Do publishers have faith to sell digital?

By: Alan D. Mutter

Publishers got a huge vote of confidence when a recent poll found that 7 out of 10 advertisers believe
newspapers are well equipped to guide their clients through the mysteries of marketing in the rapidly expanding
digital universe.

If publishers can muster a similar degree of confidence in themselves, they can take advantage of this abundant goodwill to pump up their businesses by becoming the definitive digital-marketing authority in each market they serve.

We’ll talk about how to do that in a moment. First, a round of high-fives is in order for a remarkable poll released in September by the American Press Institute.

In a survey of more than 2,700 small- and medium-sized businesses across the country, API found that 71% of respondents believe newspaper reps have the sophistication and smarts to help businesses market themselves effectively in the growing maze of online, mobile and social media.

“I was blown away” by the results, says Greg Harmon of Belden Interactive, who conducted the poll for API. Noting that his ongoing research into consumer behavior on the Web has found that 60% of visitors to a typical newspaper site use Facebook or other social media, the San Francisco-based Harmon adds: “Our audiences are there. Our advertisers are there. But where are we?”

Unfortunately, publishers are not keeping up in most markets.

But they could get in the game, says Harmon’s colleague Greg Swanson, one of the most highly regarded revenue strategists and sales coaches in the nation. Swanson, who heads a company called ITZ Publishing in Portland, Ore., has a big, bold, and blindingly obvious idea.

It’s this: All newspapers have to do to build rich, sustainable, and growing businesses in the digital era
is to become one-stop shops that help merchants connect with consumers through any conceivable medium – not just those that happen to be owned by the publisher.

“We have to have a revolution in how we tell advertisers to spend their money,” says Swanson. “We have to sell results, not products. So, go to advertisers and say: ‘We know you want to experiment with all the forms of new media. Let us be your expert broker and help you use every megaphone available to you.'”

Swanson calls this holistic approach a “360-degree product strategy.” Depending on the advertiser and his needs, says Swanson, the newspaper should:

– Architect and execute branding programs, including the development of creative strategy, the allocation of marketing budgets, and the creation of the print and digital media necessary to implement the programs.

– Build and host a merchant’s Website, paying particular attention to optimizing content so the site appears prominently on Google and other search engines.

– Manage pay-per-click and banner advertising purchases on third-party Web and mobile platforms.

– Organize couponing and deal-of-the day programs through either partners like Groupon or the publisher’s own media.

– Develop awareness for clients on such social media as Twitter, Facebook and location-aware mobile services like Yelp and Foursquare.

– Provide customer-relations management services and fulfill direct-marketing programs via both e-mail and snail mail.

While the profits generated by some of these agency-like activities may not be as substantial as those delivered in the heyday of print, Swanson believes a 360-degree strategy will produce healthier top lines. Further, they will ensure stronger-than-ever bonds with advertisers – thus enhancing and defending market share for publishers.

He even thinks 360-selling will benefit print. “Five years from now, $7 out of every $10 will be in print because it is most effective,” he says. “In the meantime, we want to grow all the numbers.”

Although the cost of selling and building a Website for a client might not be enormously profitable at the outset, the ongoing cost of hosting a site is modest against the value of locking a client into a long-term relationship featuring a robust, recurring revenue stream.

In addition to diversifying revenues away from their faltering legacy print products, publishers have the opportunity to expand their client bases, because broader product portfolios will appeal to a broader array of clients.

To be sure, merchants are not waiting for newspapers to get around to introducing them to the digital media. Fully 81.8% of respondents to the API survey have a Website, 45.1% maintain a Facebook or MySpace page, 22.5% engage in online couponing, 13% use Craigslist and 10% use Yelp-like sites.

If newspapers want to catch up to their customers, they need to get busy building their product portfolios,
burnishing their digital selling skills and – perhaps most important of all – summoning as much confidence in themselves as their customers seem to have in them.

If credibility is a key success factor in business, newspapers are fortunate to have an abundance of it. Now, they have to use it or lose it. 

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