marketing committee" made up mostly of middle-aged white guys, with a smattering of token women, younger managers, or minorities who are generally too intimidated, awed, or fearful to rebut or challenge most of the utter nonsense coming out of these committees.

So, they launch these vast, expensive, time and energy consuming projects, or campaigns, which distract attention and effort away from the primary job of acquiring and retaining readers, subscribers, and advertisers through determination of their needs and putting forth a product that meets those needs--AND THEN TELLING THEM!.

In short, you want to sell me a newspaper, don't tell me what features you have, don't tell me how proud you are of being in business since Hector was a pup.  You need to tell me what's in it for me, and why I need to Act Now!  Why am I going to be better off by by buying your product?  You need to tell me, over-and-over -and-over.  Don't give me a branding statement and expect that to pull me to a buying decision.  You need to push me to that decision by telling me why I am going to be better off!

Okay.  Now. If the internet is not the real problem, why in the name of hell do newspapers think it will be their salvation?  They have been at it for fifteen years now, some of the best minds in the business (yes, I know, that's not necessarily saying much) have yet to come up with a successful business model that generates the revenue needed to staff a professional newsroom so they can continue with their core expertise..delivery of in-depth local news, information and entertainment, and advertising.  The reason they have not succeeded, is that there is no model to be found!

Got newspaper stock, dump it!  That old dog has had its last hunt, and just ain't gonna leave the porch much longer!

But there are success stories.  Hispanic newspapers, in particular, are filling the gaps left by the dailies grappling with...well, whatever it is they are grappling with so they can appear busy.arranging deck chairs as the ship sinks.  Those Hispanic publications know what their market wants and they provide it at a fair price and have been very successful in capturing advertising dollars.  That is a business model that predicates success--find out what your market needs and wants (ain't always the same), meet those needs and wants, let the market  know you are meeting those needs and wants, and close the deal with a fair price.

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