L.A. Times should target information indulgers

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I remember the good old days - the 1980s. Newspaper circulations were on the rise and magazines supplemented what we read in the daily papers. I was an executive in the advertising department at May Company in Los Angeles, which ran 350,000 inches of advertising a year in the Los Angeles Times. It was not uncommon for us to have a dozen or more full-page ads in the main news section on any given Thursday or Sunday.
Los Angeles had four major department store chains - May Company,  Robinson's, Bullock's and Broadway - plus many smaller chains with four to 10 stores each.
We all know those days are gone. Today, newspaper circulation numbers are dropping like President Bush's approval ratings, and publishers are grappling with what they should do to maintain any sort of relevancy in today's increasingly distracted, short-attention-span world. And as one of the increasingly diminishing breed who reads daily newspapers, I wonder what the future will be for a paper like the L.A. Times.
In addition to lower circulation, advertisers have disappeared. All 
four of the major retailers that I listed are no longer around in Los 
Angeles. They all fell victim to the acquisition-and-merger frenzy of 
the last two decades that produced Macy's as a national department 
store chain. This, in turn, meant a loss of ad inches for papers. In 
addition, diminishing classified sections create an equally adverse 
effect on the newspaper's profitability.
Essentially, this "triple whammy" - readership desertion, advertiser 
erosion and classified ad contraction - has forever changed the world 
of most newspapers today.
Our agency, Quigley-Simpson, has had the L.A. Times as a client on 
and off over the past several years. The marketing challenge has 
always been the same: consumers increasingly turning to alternative 
media sources for news, sports and entertainment. This has added more 
pressure for the Los Angeles Times to increase subscriptions.
Quigley-Simpson's recommended approach has always been short-form 
direct response television campaigns aimed at achieving a low cost 
per acquisition of the Sunday-only subscriber, as well as 
communicating the value and convenience story of subscribing to the 
target audience. In addition, our communications have typically added 
an incentive for "calling now," such as a Weekend Escapes Guide in 
the Los Angeles area.
In years past, we have had much success with this model by targeting 
the right media and honing the creative message so that it has worked 
to acquire quality subscribers at an affordable cost. Other 
advertisers promoting myriad newspapers across the nation have since 
copied this model. But times and technology are rapidly changing as 
are consumer wants and needs, which means that one-off, project-based 
DRTV efforts aren't going to work in the future, at least not in the 
newspaper world.
Major newspapers across the country should focus on three key areas: 
stronger product development, better reliance on consumer insights to 
guide marketing efforts and more consistent use of targeted messaging.
Product development. Many newspapers are responding to demand 
shortfalls by cutting costs and jobs. This slash-and-burn mentality 
is putting their product in serious jeopardy. Instead of improving 
the product, they are walking away from it. Imagine if a savvy 
consumer package goods company were in this situation. The brand team 
would be working on product innovations, learning more about their 
target consumers - both in terms of their unmet needs and behaviors - 
and building holistic communication plans.
Newspapers like the L.A. Times would be well served to take a few 
cues from the consumer package goods side, and truly re-evaluate and 
evolve their product offering to meet their target audience's 
changing needs and wants.
Consumer insights. Consumers' interests and motivations change, so 
continually honing strategies based on updated and fresh consumer 
insight data is essential. Who is the current subscriber and what 
should the newspaper be doing to remain relevant to that elusive being?
Our agency believes the newspaper's current and future subscribers 
can be categorized as "information indulgers." That is, people who 
luxuriate in spending time with and accumulating all sorts of 
information.
We use the word indulgence purposefully because it implies that this 
commitment to the printed word is a real extravagance in today's 
hectic world where alternative information channels abound. The 
consumer embraces the luxury of in-depth knowledge and awareness that 
only top-notch reporting and journalism can bring. This is the 
consumer that newspapers must recognize and to whom they must market. 
This consumer may or may not be wealthy, but this person is truly a 
more evolved consumer with a thirst that can't be quenched by 
television or by the Internet alone.
So, how should the L.A. Times proceed? I believe it must provide 
quality local, national and international coverage that plays into 
the hands of this information indulger, rather than trying to be 
something to everybody.
Yes, circulation numbers may continue to drop for a while, but they 
eventually will stabilize, though at probably a much lower level.  
However, those remaining readers, given the right content, will stay 
extremely loyal and provide an ongoing base of strength and 
commitment for the publication that it currently does not enjoy.
Targeted messaging. Once you know your target consumers, you then 
have to speak to their wants and needs directly through your 
messaging. One beacon of recent hope for the changing newspaper 
industry is the New York Times' new ad campaign.
This fresh advertising feels like it is actually in response to 
consumer insights and efforts on the part of the New York Times to 
evolve its brand. By taking the focus off features and putting it on 
benefits, the advertising has identified the heart of the New York 
Times brand: quality. And who do you suppose cares about the quality 
message? The "information indulger" does.
Clearly, we're never going to convert National Enquirer readers or 
Entertainment Tonight viewers, so why bother going after these 
people?  Focus a message on a well-articulated prime prospect, and go 
after them.
This is something that the L.A. Times has yet to do. Its recent 
efforts to reach out to its "target audience" have fallen short and 
amounted to not much more than a graphic facelift, without dealing 
with the more substantial targeting and positioning needed to help 
rebuild and reestablish its identity and brand in the marketplace.
The L.A. Times would be well served to better understand its 
information indulger and other identified prime prospects and then, 
begin to offer products and services that satisfy these consumers' 
unmet needs. When the L.A. Times marries consumer insights with a 
quality product and holistic communication based on relevant 
messaging, then and only then, will there be hope to stabilize its 
circulation base and attract advertisers who truly want to reach its 
readers.

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