FEATURE 

The opportunities of irregular readership

Irregular readers form a large and growing proportion of the circulation of our regionals. Developing a coherent strategy for them requires positive thinking, an effort to understand their needs and an acceptance that they are here to stay. Chris Branford suggests some strategies, based on his research at Northcliffe Newspapers.

By Chris Branford

"Today’s readers are technically savvy, impatient, and use multiple media, often simultaneously. The challenge is it to attract and retain the attention of people who demand information and entertainment that’s fast and easy to use." (Mario Garcia, INMA)

Readership is not declining, it’s changing. Regional newspaper titles continue to command large audiences that still allow us to offer effective advertising vehicles.

While the readership of an average issue of a local daily falls steadily in line with circulation, the audience reached across a week has increased. Between 2000 and 2003 Northcliffe evening titles increased the number of people reading over the course of a week by 5%. This is not a result of regular readers reading less often, it is more punters coming through our door. It is mainly driven by people reading once, twice or three times a week – the irregular reader.

The irregular reader is becoming an increasingly important part of our circulation and we need to encourage and maintain these readers. Having a strong irregular readership is not a bad thing; not everyone can or is willing to become regular six night a week readers. We must understand these less regular readers so that those who can be encouraged to read more are and those that can’t are at least embedded in their occasional readership.

Irregular readership is a good thing; it’s healthy, an opportunity, but it takes us into an altogether more volatile environment. Irregular readers have, in many cases, low satisfaction and low loyalty to our papers. We have to improve both.

Research conducted across Northcliffe Newspapers into the lifestyles, media use and habits of irregular readership showed that:

* Regional titles must address changing media habits, improve marketing and communication and make some product changes in order to sustain and increase this readership.
* Whilst local Northcliffe titles are seen as trusted, reliable and comprehensive in terms of content about local news, there is a need to improve some areas of perceived weakness: headlines, promotion, and cluttered and confusing layout.
* It is imperative that any changes be supported by effective marketing and communication strategies to bring any product changes to the attention of these readers. The repackaging of current content and enhancement of communications hold the key to maintaining and increasing readership rather than the wholesale change of the local newspaper offering.
* Consistent branding and promotion of relevant content is key.

Irregular readers won’t work for it

Irregular readers present a specific challenge. They expect to be entertained while they are being informed. They want nuggets of information, immediately relevant to them and requiring no effort on their part.

Irregular readers can be self-obsessed and are gossip-focussed. They want bite-size info. Although they are demanding, they have a low level of loyalty and commitment. Any changes to the paper need to be strongly communicated to register on their radar. They are passive and don’t want to have to put themselves out; they are used to things coming to them. They want drama, but they want an easy read. In short, they are a challenge.

Irregular readers are also the tip of the iceberg. They are not a quirk of nature. Their high expectations have been fostered by their experiences with other media; it will not be long before such experiences are ubiquitous. To coin a phrase; one day all readers will be this way (to a degree). That day may seem far away, but the irregular reader phenomenon is not going away.

Local newspaper’s USP

The relevance is not just local, it’s personal too. The degree to which people devour the details in the paper when there is a link to them is sometimes extraordinary. Readers look for ‘people I know’. They seek out the personal connection, and when they find it their satisfaction is palpable. Personal links and connections, however mundane they may seem, have immediate relevance. This makes local context very powerful for both local and national stories, and also for the seemingly inconsequential. This is true for all readers – from the one day a week scanner to the six day a week cover to cover reader.

So how can we better promote these strong personal connections we have? A number of opportunities present themselves;

* Shout about the depth of this relationship, which is unique.
* Aim for humanistic reporting; real people and places (including gossip).
* Touch lots of people; increase the chances of spotting ‘someone I know’.
* Develop areas of the paper that generate interaction (mobile, electronic and other).
* Empowerment; reinforce the reader’s ability to make a difference.
* Give readers ‘something to talk about’.

Image and innovation

In the research, a similar spontaneous image of local Northcliffe titles became evident. The traditional image that emerges caused most irregular readers to maintain a distance from the titles and discouraged them from wanting a greater engagement with content. This image was one of being out of date, dull, old fashioned and ‘someone their parents knew’.

This picture arises due to a number of factors including a feeling of there being a mismatch between local papers and other media being accessed. These differences are highlighted by the look, feel, content and headlines of the local papers and a perception that local papers are closely associated with irregulars’ parents (who often introduced them to the paper and still read it regularly). Yet, when pushed to look through the papers, irregular and younger readers were often surprised to find interesting, lively and stimulating content – they just weren’t aware it was there.

The emotional links with our titles have weakened and relationships are now stronger on the basis of function, ie use of the job section or property pages. We need to elaborate this functional experience in order to entice infrequent readers to read more frequently, or at least to embed whatever relationship we already have with them.

The challenge is to balance the visible innovation and tangible interaction demanded by irregular readers with the general satisfaction of regular readers. However, the fact that we have regular readers who are generally happy with our offerings should not deter us from innovation and development. There are various shades of loyalty in our regular readership, but the majority are committed and unlikely to move as long as the paper maintains its core competencies and credentials.

The reasons for the recent wave of format changes in the broadsheet sector echo much of the above. Richard Thomson, editor of the Times described how his readers were now much more used to scanning information – something not only driven by the web, but also by the way in which so much information is presented (the football results on Final Score). This in fact is a critical point.

At one time, newspapers would have dictated how and what news and information people consumed. They would have set the norm, even the standard, of dissemination. This is no longer the case – most people, and in-turn readers, get information from a number of sources. Fundamentally, their lifestyles dictate their media consumption, and this shapes their perception and expectation of what and how they want to consume news and information.

Regional newspapers address the basic needs, but the latent interest in all things that affect you and where you live is often not ignited. There is rarely a buzz about local newspapers.

So how do we match the broad media requirements (to be more visual, more entertaining, easier to engage with) that this audience demands, when our traditional image causes most to keep a safe distance and prevents greater engagement? Given that these irregular readers have low loyalty and low commitment to our brands, the volatility of these customers is clear. The challenge is to build the relationship with these readers whilst ensuring regular committed readers remain entrenched.

Branding, communication and product knowledge

Irregular readership feeds a partial knowledge of our offering. There is a lack of awareness of platform dates or content and this in turn discourages greater purchasing. The current style and content of marketing communications is ineffective for irregular readers, since it does not appear to create the sort of buzz about the local paper which would trigger deeper relationships.

There is a lack of awareness amongst many irregular readers about the existence of ‘what’s on’ platforms in local papers. However, most like the idea of these supplements and feel they impact positively on the brand image.

We are good at promoting promotions; but not content, localness, exclusives, ie ourselves. We have the best products and yet we do not shout about them. Our brands are our newspapers, they are our supplements, they are our niche products, they are our internet sites, they are our staff, and they are our customers. Brand management is not just a masthead or a strapline; it is the sum of everything we do.

Recommendations

* Combine and link all activities under one clear brand strategy including everyone with an external focus.
* Ensure clear and consistent messages based on the agreed strategy across all departments.
* Improve in-paper promotion. Make it part of editorial and creative thinking. One person should be responsible for all in-paper communication – both its creative and placement.
* Purge current house ads and signposting that don’t fit with the brand.
* Explain changes to readers and advertisers before implementing change, and keep open lines of communication following change.
* Promote editorial content: use ‘A’-boards for editorial not just promotions. If there is a story relevant to a geographic area that is not on the front page – bill it on the ‘A’-board in the relevant areas.
* Different sections of the newspaper have different identities: develop key product messages and direct them at a target audience; eg promote the ‘What’s on / Ents’ coverage out of paper.
* Promote key content within supplements; take advantage of their readerships. Eg promote the entertainment section in the jobs supplement, the Saturday magazine in the property supplement.