Home run

Inroads from other media and an increasingly fickle consumer are two of the challenges facing newspapers. The irony is that the best defence against these challenges – namely home delivery – is in decline. Ken Moreton argues that now is the time for publishers to start working together to save HND.

By Ken Moreton

We’ve seen the emergence of whole new departments devoted to it; we’ve seen huge sums of money thrown at it. We’ve had hand wringing, gnashing of teeth and wailing, but so far no one has found the real solution to arrest the seemingly terminal decline of the delivered copy. Yet we all know that the delivered copy is a major component of circulation sales. These copies can be the backbone which brings stability to your ABC figure; they’re sold before they’re printed, they’re not weather dependent and they are a symbol of fierce brand loyalty. No matter how many free DVDs or holidays for a penny are proffered by competitor titles tempting the reader’s loyalty to the hilt, they rarely switch – they’ve made their choice and they’ll stick with it come hell or high water.

At the very real risk of teaching egg sucking to my grandfather’s wife, let’s just take a look at some of the many reasons why newspapers (and, to a lesser extent, magazines) are haemorrhaging these committed sales:

* The growth of supermarket sales - who goes to their local supermarket everyday?
* The conversion from CTNs to C stores – news is no longer core.
* Newsagents rejecting HND - too difficult, the kids don’t turn up, bad debt, they need their papers before 7am - I could fill a page with these arguments.
* Time poor - "I simply don’t have the time to read a newspaper every day."
* New Media – "I can get everything on the web I need – for free, and I’m prepared to be advertised at to fund my browsing."

You can fill in the gaps yourself – suffice to say, HND and business deliveries are in steep and perhaps terminal decline.

Most publishers have, at some time, attempted to do something about the decline in the delivered copy and, to a greater or lesser degree, there have been some resounding successes (albeit at considerable costs). The Telegraph’s subscription offer springs to mind as does the Financial Times’ subscription scheme. However, it very quickly became obvious that no single publisher had the requisite household penetration to turn things around on their own. So egos had to be shelved (but to be dusted off regularly – just in case!) and publishers had to pull together by pooling their resources and attempting to use their combined might to address the situation – and, it can be argued with limited success.

However, the solutions only addressed half the problem – it still relied on the ever-shrinking pool of newsagents (still predominately served by youth labour) and once the order had been taken by, say, a call centre and passed to the newsagent, the publisher lost track of the reader – and only via expensive, time consuming and not very accurate outbound telemarketing activities could publishers ascertain their retention levels or know which of their painfully gained new HND customers were ‘live’.

Proactive regionals

It is fair to say that, in general, the regional press has been far more proactive and successful in marketing and protecting the delivered copy and where the existing infrastructure has been insufficient for their needs, they have grasped the mantle and developed their own. They have also proved that it is very hard to better the old fashioned door canvassing activity – especially since TPS came into being and grew some pretty fierce teeth. By developing their own network, they came to know their customers better and understand their needs – they could have a dialogue with their HND customers in a similar way that the Telegraph and other newspapers which operate subscription schemes could talk to their subscribers – with the added benefit that they could sell them things tailored to their interests - seeds to gardeners, pet insurance to dog owners etc. From years of experience, it is clear that the Scandinavian model of developing newspaper and magazine non-Royal Mail subscription solutions is becoming increasing attractive.

If the UK is going to emulate our Scandinavian neighbours’ success, we must impose the same onerous service levels that they have imposed upon themselves. Top of the list is reliability – the service must guarantee delivery every day by the agreed time. Secondly, the publisher has to have faith that the information they receive from the distributors is timely, accurate and robust. There is no point in a publisher being informed of a cancellation at the end of the month; that information must be made available instantly in order that corrective action can be taken – perhaps a customer service call would be sufficient to regain the order, an attractive discount or, failing that, at least the publisher can find out why the order was lost.

Traditionally, newspapers viewed each other as competitors and maintained sizeable war chests in a MAD (mutually assured destruction) style strategy to steal readers via the aforementioned free DVDs, burgers and posters. A realisation is dawning that the true enemy, which is now halfway through the gate, is not rival publications but non readership and that the decline in sales could be more efficiently and effectively addressed through working together.

An example of this change of thinking is the Businesslink network that has been established by Axis Media. The scheme was launched to not only sell subscriptions of national and regional newspapers but also to manage the subscription – money collection, issuing of renewal letters – and the distribution and provide the publishers with a clear view of what was happening. Businesslink, which currently operates in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Birmingham, Newcastle and London generates sales via a call centre based in Glasgow. There are plans to expand the network into other cities and Homerun, a residential equivalent, is also planned.

Perhaps initiative such as these will reduce the decline of home delivered copies, which between 1995 and 2007 declined by nearly 60%.