Postmedia shares 4 reality checks discovered during its marketing strategy transformation

By Siobhan Vinish

News media marketers have managed well, or at least well enough, for decades with limited budgets and limited objectives.

For a very long time, the main objective was “own the community” with few resources to achieve it or methodology to measure it.

With a limited budget, marketers have often found creative ways to execute creative campaigns — mostly using enthusiastic young people eager to schlep boxes, set up booths, and attend various business and community events waving the company flag.

Marketing took some creativity, a little bit of money, physical work, and a few great pairs of comfortable shoes.

And yes, we owned the community.

Our media companies were connected: We knew every not-for-profit leader; every festival and tournament chair; every walk, run and race organiser in the city and further afield. If an organisation didn’t necessarily fit our target demographic (everyone), there was always the impetus to shut out the competition.

And let’s not forget the historic role the publisher has played in the community and the demands for support that have come with that.

We were the go-to call for print support and we always delivered.

We may not have had millions to market our brands, but we had people, enthusiasm, and newsprint — a lot of newsprint. Our logos were everywhere, our newspapers at every event, and all those promotional “partnership” ads ran free — many, many millions of lines every year, up for the asking with little to no measurable return.

With advertising walking in the door and circulation stable, the shotgun approach worked just fine.

What a time!

Sounds like ancient history now, but it was, in fact, only a few short years ago. Since then, we’ve realised those were the good old days and we needed to fast forward to 21st-century approaches to marketing in the digital age and embrace radical change.

Reality checks:

Each individual market is not so unique.

Declining traditional print revenue forced us to look at how we did everything. Transformation began with a review of the who/what/where/when/why/how of the silos of marketing teams across our network; each masthead had a team of individuals focused on their own brand and their own strategies.

Despite the fact that every market felt uniquely special in its products and audiences, research and review determined that, for marketing purposes, it just was not the case.

Our proprietary study of cross-platform readership behaviours and preferences showed different demographics behaved and preferred content streams in much the same way as their respective cohorts in every other market.

The top three content categories are the same three in every market — maybe not in the same order but still the top three, almost the top four. And who is reading on which platform is consistent across our country: 18-34 on mobile, 50+ on print, etc.

The transformation of Postmedia into a functional structure simplified and accelerated our ability to transition the marketing structure and culture beyond the local brands’ focus on their own perceived uniqueness, to one that was aligned with the overarching corporate and audience objectives.

What did we do?

  • Conducted a comprehensive review of all marketing activities, sponsorships, and partnerships.

  • Determined time spent on each task by each team member.

  • Evaluated promotional lineage, contra, and other expenses.

  • Determined alignment of partners to corporate strategic objectives.

  • Assessed skill sets required locally and nationally.

  • Reviewed opportunities for economies of scale.

  • Assessed workforce alignment to corporate strategic plan.

  • Assessed team skill sets against audience analytics and digital marketing needs.

The transformation inevitably led to cuts, however it also led to the rebuilding of how we did everything.

We maintained our community presence with a local marketing person at each brand and leveraged the expertise we had in different regions to build the leadership structure.

We then built a national structure to support them, situated across the company and not just at a head office, to allow for cross-training and support in other cities and other areas within a much smaller team.

What we are building is a national marketing strategy, aligned with corporate objectives and product strategies that includes support and direction for community marketing but doesn’t focus solely on it.

It takes advantage of available economies of scale. It means every market is now aligned to the corporate strategy and how our newsrooms are developing content for our products — our four platform strategy — and allows us to focus our marketing initiatives to support this. And it means paying heed to the nuances that do exist between our individual brands.

Know who we are, be what we do.

People know who we are, but they don’t necessarily know what we do.

We have the oldest and often the most recognisable brands in our markets, yet new potential audiences see us predominantly as their (grand)father’s newspaper. We need to be known as multi-platform news and information providers and our marketing efforts must reflect that.

Despite the fact that print remains as a foundation on which many of us are building for the future, our teams must understand and be aligned to the fact that our future lies far beyond that in the digital world.

How do we do that?

  • Our marketing, strategic partnerships, and tactical initiatives must reflect our digital brand evolution.

  • Our marketing strategies and tactics need to connect with our audiences on the devices we both inhabit.

  • We are storytellers and we need to tell our own story to our audiences and beyond, not just in the pages of our newspapers but leveraging off our connections to the communities to tell the right story.

  • Logo recognition is no longer enough. Our partnerships need to work harder and smarter.

  • Align with new partners and create new opportunities to connect us to the new audiences we want.

  • Question everything that we have done and ask if it is telling the right story of our brand.

Say no to partners that do not lift your brand.

Promotional lineage in a time of 80-page newspapers, multiple special sections, and huge weekend news packages was plentiful. It was a great tool for marketing to leverage with sponsors and partners.

However, we were preaching to the converted, with our logos appearing in advertisements in our own newspapers, talking to our own audiences who already subscribed or were, at minimum, well aware of the role that we play in supporting our communities.

But as we move brand perceptions beyond the print edition to the Web, smartphone, and tablet apps, how does this help us to entice new loyal readers and educate them about the fact that we produce relevant news and useful information for them on the devices they use?

Organisations large and small all make decisions as to how they will participate as corporate citizens. Some choose to focus on three or four key pillars, moving beyond the shotgun approach and trying to be everything to everyone.

Instead, they look to their specific audiences and the unique product attributes that will drive deliverable outcomes.

We needed to do the same.

Over the past two years, Postmedia has reduced its promotional lineage run by more than 75%, maintaining a similar level of overall partnership revenue and remaining connected to partners and programmes that align to our objectives.

We are looking for new opportunities and partners that align our brands with the audiences that we are diligently trying to attract.

Culturally this has been one of the hardest transitions.

How have we managed it?

  • Ensure all marketing team members have a clear understanding of our corporate strategic objectives — the what, the why, and the how.

  • Everyone needs to understand the audiences that we are driving to engage.

  • Manage the transition. Don’t go from hero to zero in your communities; transition your lineage commitment down over 18-24 months.

  • Look for new opportunities with old partners. Frequently they are trying to reach digital audiences as well. How can you help each other achieve this?

  • Explain the shift in strategy to our traditional partners and those we can no longer support in the same way. People understand we are a business too and need to ensure we are driving that business forward.

  • Being clear on what you do support makes it easier to say no to those things that you don’t.  

Doing less of the things that do not align frees up resources and creativity to do new things that will drive us forward as well as make meaningful contributions in selected areas.

Everyone needs support.

For many, marketing has been so focused on community giving and support that we have lost sight of the exciting marketing opportunities in front of us — research, analytics, product marketing, social media marketing, creative development, video, and unique brand and partnership executions.

How many of your individual local brands have the resources, talent, and time to think about and execute these things?

Building a national marketing structure and new culture to align with the corporate strategic objectives of driving revenue and growing audiences across platforms requires investment, but investment in the right resources, in the right places, focused on the right things.

This cultural transformation at Postmedia has led to the formation of new teams — brand and audience development, product, creative, research, analytics, social media, and local community engagement — all integrated with editorial as much as with advertising and while managing in a strict cost control environment.

Rather than a hierarchy of divisions with each driving their own direction, the collaboration of all will take us beyond merely owning the communities to owning the audiences.

Alana Engler, director/marketing and audience development, contributed to this blog.

About Siobhan Vinish

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