Newsosaur: Social-shopping Proves Newspapers Make Cash Registers Ring

By: Alan D. Mutter

One of the biggest challenges for newspapers in the age of interactive media is proving that their advertising works. 

The San Diego Union-Tribune seems to have solved that problem in a small, but meaningful, way — and added an extra $100,000 per week to its gross advertising revenues. The idea sounds like a winner for other papers, too.

The U-T jumped on the social-shopping bandwagon, featuring daily deals in print and on its Website for everything from restaurants to summer camps. The deals don’t just offer discounts of 50% or more on gift certificates for products and services. They also encourage readers to enhance their savings by recruiting friends to buy certificates, giving a participant a $10 credit toward her next certificate for every friend she recruits to the network. 

Thus, the paper has created a virtuous circle: Readers who love the deals tell friends, who tell friends … and so it goes. Advertisers love not only the immediate, measurable response but also the welcome jolt of cash that flows into their coffers almost overnight. And the newspaper fattens its top line while unequivocally demonstrating its marketing clout to merchants.

Launched in April, the program called “Daily Deal” got off to an extremely fast start at the San Diego paper, says Mike Hodges, the vice president of its interactive division: “In the two-and-a-half years I have been involved in online newspaper sales, this has trumped all other initiatives.”

Hodges freely admits that he cribbed the idea from Groupon, the original social-shopping network. Coming out of nowhere, sales at Groupon were reported to be $100 million in January of 2010, or 100 times better than its performance 12 months earlier. Living Social, an imitator that launched about half a year after Groupon, rapidly caught up. Today the two companies account for approximately 98% of the online group-buying business.

While the success of the online leaders might seem to leave newspapers as marginal participants in the space, remember that publishers have an advantage that online guys don’t: Concentrated local market reach and the biggest, best-connected ad staffs in every town.

Seeing the same opportunity as San Diego, a number of newspapers have begun offering social-buying opportunities, printable coupons or a combination of both. Websites from The Washington Post to the San Francisco Chronicle — and dozens of points in between — promote daily deals. 

Jumping in with both feet, The News Journal in Wilmington, Del., uses a prominent refer on its homepage to send visitors to half-off coupons for restaurants, plumbers, tanning parlors, garage-floor refinishers, day spas and a liposuction clinic. It even offers discount tickets for the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, which is more than 600 miles away. 

Papers like the Omaha World-Herald aren’t in the deal business yet, but they are actively evaluating vendors, according to Pat Lazure, president of its interactive group. 

While many newspapers teamed with one of the established online players to get into the social-shopping business, San Diego decided to create its own brand. “We felt we should own this ourselves,” says Hodges. After shopping around for a technology vendor, the U-T partnered with Click N Shout, an Ohio-based company that provides credit-card clearing and other back-end services that the newspaper didn’t want to reinvent. 

Here’s how the program works: The paper offers deals on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, plus a weekend deal that runs from Friday through Sunday. While the U-T started by offering only a single deal a day, it probably will add a second deal in coming months, Hodges says. 

An advertiser pays nothing for the prominent promotion of his offer on the front page of the newspaper, the homepage of the Website and in other slots throughout the site. When the clock strikes midnight at the end of each deal period, the deal expires and the newspaper runs the credit cards of all the customers who have purchased gift certificates. The merchant gets half of the revenue and the newspaper keeps the other half, from which it covers sales commissions and fees to the tech vendor. 

Beyond building a nifty revenue stream for itself, the newspaper is building buzz. “Thirty percent of our sales come from referrals from existing customers,” Hodges says, adding that he amassed a database of 15,000 email addresses within two months of launch. E-mails tout each new offer.

The project is building excitement among advertisers, too. “We have brought in new ad clients who we previously were not able to attract in print or online,” says Hodges. “The power of our media to generate significant sales in one day shows what we can do.”

Some long-term advertisers even boosted their schedules after trying Daily Deal. “This finally solves the problem of measurability,” Hodges adds. “It’s all right there in the open for them to see.”


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