A redesign is a waste of time and money if it doesn't deliver a return on investment. Download our report to learn how to make your redesign pay off, then see how four newspapers boosted readership and revenue by following our advice.
Brass Tacks Design
Charts posted at newsdesigner.com track the relationship between redesigns and circulation. These charts indicate that redesigns do no good.
The facts are irrefutable, but the truth is not apparent: A redesign may be the best tactic for shoring up margins while we struggle with circulation.
If we're talking about redesigning for results – and that's the only reason to redesign – then Bakersfield and Waterbury are smashing successes because both saw significant increases in revenue as a result of their redesigns:
• According to Sally Ellis, Bakersfield's classified ad manager, their revenue is up – over a thousand inches in the redesigned real estate section alone. CEO Richard Beene says the paper has never been so profitable.
• According to Russ Lennon, classified ad manager at the Republican-American in Waterbury, CT, revenue went up 7.1% after a redesign was launched – despite a double-digit downturn in auto contract display.
Circulation is merely one measure of a newspaper's health. The most important metric is revenue. Redesigns that boost revenue are achieving the most important goal. And it appears as if redesigns can boost revenue despite circulation slips. So savvy editors and publishers should pursue them as a short-term tactic to support margins while they struggle with the strategic issues of online migration and market fragmentation.
We've assumed that circulation declines will lead to advertising losses, but this does not appear to be the case – the newsdesigner charts prove that.
It's also important to note that all circulation – even paid circulation – is not created equal:
The newsdesigner charts did not distinguish between papers that have taken the high road by eliminating discounts and those that gussy up their numbers with heavy discounting. (Bakersfield does no discounting or telemarketing.) Here are the factors that impact the circulation numbers newspapers report and the global factors that affect circulation:
Content is the ultimate driver of readership Quality circulation vs. discounting
Newspapers spend millions on telemarketing and offer deep discounts to attract new subscribers. In Bakersfield, they do no discounting or telemarketing, so virtually 100% of their circulation is paid above 50% – quality circulation. Compare this to Lee Newspapers which seem to be doing better circulation-wise, but achieve these numbers through deep discounts according to Rich Edmonds at the Poynter Institute:
“Take the six largest papers of Lee Enterprises, the best circulation performer among public companies. Together they achieved a highly respectable daily loss of just 0.3%. However those same papers lost 25,000 circulation among those paying 50 percent or greater of the full price of the paper, a drop of 4.1%. At the same time, it added 13,500 in the 25 to 50 percent category, a 43.9% increase. That means the papers had significant losses among subscribers paying a higher percentage of the full price while adding readers who paid more steeply discounted rates.”
It's no wonder that the most positive chart posted at newsdesigner.com comes from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch – a Lee newspaper.
While Bakersfield's circulation is down, their Sunday retention rate is significantly higher than other newspapers – and newspapers make more than half their money on Sunday. Bakersfield is beating the national average without discounting like Lee.
Here's another reason why Bakersfield is likely to keep the circulation they have. According to Executive Editor Mike Jenner, his longtime readers couldn't imagine going back to their old design – even the ones who were uncomfortable initially. These results come from focus groups conducted six months after the redesign was launched.
Promotion, and the lack thereof
Design can be a very effective catalyst to boosting readership and revenue, but design alone cannot move the needle. We need enterprise-wide solutions. First, we should make the entire product more effective for advertisers. Then we need to get serious about promotion.
Promotion is a key driver of sales – anyone who sells anything knows that. Our newspapers are good, but they won't sell themselves.
Newspapers need to do more than run in-paper ads for a couple of weeks after a redesign is launched. While some newspapers – including our clients – have used outside media to promote their redesigns, none of them have pomoted their redesigns or their newspapers for very long.
Follow-through, and the lack thereof
Minneapolis is another paper that redesigned with a thoughtful, research-based approach to design and content without gaining circulation. Insiders report that the staff has failed to follow-through on a daily basis with the redesign initiatives. Front pages selected at random seem to bear this out.
You can't march down the field with a great game plan, then drop the ball at the goal line and expect results. No redesign stands a chance of boosting the bottom line without follow-through on a daily basis with the design and content.
Content is the ultimate driver of readership
Half a world from here, a redesign has boosted circulation at the 200,000-circ. Sunday Star Times, New Zealand's national newspaper. But it took more than cosmetic changes to move the needle. This redesign ushered in a new philosophy for front page story selection, headline writing, photo editing and design.
The complete story of this redesign will appear in the upcoming issue of Design, published by the Society for News Design. Details on the specific strategies used to boost single-copy sales (which account for 70% of total circulation) were presented at API's Sunday newspaper workshop last week and will appear in the upcoming issue of ideas, published by the International Newspaper Marketing Association.