Common sense dictates that newspaper circulation that costs more to deliver than it pays in return is useless.

But most newspapers abandoned their common sense when it came to creating their online versions and courting Internet readers. Like frightened birds pecking for crumbs, we were just grateful to see our online community growing in any direction.

Because most of us had a background in print media, we weren’t sure how to generate those online relationships. So we became totally dependent on search engine optimization (SEO) and long tail and other such tools to handle it. 

But have we done the right thing to over-emphasise the importance of these tools?

I think we haven’t.

A couple of weeks ago, I got the first market research results for newspaper cross-media reach in Germany. They blew me away because they were very different from all polling we had done ourselves about our online users. According to our new analytics research, fewer than 15% of our newspaper readers used our Web site on a regular basis, (compared to the 50% shown from our polling).

Furthermore, the analytics showed most of our users came from outside our market. 

I couldn’t believe this.

So we took a closer look at those Google and Yahoo! analytic tools and discovered one remarkable result: Those tools told us that we had more users in a city within our market than in the whole market. 

In other words, the original numbers we received from the analytics programmes were wrong. And wrong numbers are useless. 

We checked with several newspapers in comparable markets. They were finding the numbers they depended upon to be useless, as well.

What lesson can we learn from this? It’s pretty simple. We have to take back the responsibility for our online circulation, and focus on our regional/local customers beyond SEO and SEM

We have to involve our customers, move them, and make them enthusiastic about our stories and our products. Without this relationship, we are not relevant to our audience. And without relevancy, we are not going to attract any advertisers. 

When we cover national or international news, Google’s search engines bring us readers. But most of them aren’t worth a dime. They are not loyal to our site, and 10 to one, they will never come back again.

We have to accept that Google exists to look after its own business, not ours. It scans our sites for its purposes, not ours. We still need Google’s search engines, but we cannot over-fixate on them. We still have to build our own reader loyalties, the same way as before.

We do this by:

  • Moving, engaging, and touching those readers within our own markets.

  • Creating unique, imaginative, and refreshing journalism.

  • Sending our newsroom staff onto our streets, having first trained them to work more efficiently, especially on video, and to write relevant stories about the people in our own markets. I guarantee that putting videos of five local people onto your Web site is going to build a more solid readership base than depending on all kinds of SEO tricks.

The process of building relationships with online readers goes even further than offering good journalism, too. We need to make our customers happy, to make them proud of their regions, which are our markets.

Start a loyalty programme and get your customers’ e-mail addresses. This is the foundation for a digital customer relationship. If they trust you and provide this information, give them bonuses like huge classified discounts (you are losing this market, anyway), exclusive archive access, and relay breaking news.

Get them involved with new ideas. Start contests, which you can sell to your advertisers, such as “Me and my … grandchild, pet, classic car, garden, etc.,” in print and online. 

At our company, a main challenge in 2012 is to incorporate such ideas and products to make more local advertising money. It is not a technical challenge; it is a content thing. 

I’ll keep you informed and would love to see your opinions and ideas. Have a good and successful 2012.