Proving grounds: How to Show Newspaper Ads Really Work

By: Jennifer Saba

The newspaper industry has always blown its horn about the effectiveness of advertising. While it isn’t exactly hot air, the message can be too general or lazy: Use newspapers because they “work.”

Now USA Today and The Dallas Morning News, along with the Newspaper Association of America, are trying to add some data to the noise by offering advertisers customized research. This is not a wide-sweeping survey of the entire industry; rather, these papers plan to narrow the scope based on each advertiser.

USA Today introduced its unique program with which advertisers ? and hopefully potential clients ? can get information on the performance of their ads. “Advertisers have been demanding more accountability and transparency,” says Susan Lavington, the paper’s vice president of consumer marketing. “This was our solution.”

The national daily is using its research staff to offer custom packages to each advertiser based on its specific goals. Say a major auto manufacturer wants to know how many people saw an ad, or if the reader planned to buy one of the cars featured in it. USA Today could set up focus groups, for example, and give them that information. The program is priced similarly to that of merchandising programs, in which clients get bonuses depending on the amount of money spent with the paper.

Lavington says there has been some interest, though the program is still in its early stages. She says that some competitors have called asking how the program was perceived. “If there is an advertiser that crosses a few of us, we could do a larger study,” she says about the possibility of engaging other papers. “It’s just good for the industry.”

The Dallas Morning News is providing similar appraisals through the use of third-party software Research and Analysis of Media (RAM) from Sweden’s Infodata.

The paper has been recruiting readers, through ads in the Morning News and on its Web site, to participate in panels. So far the paper has amassed three groups of 350 people each. Since May, in any given week, two groups are asked to evaluate ads through e-mail, explains Leigh Straughn, the newspaper’s director of advertising communications and strategy. The survey includes such questions as, “Was the brand recognized and the ad easy to understand?”

The Morning News is just gathering data internally for the moment, but “we are now starting to go out and start conversations with advertisers,” says Straughn, who adds that the paper is starting to price the service in packaged bundles starting at $2,000 for one ad.

Advertisers are pleased with the idea. Newspaper Services of America CEO Bob Shamberg wants more programs that can help advertisers understand the usefulness of an ad. Fears that results might show that something didn’t work should be allayed. “If you don’t believe the medium is productive, that’s another problem,” Shamberg says. “We have great faith in the power of newspapers.”

Brenda White, director of print investment at Starcom, is equally encouraged. “If an ad doesn’t meet an objective, we take a step back and dissect the information,” she says. “Was it positioning? Was it the wrong day of the week? We look at all the different components. Even if you have good results you need to take a step back and learn.” USA Today’s Lavington thinks the program will only strengthen relationships. “If an ad is not working, the advertiser will figure it out one way or another. We would rather be a partner with them,” she says. “With this program we can engage in conversations.”

The NAA is also in the initial stages of taking a hard look at return on ad investment with several initiatives. One test involves a group of newspapers working with a major housewares retailer that doesn’t advertise in newspapers. Additionally, the organization is getting involved in a way to standardize metrics to determine an ad’s ROI.

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