White-glove delivery of coffee to new subscribers.
Brewing a newsroom-branded beer.
Is this the news industry or a booth at a local event or state fair? It’s both.
Merchandising has become a valued revenue stream for many newspapers and news outlets to generate new subscriptions, increase awareness of their quality journalism, promote community identity and boost the bottom line to expand newsrooms and coverage.
Although the purpose of merchandising promotions is extra revenue, they are also often fun — for the community and newsrooms. Who would have thought a wild animal discovered where it shouldn’t exist would create so much interest and result in T-shirt sales in the six figures? That’s what happened at Block Club Chicago.
According to Stephanie Lulay, co-founder and executive editor of Block Club Chicago, an alligator was discovered in the Humboldt Park Lagoon in the summer of 2019 — in Chicago. Of course, alligators are not indigenous to the upper Midwest. The unexpected sighting attracted crowds in the hundreds and flooded social media with photos and videos.
“We realized people were very excited about this story. It was fun, so we decided almost immediately to partner with a local artist and create some Gator Watch merchandise. We named the alligator Chance the Snapper. When the promotional campaign ended, we sold more than $100,000 of Chance merchandise. As a nonprofit news operation, an extra $100,000+, generated during such a short period, allowed us to expand our reporting,” Lulay said.
With such interest, Block Club Chicago could write and publish a series of stories about Chance, from his first sighting to his eventual capture and relocation to Florida.
That wasn’t the publication’s only merchandising opportunity based on wild animals. In 2021, two piping plovers, an endangered bird species, were spotted at Montrose Beach on Chicago's North Side. Named Monty and Rose, some of their eggs had hatched, which created interest from the city government and local citizens because of their rarity and endangered status. An artist created “Chicago Is for Lovebirds” T-shirts and prints, which “hatched” more than $43,750 in new revenue for Block Club.
Lulay’s recommendation to other newsrooms is to pre-sell any merchandise so there is less risk of ordering too much of any item and having to eat the cost. She also said a news operation’s readers are the best source for learning what kind of merchandise would interest them and what they would buy. Lastly, her primary message is to try it, even on a small scale, to determine if it fits a news outlet's business model.
It's all in a name in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania.
Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, is one of many Philadelphia suburbs. The combination of its unusual name and slang derivative, Conshy; current and former residents’ love of their town; and the inventiveness of Kevin Tierney, co-founder of Burb Media, have resulted in multiple T-shirt merchandising opportunities.
Burb Media’s free online platforms serve Conshohocken and surrounding communities and the suburbs of Ambler and Glenside.
“If I create localized T-shirts for those towns, I can't sell as many as in Conshohocken. It's a weird town. You can have grown up here, you could have lived here for a year, and those people are equally proud to have lived in Conshohocken and want to show it,” Tierney said.
Tierney’s started his T-shirt promotions in 2010 or 2011 with a T-shirt promoting the local St. Patrick’s Day Parade. He partnered with a local retailer and sold all of them quickly and twice had to order more. He realized people would buy almost any merchandise that utilized the slang name of the town.
“Our events and town discount card called the Conshy Card are bigger revenue streams than the merchandise. The card is a boost during the fourth quarter when more of them are purchased as stocking stuffers,” Tierney said.
To avoid having to manage and fulfill T-shirt sales, Tierney uses Shopify and Amazon. He particularly likes Amazon because it will handle returns.
“News operations that want to do merchandising promotions should be prepared for surprises. You expect to sell hundreds of a T-shirt design at an event but don't, and you’re stuck with inventory. It’s better to have a small supply and focus mainly on utilizing print-on-demand services so there is minimal investment and inventory. This allows you to try new ideas without having to invest in inventory. It is always a surprise which ones sell the most,” Tierney said.
Retention is the measure of a successful merchandising promotion.
Newspapers certainly welcome new subscribers and revenue, but retention is the most important measure of a merchandising promotion.
The Keene Sentinel in Keene, New Hampshire, and many local businesses were struggling during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. The newspaper launched the first of a series of merchandising promotions to attract new subscribers and boost local businesses. The first was with Prime Roast Coffee Roasters, a well-known café with a roastery and a selection of specialty coffees.
The Sentinel initially purchased 20 bags of coffee at a 50% discount and used them as an incentive for new subscribers. Prime Roast received significant exposure with the promotional offer in print and online.
“It was a very nice partnership. We initially purchased 20 bags of coffee at a 50% discount, sold 55 subscriptions, and achieved a 60% retention rate,” Terrence Williams, senior adviser for audience and community engagement at The Sentinel, said.
With that success, The Sentinel launched similar promotions with ice cream, candy, cookies, soap, oil and vinegar and spirits and wine tasting offers. Maple syrup was its most successful promotion.
“Within a year, these promotions generated 615 subscriptions, and we retained 366 of them as of April 2023. The average start per product was 56, and an average retention rate of 60%. The revenue from the retained subscriptions is more than $100,000 and only cost us approximately $10,000 to run the program,” Williams said.
Rick Fulwider, owner of Rick’s Gourmet Ice Cream and the only year-round shop in Keene, was initially reluctant to participate in the merchandising program. After talking with his ad rep at the Sentinel, Fulwider decided to start small with 100 gift certificates. The promotion was so successful that a total of 460 certificates were eventually distributed.
“I’m very happy with the results. Apparently, all the certificates have been redeemed. Almost all of them were new customers. 2022 was a phenomenal year for my shop; we were busy from March through November. I’m sure the promotion helped,” Fulwider said.
Williams advises other news outlets to work as far in advance as possible with three or four merchandising promotions prepared before launching the first one. Surveying the participating businesses post-promotion is another essential element of any promotion.
Bob Sillick has held many senior positions and served a myriad of clients during his 47 years in marketing and advertising. He has been a freelance/contract content researcher, writer, editor and manager since 2010. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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