Q&A: INMA’s Earl Wilkinson

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By: Mark Fitzgerald

In his 20 years with the Dallas-based International Newsmedia Marketing Association — 18 of them as INMA’s executive director and CEO — Earl J. Wilkinson has logged nearly three million miles visiting newspapers in 49 countries. Along the way, he’s formed some provocative opinions about the U.S. newspaper business and its priorities that are especially relevant in the continuing industry crisis. E&P Editor Mark Fitzgerald probes those views in this Q&A with Wilkinson.
 
How would you assess the state of newspaper marketing today?
 

Dazed and confused. We have a management class raised in an era in which no-accountability promotions-based marketing ruled, therefore all marketing is an expense to be cut in bad times. They understand the science of circulation discounting and other old tactics, while marketing can be as much art as science. It’s a real generational challenge for our industry.
 
The difference in circulation, readership and audience performance in the United States versus much of the world can be attributed to dramatic under-investments in sales, marketing and research over time — as well as the inability to push a marketing culture throughout the company.
 
Tied back to big revenue, advertisers aren’t investing in newspapers because a print product doesn’t work. In fact, the research suggests that print works beautifully because of the nature of the audience and medium. Instead, advertisers aren’t investing because newspapers are losing the perceptual war in building, sustaining and nurturing their audiences.
 
You’ve been outspoken about the importance of investing in brands. How have newspapers suffered in recent years as a result of not investing in brands? And what can they do right away to turn that around?

 
Brand is the cornerstone of sales and marketing. It’s the cornerstone of revenue. In military terms, it’s the air war to pave the way for the ground war. 
 
Newspaper executives often celebrate the “strength of their brand.” I argue those brands aren’t anywhere near as strong as they think because they haven’t invested anything in building them. A brand isn’t like wine in a bottle that grows in value as it ages. We confuse age with value. We confuse lack of information choice with value.
 
Branding is a long-term muscular process of framing a company’s image in the minds of consumers. It requires marketing and research, constant feedback from consumers who ultimately decide for themselves — despite the marketing messages you push at them — your brand’s positioning. It requires top-to-bottom management so that product, place, price and proposition link with brand goals.
 
A brand is the sum of all contacts over time — not simply a one-time brand image campaign. The perception of a news brand gets shaped by product condition, billing, editorial position, rack location, the way a phone is answered. Yet that is reinforced with proactive marketing that captures the essence of who you are and who you want to be. If you don’t position yourself in the minds of consumers, they’ll do it for you.
 
As you survey the U.S. newspaper scene, what papers or chains do you see doing marketing right?

 
Gannett does cultural marketing right, driving home the need for all employees — from the mailroom to the boardroom — to look at everything from a customer perspective. They also have stability in leadership that allows this culture to be passed on year to year regardless of people.
 
Tribune does marketing right with a warrior mentality: marketing is tied to lean-forward sales activities, experiment, and don’t be afraid to fail.
 
The companies that succeed with marketing are those that tie everything back to revenue — and measure, measure, measure.
 
Your job takes you all around the world to study newspapers. What could U.S. newspapers learn about marketing themselves from papers you’ve observed abroad?
 
If you can’t take a leap of faith with marketing, invest in research that backs up those activities. Advertisers know more about newspaper audiences than newspaper executives. It’s low investment and high reward. And to be clear: I’m not talking about more syndicated research necessarily. You need people in-house connected with a smorgasbord of data, more and more in real time, and the ability to connect the dots and impact product, audience, and sales efforts. Without this, we’re zombies running into each other. I sometimes wonder how a multi-billion dollar industry can function without knowing much about its customers.
 
A simple suggestion aggregated from newspapers in Latin America and Europe: create a dashboard of customer metrics that change in real time and put it on every employee’s computer, every lobby, every break room.
 
You see an opportunity for newspapers to lead a “counter-revolution” to the revolutionary disruption of a digitally empowered “crowd.” How can newspapers take advantage of this opportunity?
 
I think there are short-term opportunities in brand and print.
 
First, there is already afoot a counter-revolution against digital – too much information, too much connectedness. Print newspapers and print magazines can harness those ideas, especially on a non-daily basis. The new book Hamlet’s Blackberry is a must-read for newspaper executives wanting to take full advantage of this. Don’t get me wrong: our industry’s future is digital. Yet, short-term, there’s a backlash that we should take advantage of.
 
Second, news companies acting together can fundamentally change the perception of news, newspapers, news media companies or whatever they choose. But it requires more than pooling monies for a campaign put together by the lowest bidder. There needs to be ongoing national advertising activity by newspapers making local newspaper sales efforts more productive — year-round, non-stop, outside the pages of the newspaper.
 
There also needs to be a cohesive national strategy for how to use the country’s national press associations to represent the industry to the advertising community and to be a permanent marketing arm for the professional purveyors of news and information. U.S. publishers have pulled back investments in these activities, yet it’s a fundamental building block to success.
 
U.S. publishers can learn a lot from collaborative efforts among publishers in Australia, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Norway, among others. It takes a lot of willpower to collaborate.
 
You’ve pointed out that newspapers survived the “death watch” sentiment of 2009. How optimistic are you about the newspaper business in the long term? 
 
I believe that there will be a profitable business for news as far as the eye can see — though with revenue streams and business models around content that we can barely understand today.
 
I believe news companies have the capital structure to simultaneously withstand the profound business model changes, apply scale to those changes, and eke out mid-level profitability and return on investment for shareholders. I don’t believe news companies will be cash machines again, and will likely have to shed shareholders who invested for that reason and replace them with long-term investors.
 
As for news on paper, there will be an end point in this century — driven by the different currents and eddies of national newspaper industries worldwide. The tipping point will be a mix of P&L and generational consumption trends, along with technology that not even the introduction of the iPad allows us to see today. The issue won’t be whether people abandon print, it will be whether it’s economically feasible to serve markets via print versus other alternatives. So long as news companies can aggregate mass audiences or cohesive audiences for the print medium, advertisers will follow. So I see a strong short-term future for print — just not a long-term one. Longer in India, shorter in the United States.

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