FEATURE 

How often do you get it?

What do you do when your ailing title has a hard core of loyal readers? They are too good to ignore but how do you retain their valuable purchasing power and close the title at the same time? James Evelegh talks to Kent Messenger Group’s Caroline Brinkman to see how they tackled such a scenario.

By James Evelegh

When is a reader retention campaign not a reader retention campaign? Answer – when the readers you are trying to retain are those of a title you are about to close. Confused? Read on.

At this year’s recent Newspaper Society Sales & Promotions awards the Kent Messenger Group (KMG) won "Best reader retention campaign" for their successful efforts to carry over a large proportion of their about-to-close evening daily, Medway Today, to the new weekly title they launched in its place, Medway Messenger (Mon).

As with many evening dailies, Medway Today had been suffering from a long term decline in sales. In 1993 it had an ABC of 30,834. By 1998 this figure had slipped to 21,238 and by 2002 it was down to 16,191 – a drop of almost 50% in less than a decade. However the silver lining for Medway Today was that over 50% of its circulation (approx 10,000) were home deliveries. Furthermore, since KMG serviced them directly, and therefore had all their details, this segment was doubly attractive from a marketing perspective. This group represented too valuable a commercial proposition not to continue to service in one way or another. The Medway market is an extremely busy one. In addition to KMG’s Kent Messenger Series there are also two Trinity Mirror paid-for weekly titles, Medway News and Medway Standard both vying for readers. In particular the Medway Standard (with a Tuesday on sale) would stand to gain from any reader exodus.

The closure strategy for Medway Today was to close the daily and to replace it with a bi-weekly paper. The first stage in the process took place in 2001 when KMG closed the Friday edition of Medway Today and replaced it with Medway Messenger – a weekly title and part of the Kent Messenger Series. This left Medway Today as an evening daily Monday to Thursday title.

The strategy for stage two was to close the remaining editions of Medway Today and to launch a new Monday only paper. Given the unique nature of regional publishing in Kent, with its heavy emphasis on local editioning, there were a number of very tricky presentational issues to negotiate. There were two key markets for whom very different marketing messages had to be created; one was the readership and the other was the advertisers.

Two messages

The readers were sold the concept of a new bi-weekly paper. If you lived in the Medway area then, to all intents and purposes, Medway Messenger was a twice a week paper. However from the advertising viewpoint the picture was more complicated. The Friday version of Medway Messenger was actually one edition in the Kent Messenger Series (KMG’s flagship paper); other editions in the series included Maidstone, Malling, Weald, Sittingbourne and County. The Monday version of Medway Messenger was not part of that series and as a result was actually a totally separate paper – albeit one with the same name. Hence in terms of ABC audits and advertiser rate cards the Monday and Friday Medway Messengers were completely independent titles. But from a readers’ point of view they were simply two sides of the same coin.

On Thursday 3 April 2003 the last issue of Medway Today was published. Friday the 4th saw Medway Messenger as usual and Monday 7th April saw the first issue of the new Monday version of Medway Messenger.

Three marketing goals

Caroline Brinkman, group development manager at KMG was tasked with coming up with a suitable marketing strategy. She had three broad goals. Firstly to retain as much of the readership of Medway Today and carry them over to the new title, secondly to persuade a large proportion of the purchasers of the Friday paper to purchase what was effectively a sister paper and thirdly to maximise awareness in the community as a whole about the new title so as to carve out a healthy circulation for Medway Messenger (Mon).

Caroline joined KMG seven years ago, initially working in advertisement sales before moving over three years ago to take over newspaper sales and promotions. In this time she has noticed and been part of a sea change in KMG’s marketing. It has become much more assertive. Greater emphasis has been placed on group branding and resources have been allocated to creating striking above the line visual campaigns put together using outside agencies for creative input. In terms of overall group marketing the biggest innovation has been the launch of KM FM, a local radio station put together by KMG via acquisition. This has enabled KMG not only to offer a new dimension to their advertisers but also to use the radio station to reinforce the marketing of their newspapers to the readership.

Building awareness

The creative was based on establishing a link between the new title and the existing Friday paper. At the heart of the advertising campaign for the new title was the slogan "twice a week" featuring a visual of a couple reading the papers in bed, one reading the Medway Messenger (Mon) and the other reading the Medway Messenger (Fri). All marketing was then branded with this slogan / visual. The most obvious examples were bus side advertising and 48 sheet posters at key sites in the area. But it also appeared on direct marketing, point of sale material (counter mats and shelf wobblers) and on a variety of balloons, leaflets and other handouts distributed by the mobile newspaper sales unit. The aim was for as many people in the catchment area to be aware of the fact that Medway Messenger was now a twice weekly title. To reinforce the message (and to help gauge campaign effectiveness to date) KM FM ran a phone-in competition. The question was: "how often can you get the Medway Messenger?" The answer "twice" was answered correctly by very large numbers of callers, showing that the message was sinking in.

Reader retention

The ad campaign was launched on Monday 7th April – the first on-sale date for the new paper. So as to maximise retention, communications with Medway Today’s existing readership had to start prior to closure. This group required additional and tailored marketing messages to ensure that they stuck with KMG publications and did not jump ship to the rivals. There were two main strands: firstly in paper activity and secondly direct marketing activity to the home deliveries. Two weeks prior to closure Medway Today started to run editorial, written by editor Bob Diamond, alerting them to the imminent closure and promoting the attractions of the new approach. This was a process they were keen not to drag out, aware both of the need to prevent haemorrhaging readers and giving rivals too much advance notice of their plans.

Home deliveries

The bulk of the reader retention work was targeted at the all important home delivery base. With the goal of retaining as many of these home delivers as possible for the new title Caroline’s team put together a four stage direct marketing campaign. Stage one was a letter from the editor informing the reader of the changes afoot and the reasons behind them and was delivered with the paper two weeks before closure at the same time information started to appear in the paper. The key message was: unless we hear from you we will continue your home delivery service with the new paper. The second and third stages essentially reinforced this message and gave further opportunities to cancel. The second was delivered one week prior to closure and the third was delivered with their first copy of the Monday Medway Messenger.

The fourth shot was timed to hit three weeks after the launch and was not delivered to anyone who had cancelled. It was a direct mail pack delivered by Royal Mail using their Mailsort discount service. Its purpose was to reward their loyalty and to prevent any further drop off. The pack was a goodie bag consisting of a letter from the editor, a branded fridge magnet with a telephone number to call in the event of delivery problems, a leaflet containing direct debit payment options (something KMG is promoting to all its direct deliveries) and a coupon book containing over £300 worth of vouchers and savings.

Did it work?

The first ABC for the new title (30 June – 28 December 2003) was 13,517 - over 3,000 down on the last ABC for Medway Today. But KMG sees the launch of the Monday Medway Messenger as a big success. How can that be? There are four very good reasons. Firstly of the 10,000 Medway Today home delivers, only 1,500 cancelled taking the figure down to 8,500 – a retention rate of 85%. This figure has since grown back up to just under 10,000 so KMG not only managed to hold onto the bulk of their original base but have since clawed back most of the drop off. Secondly, as has been shown by the most recent ABC figure of 14,153 the title is on an upward trajectory, something that definitely could not be said for the old daily title. Thirdly Medway Messenger’s primary rival in the paid-for weekly market, Medway News saw its circulation drop to 12,201 in the June – December release and to 11,902 in the recent January – June release. Fourthly, according to Caroline, the new title is proving a much more attractive draw to advertisers.

Closing a title is rarely a cause for celebration. However the strategy used by KMG meant that a healthy new paper has replaced a terminally ill one. The strength of the KM brand and the strength of the existing Friday paper were fundamental to the success of the strategy and the integrated marketing campaign put together by Caroline Brinkman and her team, fully utilising all the various channels at their disposal (sister titles, off the page, direct marketing, radio, point of sale, advertising) meant that the transition was remarkably painless.