Advances in information technology have served to benefit as well as challenge newsmedia companies as they fight to retain their core audiences and expand their product and service offerings across print and digital channels.

Today, sophisticated analysis and reporting tools help newsmedia companies target their content and offers where they will deliver the greatest value. Cold and calculating, these algorithms provide marketers with recommendations for maximising reader value and customer return on investment.

While these tools provide much needed support for time — and budget-strapped marketers — their use brings an unwanted side effect: It removes some of the human equation from the marketing process. As analysis and reporting tools improve, are marketers finding themselves further removed from truly understanding their customers and prospects?

Product-focused marketing — aided by segmentation and targeting tools — sometimes can have the unintended result of reducing insights into customer needs, values, and behaviour to an afterthought — or no thought at all. When was the last time you talked with a customer or a prospective customer? Does your marketing process start with a price and end with a target audience or list spit out the back end of an analytical tool? Is everyone a prospect for your products and services or have you cut the diamond so many times, you now have 145 segments and a pile of dust?

Any marketing process should start — and end — with how customers and prospective customers can benefit from the product or service being sold. A review of recent industry contest entries at regional circulation conferences reveals a predominance of product and price offers. Throughout each campaign, it became clear those marketing print and digital offerings started with the assumption that their target audience was completely aware of what their product or service had to offer. There was little reference to what the print or digital product had to offer readers and, if product features were included, there was little or no effort to position those features in terms of how they could benefit the customer. 

Yes, an e-edition is a digital replica of the printed product (feature), but it is also important to know it provides 24/7 access from any device (PC, iPad, smartphone, etc.) connected to the Internet (benefit).

There were also a number of pricing strategies that — with a full understanding of the product/service benefits — are troubling. For example, having the ability to “add the e-edition” to a print subscription for only pennies per week serves to reduce the perceived value of the e-edition in relation to the print product. When you consider the benefits provided by the e-edition versus the print product — 24/7 Internet access, content updates throughout the day, search and share capabilities, etc. — it is hard to understand how or why the e-edition can be had for just a few more pennies per week. This is just one example of what happens when marketing — in this case, pricing — is product, rather than customer-driven.

Perhaps it comes down to business perspective. Are we in the business of selling home delivery print subscriptions and also offering, to those who want it, an e-edition? Or are we in the business of delivering news and information, regardless of the communications channel? But perhaps, most important, do we understand how the benefits associated with our products and services — and their perceived value to customers — changes depending on which communications channels is used?

As budgets have been reduced and news media are asked to do more with less, many of the marketing tactics that provided interaction with customers and prospective customers in the past have dismissed as too expensive or time consuming. Event sponsorships, NIE programmes, and activities that provided the opportunity to interact with customers and our communities have become the exception rather than the rule.

As a result, we are susceptible to adopting a bunker-marketing mentality. Customers don’t have faces, but are described as being members of niche audience segments with varying potential value. Personalised marketing has been replaced with “detached marketing” which relies on “system” recommendations, rather than personal insights to craft benefit-driven marketing, sales, and service messages.

Audience and revenue growth depend on our ability to not only satisfy, but delight our customers — and sometimes that means we have to entice prospective customers to try us for the first time. But more often than not, regardless of the audience segment, our job as marketers is to describe our products and services in terms of how they will benefit customers. Assuming for a moment that prospects already understand our product and service offering — and how our offerings benefit their lives — is a recipe for long-term failure.

It’s time to close our spreadsheets and log out of our analytical tools, to step back and take a hard look at customers and prospective customers, and better understand their needs. This can start with a phone call, a trip to the nearest newsstand (finding one might in itself be a learning experience), or spending an afternoon at your area mall kiosk, talking with customers and prospective customers. More can be gained from an afternoon of interacting with customers and prospects than spending the same amount of time with algorithms.