Business owners were still optimistic when COVID-19 started its relentless march from opposite ends of the country to eventually coat the nation. But with reported cases rising higher every week and the death toll in the U.S. creeping toward triple digits, projections of businesses reopening grew later and later.
In May, under immense economic and administration pressure, some states began to allow businesses to reopen despite more cases, more deaths, and no solid system for testing or tracking. The economic toll was just too great.
At the same time, the unemployment rate was at 14.7 percent, the highest since the Great Depression, when unemployment was only calibrated annually. More than 36 million people had filed for unemployment benefits. Businesses slashed payroll, slashed hours, slashed services and slashed locations in an effort to see the other side of the pandemic.
The news business was no different. As businesses cut their advertising and events budgets, newspapers were forced to lay off their staffs and reduce the frequency of their press runs, just when the demand for their product was spiking.
If publishers want to make it through to a post-COVID-19 world, they need to forget about surviving the current environment and take some bold moves to thrive according to several media and marketing experts E&P interviewed. They have been gathering intelligence about the market and sharing that with publications to help develop a prescription for life after the pandemic.
This Won’t be a Normal Recovery
“It’s catastrophic now,” said Bill Day, vice president with the market research firm Magid. “I worked for corporate at Gannett in 2008 when the last crash and crisis happened. This is very different from the last time. The lessons we picked up in the past may not be as useful and helpful to us this time.”
Consumer research conducted by Magid in May found that more people are concerned about the virus’ effect on the economy than they are contracting COVID-19. Consumers also view this as a purely local story with global implications, not the other way around.
“Publishers need to think about it as a local problem and they need to rethink what it means for advertisers to do business with them,” Day said.
Day said 79 percent of the people they surveyed are seeking news about the pandemic on a daily basis. Between 75 and 80 percent of those surveyed said they felt the coverage volume was just right or not enough. Forty-four percent said getting the news was one way they were passing time. In the previous seven to eight years, consumers have routinely said the news will find them.
“Think about any tragedy that happened over the last two years,” he said. “You didn’t hear about it on the 6 o’clock news and you didn’t wake up to it on the front page of your local paper. Consumers are dialed into this story in a way that they’re not typically dialed into local news.”
That laser focus provides an opportunity for those surviving businesses to community their existence, the services they offer, and how they are keeping customers safe. Day said that is vital because consumers are having a hard time trusting anyone when it comes to keeping them safe during the pandemic. Because of that, they don’t plan on venturing out once restrictions are lifted. According to Magid’s research, 43 percent said they won’t eat out in the next six months, 66 percent said they won’t attend a sporting event in the next six months, and 36 percent said they won’t return to their gyms. Brands must work extremely hard to reestablish consumer confidence after the crisis. So, while the numbers may sound discouraging, Day said it creates opportunities.
“So, if 36 percent of consumers who belong to a gym in your market say they are not going back, that’s $2.6 million dollars of revenue that suddenly becomes available,” he said. “Who’s going to get them? Local sales teams need to guide that conversation. They need to create opportunities for businesses to capture that market and work as a partner to create and promote them. Most sales teams are built to service demand and sell product. Publishers literally need to build a sales force that is capable of creating ideas, selling ideas and delivering solutions.”
“Advertising…Should Be News”
In a crisis marketing webinar for the newspaper industry in late March, Borrell & Associates founder and CEO Gordon Borrell led with an item from the April 20, 2009 edition of the New Yorker about how cereal companies Kellogg and Post responded to the Great Depression. Post cut its advertising budget while Kellogg’s promoted advertising on the radio pushing its new cereal, Rice Krispies. By 1933, according to the article, “Kellogg’s profits had risen almost 30 percent and it had become what it remains today: the industry’s dominant player.”
“In a crisis it’s time for businesses to get busier, as in, perhaps hire more employees, and take advantage of competitors that are maybe a little more paralyzed or have a little less advantage during this crisis,” Borrell said. “But that’s a tough message when you’re in an industry that has seen its revenues go down and down and down for the past decade.”
He said smaller newspapers have been stepping up and working as a resource for the local businesses they once counted on for advertising. Borrell said advertisers are newspapers’ prime customers. “They carry 60 to 70 percent of the expense of the newspaper and those papers are at a far greater need right now, because frankly, if these businesses go under, the people in the community don’t have jobs,” he said. “Giving them insights into marketing could really make the difference between whether they make it or not during this crisis.”
It’s more than recommending an ad buy or product. Borrell is talking about creating webinars to point businesses to resources they need to stay afloat; giving them access to information about best practices regarding health and safety when it’s time to reopen their businesses; and bringing in experts who can give webinars on how to get through the crisis.
“We’ve seen some papers really step up to the plate and consider themselves as broad information providers to help the community and extend that mission to be a local business resource as well,” Borrell said.
And he’s not talking about producing stories for the paper or its website. Borrell said it’s lazy for businesses to just produce content on these topics at a time like this.
“It’s a lot more roll up your sleeves, get your hands dirty and partner with these businesses that are in trouble and truly help them,” he said.
Newspapers, according to Borrell, don’t put enough value on their advertising, despite the amount of revenue it generates. He talked about former New York Times owner Adolph Ochs who famously said, “Advertising, in the final analysis should be news. If it is not news, it is worthless.”
“Treating the advertising plan as having something newsworthy to say, and working with them on that news content, to me is just as important as putting out a journalism product,” Borrell said. “I realize it’s probably heresy within the newspaper organization, but it’s because newspapers have paid extraordinary amounts of attention to the newsroom, and far less attention to that part of the business that generates 80 percent of the revenue, advertising. They could drop the ball on their news product, and they’d be okay. But if they drop the ball on advertising, they’re dead in the water.”
The pandemic greatly damaged the economy but it didn’t kill it. Sammy Papert knows because he asked about it. He worked with Pulse Research to conduct the COVID-19 Shopping Survey, a consumer survey that yielded more than 26,000 completed surveys. The response was so great they were able to create reports that were state-specific. There are some market-specific reports.
“The number one metric which local businesses want to understand is how many households are going to buy the goods and services which drive my point-of-sale system,” Papert said. “Shopping gives you that.”
The survey found close to 50 categories where shopping increased. Some were obvious like grocery and warehouse stores. But there were other, less obvious ones like plant nurseries, home and garden centers, and lumber yards.
“It’s slightly different by region, by city, but clearly every newspaper should focus their sales and communication effort to those who actually should have more advertising dollars available if advertising dollars are a function of total spend,” Papert said.
The next thing he said they should do is focus on those businesses that cut back. But not with a hard sell. Armed with the data from the survey, approach an advertiser with the understanding of how difficult things are for their business. It’s hard for newspapers as well. But the data will show what percentage of the market plans to buy the good or service of the business being targeted. He gave the example of a furniture business.
Papert said normally furniture is somewhere between 16 and 20 percent of what households want. Now, it’s down to between 8 and 10 percent.
“I can say, ‘Even during these times, 10 percent or 8 percent of the households we reach intend to shop for furniture,’” he explained. “So, they’re doing it whether you’re open or not. If you can deliver, if you have curbside pickup, if you have any kinds of services that our readers or website visitors ought to be aware of and you would like to communicate that, you should continue to have a presence in local media to let them know because they’re shopping.’”
He said Pulse is even providing a free sales tool that “brings this data to life.” It has a presentation component that allows the sales rep to call up a category and deliver a pitch on the spot. Pulse is providing free access through the end of July and it’s been promoted through regional press and media associations. Close to 80 organizations were using the tool by mid-May.
But beyond the sales tool, Papert said newspapers need to talk with businesses about their plans. “It’s more optimistic. It’s more promising. It’s a more forward-looking conversation,” he said.
Once you know the plan, then you ask what it is they want to communicate; how it’s communicated and whether it’s some type of marketing product should be the last part of the conversation. For too long, he said, media reps have only focused on circulation, page views and special sections. They have rarely gone to a business to focus on their needs.
“For three generations, newspaper sales were more account management,” Papert said. “Since the Great Recession, that doesn’t work. We hired staffs who were deployed to manage accounts and now the staffs we have need to be aggressive.”
To that end, Papert said now is the ideal time to get back to prospecting. There is a wealth of data to leverage and time to reach out to new customers.
“The dirty little secret of newspapers is 30 to 50 percent of our accounts churn out every year, so if we do not prospect, we’re dead,” he said. “This is the best time in the history of the world to be prospecting. And if we aren’t using data to activate the audiences we reach—which are considerable by the way—let’s be clear about that. Between our print and digital audiences, they are huge. If we are not talking to those businesses that we do not touch right now, we are doing a disservice to democracy. It’s that simple.”
Sean M. Wood is a freelance writer and editor and owner of Three 8 Communications. He spent 19 years as a print journalist and was a senior business reporter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and the San Antonio Express-News.