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Loyalty Above the Fold:Newspapers Seek Readership in Rewards

November 10, 2013

Newspaper companies have been fighting declining circulation for years as readers move online to get their news. Even before blogs, Twitter feeds and other online news sources further eroded their subscriber bases, newspapers had used contests, short-term discounts, subscription gifts and a selection of other promotions to attract and retain readers.

But such programs had only limited success. Some newspapers, such as the Chicago Tribune and the Virginia-Pilot, have pulled the plugs on such promotions, and others continue to have limited success with theirs. An increasing number of readers have transitioned from print to digital news. Circulation declined from 54.6 million in 2004 to 44.4 million in 2011 (most recent year available), according to the Newspaper Association of America. The total number of monthly unique visitors, meanwhile, rose from 106.7 million in November 2011 to 113.7 million in November 2012. In an effort to ensure readers – and advertisers – stay, some newspapers, including The Baltimore Sun and others, are turning to newer loyalty and customer retention programs in a further effort to stem the trend of declining readership.

One of the most recent examples is a reader rewards program and interactive website by 21st Century Media’s Michigan Group, which includes The News-Herald Newspapers. The program, called Michigan Rewards, was designed by Triton Loyalty, which also created reward programs for The Sacramento Bee as well as other newspapers and digital media groups.

“They’ve had success with other newspaper groups and a lot of other media partners,” said Michigan Group circulation director Mike Muszall. “They did everything from A to Z. There are other programs that let you design everything yourself. We didn’t want to do that.”

Readers Engage Through Games, Trivia

Through the program, 21st Century Media’s Michigan Group subscribers can partake in trivia and other games, get money-saving coupons and earn points that could lead to prizes including vacation getaways. Points can be accumulated through contest participation, submission of photos and videos and a number of other activities.

There also is a “refer a friend” feature and social media element. The contests are designed to launch simultaneously on the rewards site and on the group’s Facebook site and Twitter feed, both of which include the same permission protocols as the rewards site, according to Michelle Rogers, the group’s director of community engagement and editorial training.

The idea behind the contests and other program elements is to encourage engagement among subscribers, particularly print subscribers, according to Muszall. The group counts about 85,000 subscribers among its “daily” (not all are seven days a week) newspapers, most of which are in suburban Detroit. Through better engagement, the group hopes to hold on to or add subscribers as more convert from print to digital readership. Some are likely to add digital subscriptions in addition to print subscriptions, as has occurred at The Baltimore Sun and some other newspapers.

The 21st Century Media Group is using the data collected from the loyalty program to help scrub the newspaper’s subscriber database of incorrect information. Other uses for the data have yet to be determined, though Muszall expects it will help with different subscriber campaigns and to refine different loyalty program promotions.

Sun Also Rises, Eight-Fold 

The Baltimore Sun’s Insider program offers subscribers a list of exclusive reward opportunities, including movie screenings, gift cards, catered meals, a chance to participate in contests to win meals, theater tickets and “game day” experiences watching NFL football. Most of the rewards are geared to recognize subscribers as VIPs, said Sam Segal, the newspaper’s subscriber retainer coordinator and marketing assistant.

“The program promotes a strong sense of community,” Segal said. “We’re adding new members every month.”

The Baltimore Sun promotes the program to non-members not only through ads in the paper, but also by running small stories about loyalty contest winners in appropriate sections of the newspaper. For example, a story about someone winning a movie reward would appear in the entertainment section. A story about someone winning a catered meal would appear in the food section.

Segal credits the program, as well as a more aggressive promotional posture by the newspaper, to an eight-fold increase in digital subscribers over the last nine months, bringing the total to 50,000. Though print subscriptions have fallen off in that time, they have declined less than the digital subscription increase, a net win for The Baltimore Sun. Segal added that the digital subscribers tend to be younger and more affluent than print-only subscribers. (Digital subscribers pay a one-time fee of 99 cents for unlimited access.)

The 21st Century Media Michigan Group’s program is a beta test for the other 21st Century media groups in Connecticut, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania, according to Muszall.

If the programs are improving readership, other newspaper groups might also embrace similar concepts in customer retention/loyalty programs.

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