‘Californian’ Targets Youth With Text Messaging

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By: Lucia Moses

While other papers are shoving free printed products at the young, The Bakersfield Californian is trying to reach this group via a communication method the kids already prefer: cell phone text messaging. In doing this, the paper could be at the cusp of a trend.

In a partnership with a local music store, World Records, the 65,889-circulation daily is conducting a poll of music fans using two-way mobile text messaging. In ads in print and on cable TV, the paper is inviting fans to vote via short messaging service (SMS) for five of 10 CDs listed in World Music’s print ads.

San Francisco-based NetInformer, a wireless software and services company, collects the numbers and votes of the entrants and gives them to the Californian. The paper then replies to the voters via text-message, telling them to check the paper at the end of the week for contest results and a $2-off coupon for the winning CD at World Records. Voters are entered into a drawing for weekly gift certificates and the grand prize, a personal CD/DVD/MP3 player.

Over the length of the six-week-long promotion, World Records will get to test CDs in the market, said Tim Repsher, technology manager for the paper’s “Area 51” brainstorming committee assigned to come up with long-range ideas. Meanwhile, the paper gets to promote itself with 15- to 24-year-olds, the target of the promotion.

“We’re hitting an age group we’re desperately trying to get in the paper,” Repsher said. “One thing they do have, other than computers, is a cell phone.”

Text messaging use in the U.S. has lagged behind Europe, Asia, and Latin America, but it’s growing, driven largely by young cell-phone users, according to the International Newspaper Marketing Association.

The number of text messages sent in the U.S. tripled between June 2001 and December 2002, when it topped 1 billion, said the trade group Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association. That growth presents an opportunity for newspapers to build a one-on-one relationship with readers and sell content to them cheaply, the INMA contends.

Repsher had been watching how marketers were taking advantage of text messaging’s growth in other countries. Closer to home, he was inspired by Fox’s “American Idol” contest that asked viewers to vote for their favorite singer by cell phone.

Finding a service provider proved frustrating; telecom giants would have charged too much or wouldn’t offer him two-way text messaging. Finally, he found NetInformer. Repsher said the service is cheap: The paper shelled out $500 for the 800 number and pays an undisclosed fee each time it sends and receives a message.

The World Music promotion is just the start. Early next year, the Californian plans to offer text-messaging as an upsell to advertisers. For an extra fee, retailers can run a code in their ad that consumers can punch into their phones to get text alerts to, say, specials at a store in a chosen location.

Also starting next year, the Californian plans to join a number of U.S. papers, usually metros, that push local news headlines and data to people’s cell phones or other mobile devices.

Repsher sees all of this as a way to show that newspapers can meet people’s information needs in whatever format they want. If it makes money, that’s nice, too. And where young readers are concerned, he notes another, intangible benefit.

“We’re betting on showing our paper is keeping up with the times,” he said. “We see this big flood coming. We just want to be the first one to do it.”

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