When mass media goes niche

If you think your recycling box has become weightier of late, it's probably not just old age. Over the past 18 months, both the national and regional dailies have bulked up as they continue to segment their offerings into stand-alone sections to better capture reader interest.

If you think your recycling box has become weightier of late, it’s probably not just old age. Over the past 18 months, both the national and regional dailies have bulked up as they continue to segment their offerings into stand-alone sections to better capture reader interest.

While newspapers have traditionally sat at the retail end of the marketing spectrum, as Canadians continue to splinter into finer and finer demos, papers are trying to capture new advertisers by attempting to be the print equivalent of a broadcaster and specialty channel in one. They still have mass-market appeal, of course, but new sections for shoppers, regional audiences, youth and other niche groups are tempering that appeal with targeted environments for specialty readers – and advertisers.

In the past year and a half, the dailies have seen a cyclone of activity. The National Post has built a new Homes section, ramped-up the innovation-oriented FP Edge to a weekly offering and launched a stand-alone Review & Books area. For its part, the Globe and Mail has added to its offering on many fronts, including initiating a comprehensive Real Estate area, a greatly expanded Careers offering and a new Toronto section for readers in the GTA.

The last year was especially fruitful over at the Toronto Star, with the addition of I.D. for young adults, a weekly Shopping section, the tween-targeted Brand New Planet and the advertising-based Auto Zone. In fact, the Star places an emphasis on special editorial projects, tackling about 75 a year. It even has a small sales staff dedicated to such efforts.

With a 50:50 gender split, newspaper advertising is not efficient for every brand, and the new section divisions appear to have done little to alter that. But for marketers peddling gender-neutral brands (technologies, financial services, etc.) and other targeted goods and services, the new segmentation appears to help pinpoint market fragments – and buyers seem to be responding.

‘We’ve had advertisers saying, ‘Look, I’m trying to reach our audience. I need the environment that allows me to talk to them properly,” says Globe VP, corporate strategy and marketing Ali Rahnema. ‘So, if I’m a fashion retailer in Toronto, there are a couple of environments that exist today in the Globe that may not necessarily have been that obvious in the past – i.e. my ad may have looked out of place in some places in the paper, whereas today it has the perfect home.’

‘We have advertisers who understand the environments we’re creating, and we’ve gotten some additional advertising funds – for the most part from existing advertisers,’ notes Ron Clark, SVP, Newspaper Division at CanWest Media Sales. ‘We’ve actually found another pool of funds that [some larger advertisers] have released to us.’

Clark points to IBM as an example of one client who is using the new sections to target customers in multiple ways: broad-based image advertising in the general sections and more transaction-oriented pitches in the specialty sections.

But while they are finding favour with some advertisers, don’t expect an infinite number of new headings trying to serve every interest. Clutter can lead papers away from their mass-market strengths.

‘When you get into sections like ‘Oil Changes in North America,’ ‘The Morticians Report’ or ‘How to Make Soufflés,” notes Bruce Claassen, CEO of Toronto-based Genesis Media, ‘you’re starting to get into areas where appeal starts getting really thin, and those as advertising vehicles are the ones that probably raise the most eyebrows…. If you get too specialized, you lose it. There are magazines and now television shows that can do that.’

The goal is to find niches with wide appeal – if that’s not a contradiction in terms – and find advertisers that are willing to pay for them. That’s where things get a little more complicated. The manner in which dollar values are assigned to quality rather than quantity of readership will inevitably cause conflict.

‘Are they making themselves more relevant to the reader?’ asks Doug Checkeris, Toronto-based president and CEO of The Media Company. ‘Or are they just looking for more ads units, places, and marketing opportunities?

‘Are they trying to take a sub-set of their current audience and get a premium for it?’ he questions. ‘Because it is only a fraction of their current audience. Would that not be like saying we have a one-hour television program, and for the next five minutes we’re doing something on health and beauty? The question then becomes what price do you pay for that subset of the audience?’

‘The challenge comes down to research,’ observes Toronto-based MPG/Maxxmedia VP and group media director Sheri Cooper. ‘There isn’t a lot of research available to talk about specific sections by paper. That’s where the papers have changed but the research hasn’t.’

ROI is key and clients want to know how readers are interacting with their newspapers – right down to the section. Research, notes Cooper, will give buyers ammunition and will help them overcome the natural reticence some clients feel towards advertising on newsprint.

But CanWest Media Sales’ Ron Clark questions how much buyers really want to see those numbers. ‘Guess what will happen to the rates?’ he suggests rhetorically. ‘I’m not so sure they want that. Right now they trade off the lowest price. If we go to section pricing there won’t be any discounts. There will be premium pricing. The base rate will be what they pay now.’

While NADbank already offers non-title-specific genre-based research, a glimpse at section-by-section research might actually be available later this year.

At the Toronto Ad Club Newspaper Day in late January, Globe publisher Phillip Crawley announced that his paper would soon be doing an accountability study. According to Rahnema, that study will focus more on the efficiencies of newspapers as a medium writ large, but it might offer clues as to the value of sectional divisions.

‘We’ve partnered with a number of clients to look at their advertising investments overall – including the Globe – and their direct sales results. So, [the study will] really start to look at some direct correlation.’

It will likely be a few quarters yet before data is in on the new sections and the dailies can see how they perform in good and bad economies and news cycles.

But look for newspapers to continue their attempt to expand the value of their readership and increase their footprint through packaging with other media. It might not be too far-fetched, for example, to see specific sections splinter out into individual Web sites that could offer print advertisers the opportunity for sound and motion.

Observes CanWest’s Clark, ‘Newspapers, for the most part, trade in one subset of the print budget, which is newspaper budgets. Being on your own and trying to get out of that sector or segment is really difficult, if not impossible. I think that if you can bring something unusual [you'll get noticed].

‘Everyone is looking for different opportunities. If you can actually make them happen, then there’s money out there.’