Bringing it all together

Perhaps slow out of the blocks, the regional press has been frantically developing its new media offerings. However, too often, in the rush to go online, not enough thought was given to devising strategies to ensure proper synergy between the different platforms. Northcliffe’s Dominic Collard explains the thinking behind the closer integration of the Essex Chronicle and its sister platform – www.thisisessex.com

By Dominic Collard

To say that the business of providing news is changing is an understatement. As a child I would hear my father complaining over breakfast that he hadn’t yet received his morning newspaper delivery. Now I wake up to a 24 hour satellite TV news channel, log on to receive my news brief emails and hear the ‘bleep bleep’ of another text headline arriving through my phone. And all this before the kettle has boiled and the cornflakes have gone soggy.

The industry has developed at a revolutionary speed, driven by new opportunities presented to us by technological advances and lifestyle changes. Whether or not you think we hesitated in the printing rooms too long whilst new media developed without us is academic. For we now inhabit this brave new world with the enthusiasm of pioneers.

So, job done? Hardly – job just beginning!

Like the proverbial kid in a candy store faced with a kaleidoscope of mouth-watering treats we are in danger of spending all our pocket money in one hit at serious risk to our health. Brands that for years were embodied solely by a newspaper now suddenly find themselves with a new portfolio of identities, each with their own unique functions and audiences. The most obvious and important of these is, of course, the internet.

The last ten years have seen brands diversify onto the web to complement their traditional paper offering as they strove to touch more people, more directly. Some succeeded in extending their customer reach, others failed. But few actually served to ‘complement’ their newspaper. Why? This wasn’t simply brand diversification … it wasn’t even new product development. What newspapers have been attempting to do is break into a new market. It is like BMW building a new series of car, with wings and propellers.

But if the last ten years of newspaper marketing policy has been one of divergence, then, through the next ten, we as an industry need to concentrate on convergence. An irony of success, diversification blurred newspaper identities as brands began to exist across more than one platform (and so audience spectrum). It is now time to bring them home to roost. Moreover, the idea of a newspaper’s various brands complementing one another should only be half the story. Having achieved a wider foothold, the real opportunity now lies with integration. Or in other words, ensuring each brand identity serves not only to strengthen an overall brand, but to drive awareness of and business through its siblings.

Half of the challenge comes from the way newspaper companies organise themselves. There is a reason why the public tend to engage with one brand independently of its sibling; because this is how the business also sees it. Different brands managed by different business units with separate P&L demands, more concerned with protecting their own welfare rather than exploring wider integration opportunities. With no mandate for cross activity it is of little surprise that sibling brands dance to their own beats. It is a legacy of the speed with which newspapers have had to introduce their various brand extensions, a reactive necessity rather than a considered strategy.

Closer integration

So, what should our mandate be? This is a question we at Northcliffe Newspapers are now turning our attention to. It struck us very early on that the key commercial concerns of our business - retail sales, home delivered subscriptions, advertising revenue – could all benefit from more closely integrating our newspaper and online activity. We are now developing a range of solutions that speak specifically to both our newspaper customers and our online users. Take, for example, our quest to grow our home delivered subscription base by launching an online customer reward scheme. Attempting to increase retention rates through a customer reward programme is nothing new. Neither is an internet site offering eligible members their choice from a range of specially discounted products and services. And neither, for that matter, is an online news service. But pull all of these elements together and you get a seamless and coherent set of propositions that speak not only to your retained customers, but also your new business prospects.

Essex Chronicle Benefits is the new online customer service recently launched by Northcliffe Newspapers for one of its largest weekly paid for newspapers. It is based on the principle that managing cancellations should be the last resort in retaining customers. We want to do at least as much for the customers that we have as for those we don’t. Giving them a reason to stay - above and beyond the newspaper itself - means that they are less likely to leave. And with the mandate of brand integration energising our ideas we have worked our website, www.thisisessex.com, into the customer experience. The online nature of the reward scheme means we can control how a customer gains access to their various membership privileges. This gives us the opportunity of firstly directing them through our online news service portal, many of whom, we perceive, will be first time visitors.

Opportunities for all

There are opportunities for all areas of the business from the new scheme. The most obvious one of these is to encourage established readers of the newspaper to visit www.thisisessex.com. But the benefit also works in reverse. For the site will serve to make those established online customers aware of Essex Chronicle newspaper subscriptions (for that is the precursor of membership to the scheme) and so allow us another acquisition avenue. The implications then on how we talk to our advertisers and what kind of packages we can offer them are huge. Suddenly, by simply repositioning and tweaking how we organise already existing elements of our business, we can provide our advertisers with more complete and relevant media planning solutions. And then there are all the advantages that come from the membership service itself. Through Essex Chronicle Benefits we can begin to track our customer’s behaviour. Gradually we can improve our understanding of who we are talking to, and ultimately how we should be talking to them, research that can then be fed back into all areas of the business.

Quite what the future holds is excitingly unclear. Essex Chronicle Benefits is evidence of what is possible with a wink to the past and a nod to the future; but nobody at Northcliffe is imagining it is an end solution. Huge opportunities exist, not only by embracing web technology, but equally with other mediums, notably digital television and mobile telephony. The world is now communicating and interacting with each other in ways unimaginable ten years ago. But, to imagine and then to act, that will be the key to our future successes.