We're all fretting about declining circulations; blaming the Internet, the weather (that old circulation excuse), and well, anything else we can think of. But here's a thought: Maybe we've simply ceased to exist in the mind of our customers - our readers and advertisers.
Take Coke. A universal brand. It's everywhere. In every food retailer, restaurant, fast food stall. So why in the last year did it spend $2.8 billion on advertising, and $5.43 billion on "selling?" Because Coke execs know that to remain at the head of the market, they need to be top of mind among their consumers. In fact, the company spent 26 percent of its revenues on these two activities. I won't mention Coke's ability to launch new drinks and products: Our inability to diversify is the subject of a different rant.
Then there's Unilever. The conglomerate spent 24 percent of its revenues on sales and distribution.
By comparison, in the USA at least, newspapers spent less than 1 percent on sales and advertising, and around 10 percent on sales and distribution.
No longer enough
The comparisons between newspaper publishing and drink and laundry soap distribution might be hard to make, but the conclusions are crushing. Newspapers are failing because we are not investing in marketing.
We have long assumed that "being there" is enough. It's not. In a world where an explosion of media channels and choices are battling for the attention of an increasingly time-pressured audience, brand awareness and promotion is more vital than ever before.
I can hear all the accountants and greedy shareholders clucking, "Why should we be wasting money in immeasurable branding campaigns, on the basis of a mad Scotsman's analysis of different industries?" The answer is threefold:
First, if we don't return to confidently promoting our great newspaper brands they will be smothered by the alternatives.
Second, the comparison between newspapers and consumer goods companies is indeed relevant. Let's face it: Few goods have a shorter shelf life or face a more variable loyalty spectrum than newspapers.
Finally, at least half the solution lies within the newspaper company, at little or no cost.
The world is smothered with branding - personally, I think there will be growing consumer backlash against branding, particularly in our increasingly eco-friendly, freeware society.
That said, newspapers need to exploit their already recognizable local brands. This doesn't mean publishers have to buy ads on the local television station, but what it does require is a strong street presence.
The issues of shelf life, loyalty and frequency are vital. Newspapers can no longer assume the breaking news monopoly. Their biggest challenge is not retaining readers - or even online visitors - but engaging their regular interest. Case in point: Coke invests heavily on branding, because it knows that's how it builds customer loyalty.
Alas, newspaper readers are notoriously fickle, and generally the wealthier they are - and the more valuable they are to advertisers - the less loyal and frequent they are. In every ad break on TV, the channels promote what is coming up later that evening or later that week. Yet in newspapers we do little promotion of upcoming content. A rule should be that every double-page spread contains at least one "look-ahead" panel promoting forthcoming content. This is as important for single-copy markets as it is for subscription markets.
Cementing the link
In particular, the shift to the online world is demonstrating some critical behavioral issues that newspapers must address.
First, there is insufficient linkage between print and digital engagement. Why is it that I can e-mail a Nobel laureate who writes for The New York Times, but I cannot e-mail my local sports reporter? Is he too important? Or does the newspaper not have the simple ability to include that writer's e-mail address at the end of a story and manage the contact?
As I've said before, online newspaper usage is at best very thin. People visit rarely, for too short a time, with few page views. But do I see mechanics that encourage me to come back, to look for other content that might interest me? In 90 percent of cases, the answer is no.
Newspaper companies, and newsrooms in particular, spend little time or creative energy on the issue of encouraging loyalty and retention. This needs to be built into every newspaper employees' DNA: Frequency. Loyalty. Retention.
Unilever and Coke are obsessed with customer retention. That explains why they spend so much of their turnover and time on loyalty and frequency.
The methodology is easy to define and implement. The return on investment is simple to measure. The consequence of failing to do so is easy to predict.
So let's communicate.
Jim Chisholm is a France-based independent media consultant. He can be reached at email@example.com.