L.A. Times should target information indulgers
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
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
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
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