Marketing Columbus Dispatch’s “brand essence” delivers data-driven, measurable audience results


Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”  

After taking an objective look at its operation, a 142-year-old media company in North America opted for sanity by deciding not only to change its product, but how it serves the needs of consumers in its market.

The company’s data-driven changes have delivered measurable results, including increases in voluntary starts, younger subscribers, and fewer subscription stops.

As I visit news media companies and attend industry conferences, I’m always asked, “Who is doing ‘it’ the best?” Whether “it” is branding, circulation sales, or e-marketing, news media companies have an unquenchable thirst for successful ideas, products, and practices. This is what INMA is all about – sharing ideas and inspiring change.

When I received an e-mail about the Columbus Dispatch’s 38% increase in year-over-year voluntary starts, 46% increase in younger (younger than 50) subscribers, 7% more total starts, and 16% fewer stops, I decided to reach out.

I asked Phil Pikelny, the company’s vice president and chief marketing officer, what was driving these positive results. Phil was kind enough to share the story of how the company is transforming itself to better meet the needs of consumers and advertisers in its local market.

“It’s numbers-driven,” Pikelny said. “We started back in 2009, working with Mather Economics and pricing our newspaper like airlines price seats on a plane.”

Between 2009 and 2010, the company doubled the price of its The Columbus Dispatch. The price increase resulted in some losses in circulation – “mid-single digits,” according to Pikelny.

But the important question was, “Who are these individuals who value what we do and are willing to pay twice as much for the newspaper?”

Additional research identified distinct audience segments and revealed the segment of “traditional newspaper readers” was not growing. It also revealed that another segment, aptly named “stubborn seniors,” had been priced out of the newspaper.

Research further showed a segment of “media sophisticates” who want to know what is going on in their community and are willing to pay for content.

Now let’s fast-forward to January 2013, and the re-design of The Columbus Dispatch. The newspaper converted from a broadsheet to a compact (3V) format to deliver a product that better serves the needs of consumers and advertisers, while providing the company with increased printing capacity to take on other products.

The original broadsheets were developed after the British enacted a tax on newspapers in 1712, based on their page count. The size and dimensions of the broadsheet had little, if anything, to do with consumer experience.

Pikelny explained that research revealed the compact or 3V format was the “perfect newspaper size, smaller, more compact – tablet like – with ad recall statistically higher,” compared to the broadsheet format. Qualitative research revealed that the compact format also was more appealing to younger readers.

Pikelny explained the company had gone from being “data-driven on the press side to being data-driven on the marketing side.” The company began working with Phinney & Bischoff, a branding firm based in Seattle, Washington, with the objective of “increasing the value of the brand with consumers, appealing to a younger audience, and re-introducing the brand as up-to-date and relevant.”

The result was not only a new branding campaign, but other changes in the way the company does business.

For example, The Columbus Dispatch editorial staff made the decision to treat the month of March much like TV stations treat their rating sweeps period, with a story published every day that you might normally find in the Sunday edition.

Research revealed which stories in March were the “most read” and/or remembered by readers. The knowledge gained from that research will continue to yield “stories with an eye to making your life better.”

The changes and positive results achieved by the company are the direct result of the company’s “brand essence,” according to Pikelny.

“Our company’s brand essence is to be media that inspires,” he said. “From the way news is vetted and written, with more depth. To every time you turn the page you get not only the news you want, but also the news you might not have thought you wanted, but find of interest.’  

The company has established “guideposts” that continue to drive who it is and what it does. Its journey, which started back in 2009, is yielding positive results for the company and positive experiences for both readers and advertisers.  

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