by Amy Chown 1 July 2012
"Reader value strategy" — which centers on a focus of core readers and move toward the journalism readers want — leads to AJC's first circulation gains in seven years.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution used reader research and a collaborative content, marketing, and circulation strategy to turn around an alarming slide in circulation and address negative brand perceptions and faltering reader loyalty.
Our reader value strategy has turned a continuous cycle of research and reader-driven improvements into our first circulation gains in seven years.
The results of this holistic strategy are impressive:
Like most newspapers suffering in the historic recession, the AJC eliminated and combined sections throughout 2009. By late 2009, we were losing core readers at an alarming rate. Longtime subscribers, suffering a recession themselves, were no longer convinced of the value of the newspaper. As a result, our brand and circulation numbers were moving in the wrong direction.
A turnaround was essential. The newspaper’s leadership team determined it had to be reader-driven and holistic in order to work.
Tapping the expertise of Cox Media Group Research and Frank N. Magid Associates, which run successful research for radio and TV for our company, we launched a series of reader studies to identify key opportunities for improvement. One important decision was to focus strongly on the needs of core readers — seven-day subscribers and others whose profile suggested they should be loyal newspaper consumers.
Research identified the areas that drove reader satisfaction: watchdog journalism, digging deep to tell the “real” story, and providing valuable information readers can’t get elsewhere. This reader insight drove newsroom decisions and also formed the foundation of a focused marketing strategy.
Regular topic and headline tracking studies indicated the stories readers wanted to see on their front page: strong, hard news about meaningful topics like the economy and jobs, the impact of Washington policies, the use of tax dollars, and government corruption.
Readers confirmed what we had hoped: It was high-quality journalism that drove perceptions of value, not gimmicks or content we might embrace if we were chasing occasional or non-readers. Core readers demanded exactly the kind of journalism we were equipped to provide — journalism like our nationally recognised, groundbreaking work into a widespread cheating scandal in the Atlanta public schools, our in-depth analysis of the Atlanta region’s ability to compete with others for jobs, and our investigations into property purchases and contracting in Gwinnett and DeKalb counties that resulted in indictments of public officials.
The ability to do regular research allowed us to enter a continuous cycle of research, product improvement, and tracking. Using reader feedback to guide every step, we added more national and international news, a two-page spread of community news from core metro Atlanta counties, expanded watchdog and investigative news, and a more balanced political lineup on the editorial pages, as well as more depth on local issues of importance. The tracking research allowed us to monitor whether or not readers embraced the improvements.
We also knew we needed to tell our story to bring attention to the positive changes and to be very focused in our brand marketing strategy. Gone were the days where we were promoting everything to everyone.
A series of ads appearing every day in high profile fixed positions was laser-focused on the “digging deep” theme. Brand promotion became our No. 1 use of marketing space in the newspaper, with consistent and compelling messages seven days a week. Within the news content itself, we also began telling readers more about what we do for them, promoting unique content and investigative efforts with labels and explainers to call attention to the strength of the work. We leveraged Cox-owned radio stations in the market, airing spots that reinforced the newspaper’s in-depth and investigative journalism.
By mid-2011, we were seeing excellent progress in reader perceptions of the newspaper and its value. We knew the time was right to ramp up marketing and sales.
To develop a significant external marketing campaign, we again started with research, testing potential slogans, scripts, and creative approaches to ensure our message would resonate. Readers evaluated the believability of key messages. They embraced the new editor’s credibility and authenticity as our spokesperson.
In September, during a period of strategically timed special content, we saturated the market with television and radio spots. It was the beginning of a 17-week media campaign that was coupled with aggressive sales by circulation. Subscriber sales and retention materials were redesigned to support the same message of deep reporting, and retention efforts were revamped to increase communication with new subscribers.
The newsroom also got in on telling our story. The editor began a tour of civic groups and launched a Facebook page so readers could connect directly with him. The newsroom also communicated directly with subscribers through occasional email updates on noteworthy content. We're also hosting community forums on important local issues.
This feedback from a reader typifies what we have been hearing: “I've been telling my friends that the paper is a lot better. I find the articles more informative than before and that the stories are more hard hitting."
We have kept doing what we are doing, with another major news, marketing, and circulation push earlier this year — and another one planned for later in the year. Because this is not a short-term effort. It is a major realignment of the way we do business and of our priorities and budgets to support continuous improvement. We feel confident we will see more success — because it is our readers who are driving our strategy.