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Selling the Guardian to America

We all dream of cracking the US market. For the Guardian, the high numbers of US visitors to its Guardian Unlimited web site demonstrated a demand for a global news perspective and an awareness of the Guardian brand. The Guardian decided to capitalise on this by setting ambitious US growth targets for its global newspaper – Guardian Weekly. Its publisher, Will Ricketts, takes up the story.

By Will Ricketts

In the month following September 11 2001, page impressions on the Guardian’s website rose by 42%. The most substantial increase came from US readers. They seemed to want a wider perspective. They wanted a global outlook that they felt was lacking in mainstream US media at a time of high national emotion and outrage. Over time, many readers moved away but we were fascinated by the numbers that stayed. It soon became clear that Guardian Unlimited was becoming as popular in the US as it was in the UK. Our challenge was to capitalise on this opportunity to develop the US circulation sales of the Guardian’s global newspaper - the Guardian Weekly.

Launched in 1919, Guardian Weekly’s aim was to present a digest of the best and most interesting articles from the Guardian newspaper. In the 1970’s, selected pieces from the Washington Post were added and in the 80’s, translations from Le Monde began to appear. Ten years later, the Observer was purchased by Guardian Newspapers Ltd. So now, the Guardian Weekly has developed into a global tabloid, carrying news, comment and analysis from the Guardian, plus selected articles from three other world class newspapers.

Zip code clusters

The US is a daunting market to try and crack. It is 3,000 miles across, has a vast array of retail outlets, a population of circa 250 million and, in volume terms, probably the widest media choice in the world to compete with. It was clear that we had to develop a manageable strategy to achieve sales growth in our areas of relative strength. Unlike other British weekly newspapers sold abroad, the Guardian Weekly is not simply a paper for homesick British expatriates. The majority of our readers in the US are non-British professionals, voracious readers and fascinated by what is going on in the rest of the world. Conveniently, they often live and work close to each other in small pockets across the States. These are not as well defined as the expatriate resorts where the Daily Mail is regularly read, but in each key city from Boston and New York to San Francisco and Los Angeles readers tend to be clustered around key zip codes associated with academia or politics. This is also true across the globe, with the most common UK subscriber postcodes being in Westminster, Oxford and Cambridge.

Our research has shown that over 9 out of 10 US readers regularly use online media. In a land of 24-hour news, the Guardian Weekly is unlikely to break a story. For this reason, we have re-designed the paper to play to our strengths; the early pages carry comment and analysis pieces and US stories have been brought forward in the place of UK coverage.

The Guardian Weekly has an audited circulation of 87,383, with 50,792 subscribers and is sold in over 100 countries. This means that there are approximately 200,000 readers spread around the world. At the start of the project, in June 2004, there were 10,400 US subscribers and about 500 retail copies sold. So, if you weren’t at Grand Central Station, you could walk for miles in Manhattan before you found a copy on sale. The overall objective of the US project is to increase circulation, mainly through subscriptions, to 25,000 US sales in five years, an increase of 130%.

Delivery methods

The Guardian Weekly is simultaneously printed every Tuesday in Montreal, London and Sydney. Historically, US delivery times for subscribers have been erratic outside the main US cities. We have now developed a series of airdrops to ensure that subscribers and retail purchasers in most key markets will receive the Guardian Weekly on Thursday or Friday. Where delivery is slower; for instance in Hawaii and Arkansas, we are committed to working with local media partners. Our expectation is that consistent, timely delivery will have a positive effect on retention and pre-weekend purchase. However, it is particularly difficult to precisely connect improved delivery to subscription retention, as there may be many other reasons for improved retention rates.

Retail distribution and sales

The retail environment in the US is certainly challenging for British titles. Many distributors view all UK titles in terms of the Financial Times and the Economist and expect to target business districts; anything else is seen as a specialist read probably for British expats and holiday makers. Despite our Guardian brief, Orlando and other resorts in Florida were regularly put forward by distributors as our best starting point. Many retail chains offered us rates to simply be stocked that would kill many publishers’ profits stone dead - and that’s before the promotions are even considered. Other retailers, including Barnes & Noble, simply don’t stock newspapers as they concentrate on magazines. Where they are available, British newspapers are often stacked on the floor in a confusing mess of international titles in a number of languages. It was imperative that Guardian Weekly gained shelf space, preferably next to the Economist, Time and Newsweek etc.

We decided to wrap Guardian Weekly in an A2 magazine cover that quarter folds around the paper. This means that Guardian Weekly is now accepted on magazine shelves in Borders and Barnes & Noble. Whether this wrap is a brilliant concept, to be emulated by a queue of newspapers in coming years, or proves to be attractive yet a waste of money, time will tell but the initial signs are promising. We have tripled weekly sales as well as increasing the cover price by a dollar in under a year.


Most US titles are led by the quest for advertising revenue, with subscription rates reduced to a minimum in order to maintain volumes. It is very normal to see monthlies on offer for $12-20 per annum, and weeklies for $40. This creates a steep hill to climb to achieve decent rates in the second year. The Economist, the envy of most US publishers I talk to, offers annual subscriptions for just under $100, rising to approx $129 in the second year. Many publishers believe that they have fixed their own rates too low and now cannot escape from it. We chose an annual rate of $89 and a six-month offer of $49 so that we can compete, without sacrificing our key revenue source which will always be from subscriptions.

Our two key main methods of acquiring subscriptions are through the Guardian and Guardian Weekly web sites and through direct marketing. We work in partnership with a range of carefully chosen domestic publishers for on-line and list swaps, event marketing and other joint promotional programmes. Until recently, marketing had been almost exclusively generated in the UK, with additional input from local managers in the US and Australia. We now have a successful relationship with a Manhattan based agency, who are able to present our USP’s to a US audience. They manage the US direct mail on our behalf, enabling us to comply with the rigorous demands of the US Postal Service, and we have also tested local radio promotions with their help. Many ideas from the States have found their way into the mail packs for other parts of the world. Potential readers in Melbourne, for instance, often have more in common with Californians or New Yorkers than with the Londoners who have traditionally created our packs.

The process of concentrating heavily on one key market has been exceptionally useful. We are ready to adopt marketing ideas that would not easily work in the UK and sometimes go against accepted European practice. But every well-planned, relevant mail pack can be undermined by poor or distant customer service and fulfilment. All Guardian Weekly subscribers are looked after by Guardian Fulfilment, with satellite offices in key international markets offering freephone numbers and freepost addresses. This means that subscribers can talk during the day, about domestic payment systems in their own currency, to someone with an accent they can understand easily.

Well, has all this effort worked? We are ahead of our modest first year target. We have brought in 3,500 new profitable subscribers and now, with the results from initial testing, we expect a healthy second year. We have learnt a great deal in the last year about a market that we were already committed to.