He was 69. His weary eyes and lined face told the story of a man who had been in the furniture business for way too long. He was about to describe the demise of newspaper advertising.
Joe and I were having lunch in 2004. He owns a large furniture store in a wealthy demographic that included movie star’s homes in Malibu. He had a six-figure contract with our newspaper (the Ventura County Star) for ROP ads.
“Have you ever heard of Craigslist?” he asked. Then he told me this story. He was short-staffed on drivers. He kept running two-inch ads in our Sunday classified section (for about $700 apiece, he added) and getting no response. “One of my drivers said to me, ‘Have you tried Craigslist?’ I said, ‘What’s that?’ He took me into my office and showed me how to post an ad for drivers. We hired four people the next day. Guess who’s not using your classified ads again?”
And that was when I knew newspaper advertising had crossed the Rubicon.
I talked to Joe recently. He’s 80 now and walks around the store with a limp because he needs a hip operation. He’s using print newspaper ads occasionally for special sales. He’s moved into the digital advertising world. “I’m not fighting it anymore. This used to be so simple. What happened?”
I’d like to bring Joe to a newspaper publisher’s convention to see how he’d react to the cafeteria of choices newspapers are offering to advertisers today.
Sorry, Joe. This isn’t simple anymore.
I’ll confess that in my current position, I use boosted Facebook posts and Facebook video ads for my public relations clients when I am trying to stir attention. My partner and I use print ads, but we buy digital ads to drive people to websites where we sign them up to receive emails.
It’s easy for me to demonstrate “the ad worked” to my clients when Facebook tracks views, shares and comments, or when my email list grows 10 percent a month. The print ads do not carry the same “easy to track” measurements although it’s clear that newspaper readers are “the right audience” for reaching the more educated, higher-income. The challenge for publishers is on the digital side where the choices are slick, high-quality, varied and often less expensive. We are behind our competitors because in 2004 while print publishers were still pushing banners and “value add” to their print ads, the competition was getting a huge lead.
Competitors understood Google ad words. They figured out tracking software before newspapers did. They adapted far more quickly to mobile devices. Their email blasts were opened and used more often than ours. They understood consumer recommendation sites such as Yelp and Angie’s List. And for far too long, their quality in digital format made the newspapers’ digital ads look amateurish.
Newspapers have made up ground. I spent some time with Rich Schiekofer, senior vice president of business development for Newspaper Association of America. He emphasized the important legacy strengths of newspapers—high quality audience, strong use of coupons, long-term relationship with audience. Schiekofer fanned out a variety of impressive digital options newspapers are using to engage consumers and then track their use. Newspapers are clearly going in the right direction, but here are five ways I’d suggest newspapers interact with their communities to keep driving that relationship deeper.
- You’re the trusted authority on local issues so be an expert. Newspaper editors and reporters are among the smartest group of people in your community so make them more visible. Drive engagements by holding seminars on high-interest local issues.
- Rate your local businesses. Become the local source for reviews in your community. Imagine a newspaper site that collected recommendations on every important service, business, restaurant, entertainment venue. But go beyond that. Become the Yelp for local hiking spots, fastest streets with the least amount of traffic.
- Commit to understanding mobile even better than you do now. No technology has changed more or become more useful than cell phone and tablets in the past 10 years. And that is going to continue.
- Understand that your audience is not exclusive anymore. Your readers are dating lots of people. Could you drive a better relationship with advertisers by offering them package buys with others you currently consider “competitors?” It’s heresy, but it’s worth considering.
- Dream of what you’ve never thought about. Imagine where we’d be if we had imagined 20 years ago that people would search for cars online.
Tim Gallagher is president of The 20/20 Network, a public relations and strategic communications firm. He is a former Pulitzer Prize-winning editor and publisher at The Albuquerque Tribune and the Ventura County Star newspapers. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.