All that paper in the mailbox
So here’s a riddle that comes around every November-December. (And the answer isn’t what most newspaper people think it is.)
If the internet was supposed to put print out of business, why is my mailbox at home filled with slick, heavy catalogs from successful retailers? Did they not get the memo explaining that print was dead? Do they have that much money to just waste on “dead trees?”
I believe these catalogs are a successful response to a fragmented media world. And it’s a strategy that local media must begin to understand. As people’s lives become more busy, as their attention is split among many media, as they take more control of the advertising they “consume,” how do you get your message into their field of vision?
Companies like LL Bean, Land’s End, Shaper Image, Coldwater Creek know the answer: if the consumer physically touches and sees your catalog at the mailbox, finds it attractive enough to not immediately recycle it, puts it on the coffee table and later picks it up to flip through …. Somehow, this strategy leads to purchases. And those purchases cause those companies to spend millions of dollars to repeat the cycle.
Smart companies. They all have websites, good ones. But they spend millions of dollars to print and mail a catalog.
There are lessons for us in local media:
If you have a product that appears on people’s coffee tables, you’re in the game. I can skip commercials on TV and eliminate commercials entirely with my XM radio, but I can’t skip that thing on the coffee table. For printed newspapers, that’s their ace in the hole. As long as newspapers can get Best Buy’s flyer onto the coffee table on Sunday, they’re in the game.
Which makes all the talk about e-paper baffling. Amazon’s Kindle is the latest to spark this line of thinking, that somehow newspapers should try harder to shed the chore and cost of printing and delivery. Here’s a sampling: an economic analysis by a longtime newspaperman, and another taking more of a techie view of the same issue.
Guess what: advertisers (who pay the salaries of the journalists) want what the newspaper currently gives them: access to customers who are harder to reach than ever.
The challenge for newspapers and journalists is to make a product that people will welcome onto their coffee tables. That’s a very tall order considering the trend. But it’s where they should be focusing, in my opinion. If they can find the winning formula, they’ll have a rare advertising vehicle in a fragmented world. If they can’t, their numbers will dwindle to just another fragment.
But if they ignore that challenge and simply cut distribution costs as the solution, they’ll be taking themselves out of the game entirely.
( Next installment: fragmentation and local online media.)
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