Mission, Strategy, Action!

Few regional publishers do planning well, although those that do tend to be more successful than those that don’t. Too often, planning is tokenist, done with little enthusiasm and is likely to produce a lack lustre document fit only to gather dust – in short, a complete waste of time. Russell Borthwick says that planning, if done well, should be a living process driving the business forward.

By Russell Borthwick

One of the themes discussed in my previous InCirculation article was asking whether those individuals around the industry charged with the onerous responsibility of managing newspaper sales really have a clear view of what is being asked of them. And it is to this vexed question that we return.

The marketing textbooks (they do come in useful occasionally) will cite goal setting - the stipulation of a clear mission intrinsically linked to corporate objectives - as the first step in a strategic planning process.

Linked to corporate objectives

Much has been written about the way in which publishers are seeking new routes to deliver news and information services to consumers. Many of these are free-to-access, ensuring that traditional audiences are being skilfully augmented through targeted, freely distributed titles, lifestyle and niche publications and on-line strategies. And, as a result, publishers can rightly claim that they are providing unrivalled coverage of their marketplaces and generating response for those customers that account for close to 80% of our revenues - advertisers.

Strong annual profit growth driven largely from this source (and a tight grip on costs) seems, then, to be satisfying the moneymen and appeasing the shareholders. And, as a result, although there is much wailing and gnashing of teeth about declining sales of core paid-for titles, the real business focus will remain on the bottom line. Reversing the circulation trend will require significant resource and margin-threatening investment so the question "for how long will this pattern be sustainable if the reach of our core brands continues to ebb away?" remains largely unanswered.

So, taking a strategic approach to newspaper sales and consumer marketing management demands that the wider business faces up to and answers some of the fundamental questions raised. What do we want from our paid-for titles; volume, audience delivery, optimum revenues?

Once the goal setting phase has been completed and a clear mission statement agreed, it is important that the potential barriers to a successful process are understood and steps taken to marginalise them. These can include: confusion between strategy and tactics; marketing and operations working in isolation; tribal tendencies and unwillingness to change; fear of (constructive) confrontation; failure to prioritise and lack of a systematic thought and implementation approach. Many of the skills required here come straight from the best change management courses - because, of course, that is exactly what you are doing. A team ethic, gaining buy-in and clear ongoing communication are key.

Situational analysis

The situational analysis comes next. Or in normal speak, establishing ‘where are we now?’ This requires a wide-ranging review of many aspects of the product, marketplace and organisation. A useful set of headings to work to here are based on the good old four Ps (product, price, promotion and place) but importantly adding three more: people, process management and physical evidence (brand visibility and ‘tangibleness’).

Information sources might include:

* Readership and other primary research
* Internal performance reports/KPIs
* Local authorities
* Census data
* MOSAIC or ACORN profiles

So exactly what is it you are looking for? Not as much the proverbial needle as you might first think! The answer is that your experience of the product and market will probably mean that key issues and opportunities clearly emerge. These could range from an imbalance between the area and reader profiles to major planned housing growth in the area; from a dominant geodemographic group to strong consumer interest in certain activities; from a clear reason for declining reader frequency to a change in purchase methodology or reading habits and from a developing availability trend to limited awareness of local edition structures. Or a myriad of other matters…

Finished? Not yet! You will also need to undertake a detailed audit of your core product by day, others in the portfolio and those of any competitor seeking to provide local news and information services. What works for you and what doesn’t? Where are the gaps? What are your USPs? How can you leverage them? What are theirs? Can you compete?

PEST analysis

Then complete a standard PEST analysis considering those external influences (political/legal; economic; social/cultural; technological) which might impact your thinking. And finally, conduct a review of internal operations (people, skills, relationships, processes).

So once you have gathered all of this what do you then do with it? If you are still with it at this point you will be pleased to know that next comes a part of the exercise called siphoning the data. You are now in possession of information which informs about external factors, marketplace composition, advantages (and gaps) v competitors, consumer views and lifestyles and how you are positioned as an organisation.

Strategy formulation

Returning to the mission (this is something you should do regularly to check the appropriateness of activity), consider those issues that are most likely to impact on your stated goals and objectives (Where do we want to be?). Together with your team(s), construct a SWOT analysis for the consumer-facing elements of the business doing so through the eyes of customers and competitors. Avoid the balance sheet approach - lots of strengths can be undermined by just a single weakness or threat. Refer back to the 7Ps. And rank each of the elements in each segment in order of importance 1-10.

Aim to re-inforce and protect strengths, deal with weaknesses turning them into opportunities, prepare contingencies against threats and put a real emphasis on organising resources to turn opportunities into strengths. Armed with this powerful and relevant ammunition, it’s time to consider ‘How do we get there?’

How do we get there?

To ensure clarity and universal ‘buy in’ to the agreed strategy, it is likely that you will want to produce a plan document that summarises the background analysis and decisions taken as a result. As the content will be cross-functional it is vital that ownership is assumed and, in my view, this responsibility sits squarely with the newspaper sales and/or marketing function. The content of such a title marketing plan might look something like the one reproduced here.

Title Marketing Plan
1.0 Overview
1.1Key Target Audiences
1.2Priority Target Locations
1.3Target Interest Groups
1.4Overall Title Objectives
1.5Brand Ethos
1.7Key Research Data Summary
2.0 Product
2.2Design and Running Order
2.3Advertising Platform Development
2.4Edition Structure
2.5Planned Editorial Campaigns
3.0 Promotion
3.1Key Themes and Objectives
3.2Customer Acquisition
3.3Customer Retention
3.4Competitions and Offers
3.5Above-the-line Schedule
4.0 Price
4.1General Pricing Policies
4.2Tactical Activity
5.0 Place
5.1Van Away and Delivery Targets
5.2Investment in Availability / Returns Policy
5.3Trade Customer Interaction
5.4Channel Management
5.5Point of Sale
5.6Sales Force Support
6.0 Physical Evidence
6.1Stand Alone Publications
6.2Special Editions
6.3Events and Exhibitions
6.4Targeted Reader Offers
7.0 People
7.2Shared Values
8.0 Process Management

Implementation and monitoring

Having gone to these lengths it is vital that this does not simply become something that gathers dust on the proverbial shelf! There are a number of ways to ensure that it becomes a live process, which is very much a part of everybody’s day job. It should be presented to staff from all functions and perhaps to key customers. Staff should be engaged through directly linked key tasks and bonus targets. Reader panels, other research, controlled tests and peer experience can all be used to build a robust monitoring and reporting system. Regular title planning meetings should be held with the document’s contents driving the agenda - this should be a strategic discussion at which progress is updated, contingencies considered, new items added as results inform/circumstances change and opportunities arise. The document would then be amended accordingly and revised plans communicated.

At this point it’s time for the bit that most of us are really comfortable with and probably enjoy most. Sleeves rolled up and in amongst it. The delivery phase… just with activity much more clearly defined than previously.

This provides an interesting point for reflection. Within a newspaper sales and consumer marketing function the tasks seem to split fairly tidily into three compartments: strategy, sales development, operations. Each is as important as the other, a reminder of the total team ethic and a useful prompt in planning project implementation. Deploy your team where strengths lie not where traditional organisation dictates.


Detailed SMART (specific, measurable, accountable, realistic, targeted) project plans for each key activity (with the following headings: strategy, tactics, resources, costs, timetable, responsibility, progress update) can ensure that everything remains on track and can act as an early warning system where it does not.

Reporting takes up a significant amount of newspaper sales management time, but you should seek to change the emphasis from measurement to management. Trending, informing future activity, thinking project return on investment not considering why Thursday was down on the average of the last two weeks!

And finally, you should seek to share the burden. Ensure staff are equipped with the skills and tools to deliver this way of working. Create a higher and more contemporary profile for the function within and without the business. Develop a cross-functional sense of ownership of the newspaper sales issue (and not just at a senior level). Seek to engage all staff across the company by explaining the challenge and suggesting ways in which they can contribute.

Taking this more strategic and proactive approach can only be made possible if real clarity, as to what is expected, is achieved at corporate level. However, having cleared this hurdle, there exists a great opportunity to re-position the newspaper sales and consumer marketing function as being central to business strategy formulation. Putting readers and core products at the heart of everything we do, alongside developing new audience delivery channels, is a combination which accepts that we operate in a dynamic environment but not that the perennial decline in sales volumes of our flagship morning, evening, Sunday and weekly titles is simply inevitable. These are the cornerstones of our businesses and it is still difficult to envisage a successful future for our franchises without them.