Strategy and trends

5 tips for circulation directors from GateHouse Media marketing leaders

As newspapers race to discover the formula for news revenue in the digital age, it has become increasingly important for marketing and circulation directors to tap into creative approaches to consumer marketing and audience development. We reached out to some of GateHouse Media’s top marketing leaders and asked them for insight into some of their most valuable lessons learned – here’s what they had to say:

1. Pursue sustainable growth in the long tail


Traditional sales channels are still valuable, but taking a longer tail approach to Consumer Marketing should not be cast aside. Tools like Salesforce Marketing Cloud and social media marketing scale across all sizes of publications. In many instances, subscriptions and audience garnered from these channels are incremental to one’s current sales tactics and can be viewed as supplemental production to offset shortfalls in other channels. With upwards of 60 percent of digital users found on their mobile devices, having confidence that our promotional messaging is mobile friendly is imperative.

“Traditional sales channels are still valuable, but taking a longer tail approach to Consumer Marketing should not be cast aside.”

Salesforce Marketing Cloud leverages the power of a robust digital marketing platform to manage relationships using the customer journey. This tool can be used to drive subscription sales, both print and digital, via email as well as promoting other facets of our relationship with readers, including rewards programs, newsletters and renewal options.

Utilizing social media to not only engage readers but to offer subscriptions or memberships can be very successful. Many users of social media are not paid subscribers but rely on our content for valuable information. Again, engagement can be a starting point. Engagement can come from reader-driven submissions to contests. In many cases, engagement allows us a glimpse into the profile of someone who is interacting with the brand. Thus, the more we know about this user, the more likely we can provide a product that can be monetized.  

Overall, we have to be willing to take the path less traveled. It’s not always easy and we may not reap the immediate benefits, but with constant testing and refinement, our chances of success increase substantially.

Nobert Gray, Consumer Sales and Marketing Director at Journal Star

2. Prioritize your most valuable commodity: readers


Do the mundane elements of our job prevent us from protecting our most valuable commodities, our readers? Understanding what is important to our customers is paramount. But how well do we actually know our customers? Are our business decisions based on sound data and analysis, or is it purely anecdotal?

For example, how do we react to an influx of service stops? Do we chalk it up to normal attrition, or are there sound retention strategies in place to create a spirit that every customer matters? When a customer stops for editorial content, does the news department play a role in “talking that customer off the ledge?”

Is our retention plan up-to-date? In many cases, a plan is implemented and then put on “cruise control.” Like our vehicles, retention plans and programs need regular maintenance. Does our billing timeline give the customer ample opportunity to pay before cessation?

In general, we should be willing to listen to our readers at all costs. In many cases, these are tough conversations, but our customers can give us a glimpse into trends even before they happen. We just have to be willing to listen… and then act.

Nobert Gray, Consumer Sales and Marketing Director at Journal Star

3. Maximize consumer marketing revenue by maximizing value

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No matter the industry or product involved, customers expect more than just a product. Value includes quality service, benefits and a feeling of belonging. Media companies are no different.

For example: as the Thanksgiving season creeps ever so close, are we doing everything possible to drive revenue on our most valuable product of the year? Point of sale along with seamless production processes is critical.

All properties are encouraged to price aggressively. Some markets have priced their Thanksgiving product at $5 and have actually increased sales. Again, think value. Does the price of your Thanksgiving product line up with its value? This year, GateHouse Media’s Big Book of Savings will only enhance that value in many of our markets. Some publications are even adding more value by including things like a free digital cookbook or free digital access to non-subscribers.

Even more importantly, are we communicating our value proposition to subscribers? The value in our program should be reinforced to our subscribers on a regular basis throughout all channels of communication. Is the value proposition clearly articulated on invoices, sales collateral, in-paper ads, social media and emails? While it may seem taken for granted, is the value of the Sunday coupons promoted each week across different communication vehicles?

Nobert Gray, Consumer Sales and Marketing Director at Journal Star

4. Add “vendor management” to your job description


If these two words aren’t in your current job description, they certainly should be. After thirty years in the newspaper industry, I have seen my fair share of changes.  These two little words are probably some of the most significant.

How much staff do you actually have these days?  Most of what we are responsible for has been outsourced: customer service and telemarketing call centers, home delivery and single copy distribution, subscriber billing and most sales functions.  

The challenge is how to manage the performance of these outside vendors so the budgeted objectives can be achieved both in volume and revenue.  I find that we need to be even more vigilant with our communication and expectations. Treat them as if they really are truly a part of your team.

We create sales and service contests for our distribution and call center vendors with rewards aimed at increasing performance.  We also acknowledge them when things are going well, not just when they aren’t.  When was the last time you sent one of your vendors a thank you note?  I think you would be amazed at how much they would appreciate that!

Michele Marquis, Consumer Marketing Director at GateHouse Media

5. Experiment and innovate to develop audiences

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Challenge yourself to think about audience development in new ways. To get inspired, check out these ideas from Nikhil Hunshikatti, Vice President of Marketing at The Columbus Dispatch:

DMG Rewards (Driving Loyalty & Engagement)

We recently relaunched our loyalty platform to focus on higher reader engagement, exclusive “subscriber only” content, gamification and contesting. The new loyalty program also integrates with our CMS and social platforms. With over 65,000 members in our loyalty program (over 70 percent of them being subscribers), we are expecting the rewards/loyalty program to generate over two million PVs per month and increase digital engagement from print subscribers (5 percent → 15 percent), in addition to the 14-point lift in retention we have experienced with subscribers that are members vs. those that are not.

Newspaper Sweeps (Growing Audience & Engagement)

Taking a leaf out of the TV model, we are designating three months (all peak subscription sale months) to create a destination in our print and online pages for readers through aggressive promotion of “special Sunday-like” content every day of the month. Tied to that is an advertiser promotion (we have case studies from Ashley, hhgregg, the Columbus Zoo, etc.), where we take advantage of the additional eyeballs to drive leads for our advertising partners. We have generated over $500K in additional ad revenue, seen a 25 percent lift in readership during those months and seen a 12 percent lift in subscription sales tied to sweeps months (yoy).

Credit Card Recycle Program (Subscriber Retention)

We have almost 40 percent of our subscribers on our EZ Pay program. That’s roughly 55,000 subscriber credit cards processed every month. We have seen 3 – 4 percent of cards decline every month after processing. That’s roughly 2,500 cards. Subsequently, these subscribers get stopped in DSI and a bill is generated. Effective April 2016, with the support of our Business Office and local IT group, we created a process where we:

  1. Every Monday: Hold back every declined card and do not post to the account (no bill generated, no stop posted)
  2. Every Wednesday: Re-processed the declined cards 48 hours later; 6 – 7 percent of the cards go through
  3. Every Friday: Hold back the declines yet again and re-process after another 48 hours; Yet another five percent of cards go through (netting approximately 12 percent of the total cards that had initially declined)

Effectively, this process has prevented about 1,560 subscribers from being stopped in the past six months. We are on track to save about 3,000 subscribers from being stopped every year – which has a direct impact on expenses saved in acquiring 3,000 new subscribers, not to mention the revenue retained by preventing these EZ Pay subscribers (among the highest retaining group) from being stopped.

Millennial Engagement Program (Growing New Eyeballs – Attracting Millennials)

Effective this fall semester, we kicked off a project with The Ohio State University Fisher School of Business. The objective of the project was to engage with graduating business school students to break down the Millennial group (18-34 years old) into three age cohorts, and study their motivations towards news consumption, content interests, sources referenced, trust in traditional news media, and – most importantly – which age cohort is most likely to pay to receive professionally generated news content. We expect the results of this study to be available at the end of the school semester (December 2016). Once we get the results, the hope is also to then engage with the School of Engineering & Design at OSU for the upcoming spring semester to take the research data, context and design feedback to help generate some working prototypes that can be tested in the marketplace.

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