Loyal Readers Earn Rewards

By: Mark Fitzgerald In an Audit Bureau of Cir- culations FAS-FAX reporting period that was devastating for big-city newspapers, some metros happily discovered that a souped-up subscriber loyalty program can be their best friend.

Consider the Chicago Tribune. Its overall numbers essentially tracked its peers among the 20 biggest newspapers, with circulation falling 2.1% on weekdays, and 1.7% on Sundays. Yet home delivery grew 1.6% Monday through Friday, and 2.1% on Sundays.

Tribune marketers say the difference is Subscriber Advantage, launched two years ago to replace a traditional rewards program of discounts on merchandise and services with one that emphasizes more interaction with the newspaper through exclusive access to events and content. "You can't just give people a card to put in their wallet and carry around," says Kathleen O'Hara, the Tribune's director of customer relationship marketing. "It was important that they believe they are in a special place." More than 230,000 of its 730,000 subscribers have signed up, and follow-up research shows they are 20% more likely than non-members to renew subscriptions.

The whole point of a loyalty program should be deepening the relationships with subscribers, argues Dan Schaub, The Sacramento Bee's senior vice president of circulation. Like many papers, the Bee tried numerous rewards programs without much of a payoff. Then, three years ago, it created Press Club, which has become the most imitated program in the industry.

"It's all about having them feel the paper, touch it, make it a part of their lives, and if we do that, they're not going to go away," Schaub says. Now, even as overall circulation slips, "we've been able to hold the line on home delivery."

Nearly every Press Club offer is exclusive to members, and there's a bit of a velvet rope outside the club, too. Making subscribers register emphasizes the value of the membership, the paper maintains. These new loyalty programs often involve journalists. Like many papers, the Bee hosts movie premieres for loyalty program members, but it also has its movie critic, Carla Meyer, review the film on the spot.

Members of The Orange County Register's new Register Insider program flock to the newspaper's building for such events as a discussion between a sportswriter and former basketball star Kareem Abdul- Jabbar. Subscriber retention has never been higher at the paper, says Vice President of Circulation Larry Riley.

"Our members like discounts, they like free stuff ? but I think they also want to have a more personal relationship with the newspaper," says Bill Nagel, vice president of circulation and consumer marketing at the San Diego Union-Tribune, which models its Subscriber Perks program after the Bee's and the Trib's.

Interest in the workings of the hometown paper can be surprising, says Schaub: "One of the corny things we started out with was a tour of the Bee building. We thought we'd do one a month, and after about six months we would have pretty much put everyone through who cared to see it. Well, we're going on three-and-a-half years, and we're running them twice or three times a month."


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