Are You Promoting Your Online Service Enough?

By: Steve Outing

Newspapers have a built-in advantage over many other online publishers: They can easily and inexpensively promote their online services through "house" ads in their print editions. With this powerhouse marketing tool at their disposal, you would think that publishers would be running more print ads for their products than most do. But, as a consultant friend told me recently, "Newspaper people are the absolute worst at knowing how to use advertising."

One of the most common mistakes seen in newspaper print promotion of their online services is in repeating the same ad day after day. A standing ad that runs on page 2 of the newspaper every single day is great at the outset, but after a while readers simply tune it out if it's always the same. You might as well devote the space to something else because in large measure you are wasting that ad space.

A better approach is to vary placement of online service promotional ads, putting them in different sections. And, obviously, don't repeat the same ad over and over; make them fresh, and give some new information each time, perhaps focusing on a special feature or promotion of the online service.

Size of the ad is important, just as for any other advertiser. Again, this should be obvious, but many publishers seem stingy in devoting space to online service promotional ads. A Canadian consultant who works with a major newspaper publisher told me recently about an experiment with promotional ads, where traffic to a newspaper online service was tracked while a series of house ads ran in the print newspaper. Small ads (1/4 page) resulted in a bump in traffic seen on the site. When a 1/2-page ad appeared, the traffic increase was 4 times the burst resulting from the 1/4-page ad; for a full-page ad, the result was significantly more than twice that caused by the 1/2-page ad. This is merely anecdotal evidence, so you may want to try this experiment on your own.

The reality, of course, is that newspapers can't run unlimited numbers of house ads. Most marketing managers have an annual budget of space they can use, which must be split up among a number of ads. New media promotions must compete with all the other house ads that other departments want published.

What newspaper new media managers can do is make sure that their house ads promoting the online service will work as efficiently as possible. That means varying placement, keeping them fresh, and being of sufficient size and location that they get noticed. And when budgeting time rolls around, lobby hard for a major space allotment for the coming year's house ads.

Print ads are a powerful tool for sparking interest by newspaper readers who are not yet online. Ads combined with online links placed at the end of print articles (referring to additional material available online) are a continual technique for reminding readers who have not yet discovered the online service about its potential value to them.

Newspapers as ISPs: Good idea?

Last Thursday in this column I wrote about the Gannett Co. buying a stake in InfiNet, the U.S. Internet service provider (ISP) already owned by Knight-Ridder Inc. and Landmark Communications. That deal furthers a trend for U.S. newspaper companies to embrace the Internet access business. But is this such a great idea, or will the access business become so competitive in the coming 1-2 years -- as the regional telephone companies, AT&T, MCI, cable companies, @Home, Microsoft and other big players crowd the field -- that newspapers will regret the day they went into the access business? What is the InfiNet strategy, given the heavy artillery being aimed at them?

I put those questions to two of the executives involved in InfiNet. Here's what they said:

Chris Jennewein, director of new media for Knight-Ridder:

"Internet access is a means to an end. Knight-Ridder's strategy is to offer a combination of quality access and rich content in each of our markets. We can introduce many readers to the Internet with the access portion while catering to a more experienced audience with the content alone.

"All but the smallest Knight-Ridder newspapers will follow the Mercury Center model of subscription access. Beginning this month, we'll require subsciptions for Philadelphia Online and St. Paul's Pioneer Planet.

"We're not competing on the ISP business alone, but rather on the strength of the entire package."

Dave Richards, president of InfiNet:

"If one 'follows the dollars' today, the dollars consumers are putting forth are for distribution (access) to a world of free information -- which is the Internet. As publishers, I believe newspapers will be able to develop local, online content to a stage where they can eventually charge for it. Most aren't there today, but all realize that's where they have to get and many are moving rapidly in that direction.

"How long-term is the access business? The access business has some legs to it -- though it's for the pundits to argue what that life cycle is. One thing that lengthens the life cycle for Infinet and allows us to be more competitive for a longer period of time (and thus contribute back more to our affiliates) is greater mass. Thus, the logic for Landmark, Knight-Ridder, Gannett and other newspapers affiliating together.

"We take very seriously the competitors you mention; several of them are the proverbial 900-lb gorillas. I'd suggest, however, that Gannett, Knight-Ridder, Landmark and many of our other affiliates are not shrinking violets. Moreover, sometimes the 'little guys' have no choice but to do battle with the big boys -- often they even fare pretty well.

"... Your broadest point is correct; prices will be coming down and margins will shrink over time.

"... Access is only one piece of most newspapers' strategy, not the strategy itself; it's a tactic, at least for the publishers with whom I've spoken."

I didn't receive a response back from Gannett in time for this column, but I did seek out the opinion of a fellow online publishing/newspaper new media consultant, Dominique Paul Noth. He wrote about the Gannett-InfiNet deal:

"You can sure see why newspapers are tempted by such alliances, even beyond the content and advertising partnerships represented by sites such as You can also see how this dovetails with the ideas of New Century Network and other efforts to combine newspaper power on the Internet. Newspapers are entering a marketplace where they didn't set the rules, don't own the printing press or the delivery system, and know that all those areas are where the money is and where they're facing giants.

"A key advantage newspapers do have is local promotional clout and the sort of print-Internet deals they can offer subscribers and advertisers. Whether parts of chains or not, most newspapers cultivate and thrive on that local image and reputation. One apparent goal of (the Gannett-InfiNet alliance) is to offer Infinet as a special provider through or with each newspaper in as many locales as can be handled. So in the feisty IP business, the local paper will be selling Infinet and Infinet will have to grow fast, not smoothly, and the competition will be not only telecommunications biggies with established technological finesse, but also (perhaps worse) local providers who emerged out of the community as bulletin boards or family shops.

"Now linking with an IP that has a local appeal may be a fine idea, or becoming that sort of IP may be a good deal for many newspapers. But how will it play if they seem yet another conduit for an outsider? And by making themselves an armada, they may also have left themselves more vulnerable to fast-moving little boats protecting the only channel they have.

"I would also worry that while so many newspaper executives are seeking leverage through deals, there are smart, flexible and audacious entrepreneurs out there looking at what the 'Net needs, inventing deeper products and strategies, driving marketing and information services to a higher level of personal service, savings and choice.

"Will the realities of alliance force newspapers into more of a cookie cutter approach, so that all sites are to some degree compatible with each other for mutual services and technology? Will local editors have less control and flexibility than they do now with print? Will these alliances cloud or clarify the vision thing, or does it still come down to innovation and service?"

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