Circ Execs Find Creative Ways to Retain Readers

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By: Jennifer Saba

Flat or declining circulation has been on the minds of newspaper executives for years and now they have to contend with the federal do-not-call registry, making the situation worse. Telemarketing had already been on the skids: about 54 percent of newspapers now get their subscribers from telemarketing, down from 59 percent in 1998, says John Murray, vice president of circulation and marketing at the Newspaper Association of America.

With all this in mind, circ directors are putting on their thinking caps, trying to come up with new ways to entice people to subscribe.

The Orlando Sentinel, for example, has been distributing free papers on behalf of retailers such as Target to non-subscribers in specific ZIP codes. The Florida daily also introduced a varsity-sports section to lure high school students. The Post and Courier in Charleston, S.C., issues a subscriber-only newsletter. Every quarter, the newspaper chooses a reader to profile.

There’s a lot of brainstorming going on in circulation departments large and small across the country. E&P surveyed a variety of papers to see what they’re doing to goose (or just retain) numbers.

Many papers that have hung up the phone have taken to the streets. The Sentinel, a 15,000-circulation daily paper in Carlisle, Pa., employs youth crews made up of teenagers. “When I first came here two years ago,” says Circulation Director Sean Spielvogel, “we started scheduling crew nights on Wednesdays or Thursdays,” from 4 to 7 p.m. Sometimes The Sentinel mails out cards beforehand. If recipients mail it back for a sample paper, they might receive a knock on their door one evening.

Spielvogel says a crew leader (an adult) accompanies the teens and keeps an eye on them at all times. The paper also coaches the crew on how to make a sale. So far, the newspaper has gained about 10 to 12 orders per crew night.

If a kid can’t entice someone to open their door, maybe a plant will do the trick. Mark Henschen, circulation director of the North County Times in Escondido, Calif., uses adult carriers in sly ways to hunt for new subscribers. (Lee Enterprises, which owns the North County Times, only contracts adult crews.) But these aren’t just any adults: They come bearing plants.

“A problem in any adult sales program is only one of three people on average will open the door,” he says. “If they see someone standing there with a plant and a clipboard, people assume they’re getting a delivery from the florist.” The plants, which cost the paper $2.75 each, immediately increased the door-open rate to 47 percent. The paper’s circulation is 92,200.

It may not be a plant, but it’s still green: good old fashioned cash. The Janesville (Wis.) Gazette offers free gift certificates, which they buy at discount from advertisers (such as grocery and hardware stores) if people sign up for more than 13 weeks. “I never understood how getting an umbrella would get someone to subscribe,” says Mary Jo Villa, the Gazette’s circulation director.

Dane Hicks, publisher of The Anderson County Review, a small weekly in Garnett, Kan., who wrote off telemarketing long ago, favors a hometown sweepstakes program, along the lines of a Publishers Clearing House contest. “Out of everything we’ve done ? and the only thing I haven’t done is stand out on the courthouse steps and hawk papers myself ? the sweepstakes program works the best,” Hicks says.

The Review, with a paid circ of about 3,000, runs the annual contest offering a $500 grand prize, two $250 prizes and five $50 prizes. “You’re exposed to crass promotional efforts for several weeks,” says Hicks. The Review then sends out entry packets via the mail and in the newspaper. Once a person opens the packet, they find, along with a number, an envelope containing as many as 30 coupons for items like free pizza. The Review sells the space to local businesses for $250-$300 each. New subscribers get two months free delivery. (A participant doesn’t have to subscribe to win).

After picking numbers in the newsroom, the paper summons the winner for a photo-op. “Last year’s grand-prize winner was Amish, so he declined to have his picture taken,” Hicks says.

The Review sends out between 6,000 to 7,000 sweepstakes cards a year. Out of that, about 300-400 people extend their subscription. About 80 people are considered new subscribers. The sweepstakes grosses $14,000 from the coupons and subscription revenues. Hicks says that since the sweepstakes has been working so well ? he’s been at it for 10 years ? he’s been trying to spread the word, but “so far nobody seems interested. Maybe they’re afraid it looks like a carnival stunt. Sometimes I think this industry is too conservative.”

Hicks also looks to radio for new ideas. “I listen to all the goofy rock stations,” one of which tried a stunt with a massive amount of Jell-O. When he tried to secure an unusual amount of Jell-O himself, the company denied his request. “They said they didn’t recommend it for what we were using it for,” Hicks says.

Not all readership strategies involve the circulation department. The Orange County Register turned to tacos and ducks in a promotion that Bob Gary, multimedia brand manager, hopes will hook younger people.

As part of its “Take Back the Morning Campaign,” the Register partnered with the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim (the hometown hockey team) and all 68 Del Taco quick- serve restaurants for its Golden Ticket promotion. For a four-week period, starting in late February, the first 100 customers who purchase a Del Taco breakfast meal during the week receive a free Register. Del Taco pays for the papers, but Gary declined to reveal the price.

Inserted inside each paper: a full-page action poster of one of four Mighty Duck players, rotating each week. The winner receives a pair of tickets to a game? the actual tickets, that is, which are heat-sealed to the poster.

Of course, giving away 500 pairs of real tickets ?and a grand-prize pair of season tickets ? causes a lot more challenges than distributing redeemable certificates, Gary admits. Naturally, theft is a possibility. To prevent sticky fingers the Register seals the papers in the polybags, which are distributed from behind the counter. Like Del Taco, the Register is a regular sponsor of the Ducks, so this was easy fit. The Ducks gave the Register the tickets for free.

Gary says the paper didn’t want to simply offer free or cut-rate subscriptions, and that face time with young readers was more important. “We wanted to get our message and our product out there in front of an important audience,” he declares. Now, of course, he is banking on them to regularly read the paper.

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