One of the most important lessons I teach MBA students is to look at audience data and hard evidence when making marketing decisions. It’s a danger to let your personal bias cloud a strategic decision. I was reminded of that advice last week when the Boston Globe’s decision to change delivery companies caused a torrent of subscriber anger. In an effort to save money and supposedly improve service, they switched to a new and untested company to deliver roughly 115,000 daily newspapers. It was a poorly handled fiasco, both from an operational standpoint and the PR efforts to sooth upset readers, but that’s another story.
If you are a digital marketer, your first thought may be surprise that so many people in a highly educated and tech-savvy metro area still get the “dead tree” version of the Globe. It is dropped at their door each morning and is literally filled with day-old news. The bigger insight was learned when the new delivery company messed up and an estimated tens of thousand papers did not get delivered. The uproar and reaction was swift, loud and angry from the print subscribers.
It is hard to believe the Globe would put this much revenue in danger with a poorly conceived plan. The entire episode serves to remind us how much newspapers are dependent on revenue from print subscriptions and ads. Those 115,000 subscribers pay roughly $700 a year, which is a cool $80 million a year before factoring in advertising revenue. They get much less revenue for the digital version even though their digital product is far superior to the printed copy.
As reported by MediaPost’s Publishers Daily on Jan 7: “Roughly half of newspaper readers said they read only the print edition of their local newspaper, according to data cited by the Pew Research Center.
“Pew surveyed consumers in three different mid-sized urban areas – Denver, Macon, Ga., and Sioux City, Iowa – about their news consumption habits. Despite their geographic, social and economic differences, in each place a similar proportion of newspaper readers said they read only the print version of their local newspaper: 46% in Denver, 48% in Macon and 53% in Sioux City.
“The overall figures, showing about half of readers consuming only print content, are roughly in line with a national survey that found 56% of readers have contact with only print newspaper content.”
It is estimated by Pew that many of these print newspaper-only readers are Boomers. It was clear that the Boomer portion of the audience had the greatest reaction because they are the most emotionally attached to print. Not just the physical paper, but the ritual of getting the paper off their driveway or front steps and starting their day spreading out the broadsheet and scanning the news. They missed curling up with coffee or tea and working the crossword puzzle or cutting coupons. It is easy to forget that until the mid-‘90s, this was the only way to read the news and, for Boomers, it is how they learned to read and interact with the world. Their brains are wired for print in the same way Gen Z is wired for mobile.
Marketers get caught up worrying about Millennials and the hard-core digital natives that come after them. Those of us in Gen X straddle both worlds and represent the transition from old to new media. It is very likely the vast majority of people under 35 will never subscribe to a print newspaper. That makes the Boomer audience critical to the survival of the entire industry.
This incident should make marketers reconsider some of their ideas about reaching the group with the greatest wealth and disposable income – Boomers. Their emotional attachment to newspapers could be leveraged to build strong omni-channel campaigns that lead to digital activation and conversions. The industry has been moving away from print advertising for obvious reasons in addition to the decline in time people spend with the medium. Print ads are neither clickable nor sharable and it is very hard to measure their effectiveness as a sales driver. In today’s always-on, always-connected media environment, traditional brand image print ads feel like a waste of money, as they are a disconnected blip and classic interruptive media.
Perhaps it is time to reevaluate print newspapers in respect to reaching Boomers. Custom content, advertorials and ads tied tightly to digital campaigns can reach Boomers where they may be going first each morning before firing up the digital device. That dynamic is an important distinction to make about this demographic. Their attachment to print newspapers is not instead of digital, but rather in concert with their use of online channels such as social and mobile. They are truly omni-channel media consumers and should be treated as such. Newspapers would be wise to give them extra attention because the next generation of print lovers are not walking through that door.