Niche papers targeted but unreliable

IF there are enough people out there to call themselves a community, they have a newspaper. Gays, Italians, Jews, over-50s, under-30s, technogeeks, whatever - there's a paper for all of us....

IF there are enough people out there to call themselves a community, they have a newspaper. Gays, Italians, Jews, over-50s, under-30s, technogeeks, whatever – there’s a paper for all of us.

Patricia McGregor, VP and general manager of Genesis Media, says she can’t think of an audience category that doesn’t have a newspaper or newsletter to serve its interests. The problem is, what kind of paper is it? Just because there’s a print vehicle available doesn’t mean that advertisers are eager to use it. ‘There’s a bit of concern about legitimacy and accountability,’ she says.

Although there are exceptions, the thousands of Canadian publications targeting niche audiences are, by their very nature, grassroots – and that can present a number of hurdles for advertisers. Inconsistent publishing schedules, unreliable editorial quality and a complete lack of auditing can make for some risky buys.

While not all niche products fall into these traps – McGregor says certain ethnic newspapers such as The Canadian Jewish News and publications like the gay and lesbian biweekly Xtra! stand out for the high regard they have in the communities they serve – some still have a serious problem with legitimacy in the eyes of advertisers and buyers.

Not all niche papers are created equal, says McGregor. Certain target groups might already be effectively reached through a more mainstream approach. Italian and Jewish Canadians, for example, have very strong newspapers specifically addressing their markets but members of those niches are just as likely to read the Toronto Star or one of the national dailies.

Like many marketing decisions, the debate over whether to use niche media often comes down to budget considerations, according to McGregor. Factors such as whether the core target is being reached through other means, the number of secondary audiences and what publications could do the job are all weighed against the costs of doing so.

In a perfect world, there would be some sort of standard to which all the niche publications could adhere, she says.

‘If I’m going to spend dime one, someone has to prove to me that it isn’t being run off in your basement and being delivered to your mother,’ says Sunni Boot, president of Toronto’s Optimedia Canada, the media arm of Publicis.

Boot is a big fan of niche newspapers but complains that not enough are being audited and, because of that, they’re being left out of media plans. She says that the spotty auditing is particularly dispiriting because the weakening economy makes it even more likely that advertisers will segment their budget appropriately. Given the choice between taking a more mass tack or zeroing in on a particular audience, the budget-conscious advertiser will take the segmented approach every time. ‘The efficiency is there,’ she says. ‘It makes it a better buy.’

For example, a publication like FiftyPlus (published by the Canadian Association of Retired Persons or CARP, which now calls itself the Canadian Association for the Fifty-Plus) focuses only on editorial of interest to this large and attractive segment of the population, says Boot. ‘There isn’t any waste – it’s 100% written and designed for their target group.’ Because of this, ads targeting that same group are all that much more effective.

While Boot says she’s only interested, in principle, in buying into newspapers that are properly audited, she won’t deny that there can be value to looking outside the audited box. ‘I’d like to say those are hard-and-fast rules but I’d be the first to break them if I thought it was the right thing to do,’ she says. For example, if an advertiser wishes to carpet a particular geographic area through various guerilla marketing tactics, then using local papers – audited or not – makes sense. ‘But if a publication wants to have a consistent presence in an advertiser’s schedule, I think it would behoove them to have the right auditing and verification process in place,’ she adds.

Not everyone feels that the lack of accountability or auditing standards is a problem. ‘Media accountability is a myth,’ says Mark Sherman, president of Toronto’s Media Experts. Industry-standard auditing is overrated because numbers and survey findings are a primitive measurement of readership, and not at all necessary when considering buying into a niche publication, he says. Besides, many of these smaller publications might not have the resources to provide their own research or participate in relatively expensive measurement vehicles.

‘A good media person will dig deeper,’ he says. ‘If you want to understand who reads the publication, you’ve got to talk to people in that niche.’ For his part, Sherman admits he’s one of those people who can’t stop interviewing complete strangers about their reading habits. If he’s sitting next to you on a plane, he’ll want to know why and how often you read the paper in front of you.

That’s the approach Darryl Nicholson, media director at Toronto’s Ammirati Puris, takes when considering a niche publication. He points out that Ammirati doesn’t do a lot of newspaper advertising but when it does, the agency doesn’t commit only to audited papers. If an advertiser is considering targeting a particular ethnic group, research is critical, he says, and that’s not a numbers-only game. ‘This is when it makes sense to visit a community and see what’s on the stands.’

Nicholson says that, while there are some really good fits between brands and niche newspaper advertising, it’s not as clear-cut as it is with, for example, specialty TV. Take client Labatt. It deduced from neighbourhood bar sales reports that its Carlsberg brand is popular in Toronto’s Little Italy. Many of those patrons read Italian papers such as Corriere Canadese (which can often be found in the very same bars). This is a clear-cut match that Labatt used to its advantage last summer when it ran an integrated campaign targeting Toronto’s Italian community.

The campaign cross-platformed across newspaper, TV and outdoor and drove traffic to the niche publication with a contest in which entrants had the chance to win a trip to the Euro 2000 soccer games. ‘We circled the entire community,’ says Nicholson, adding that the contest received a ‘massive’ number of entries and additional exposure when the winner was drawn on CFMT.

Once an advertiser is certain that a target group is critical to its media plan, however, there’s still more work to be done than simply placing an ad in the appropriate paper, says Fred Forster, managing director at Toronto’s Harrison, Young, Pesonen & Newell. Talking the talk is one thing, but actually carrying the marketing endeavour through to all levels is something very few advertisers seem to do, he says. ‘It tends to be overlooked because it’s a much bigger marketing and merchandising issue than simply an advertising issue alone.’

This is particularly true with the popular move to target the Chinese community, he says. ‘If I’m going to advertise to the Chinese community, I better make sure I have Chinese people in my stores.’ Banks and telecommunications companies seem to have a handle on this – but other advertisers are not so adept. The trick is to avoid falling into the belief that regular ads in Sing Tao or Ming Pao constitute a multi-cultural marketing effort.

‘They need to deliver at the other end or it’s a wasted message.’