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I’ve been obsessed for years with understanding how we consume types of media – what’s going on in people’s lives, environment, and heads when they read, watch or listen to the things we write, produce, record, create, publish and whatnot. How do our eyes move when we the page of a book, newspaper or magazine?
That used to be pretty easy. We had some nice rules of thumb that, if overly simplistic, still reflected the real world to a degree.
Radio was something we listened to in the car. Now, we have TV stations that carry video of guys sitting in front of microphones, doing radio call-in shows. TV was something we watched in our living rooms. Today, we time shift and binge watch – to the extent that Netflix has begun producing programming an entire series at a time, as it did with its House of Cards series.
Our ways of measuring how people use media are lagging horribly behind the real world. On a given day, I’m likely to listen to the audio podcast of a program I missed the night before while getting ready for work, then end it by watching an episode or two of a series I missed when it was running 20 years ago. In between, while standing in line or stuck on hold, I’ll check the RSS feeds of 15 or 20 different media sites.
What I almost never do is use any medium the way it was originally intended. I rarely read an article by visiting the publisher’s web site. I consume radio content mainly by reading. Except for sporting events, I rarely watch a TV show when it originally airs. I probably consume more audio books than printed, and I generally get my music during the day by navigating screens on a television.
And speaking of television, how does the tablet in our lap (which we now call the “second screen”) affect what we’re actually absorbing on TV? The old methods of establishing ratings by hanging a box on on the back of a set to record what channel was on at which times don’t cut it any more, though Nielsen is trying to adapt. Sometimes the “second screen” seems to focus our attention better, especially with shows that promote Twitter conversations (the “B” movie Sharknado and the Breaking Bad series are great examples, as are a lot of football games). But when we’re watching a sitcom and browsing the news on our smartphones at the same time, we’re missing something.
All of this creates a measurement nightmare.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this during the last few days, as we’ve been getting new “circulation” numbers from the Alliance for Audited Media. USA Today raised a few eyebrows by bragging about its 1,690-percent increase in digital editions, when the change really just reflected the newspaper’s decision to start including readers gained through mobile apps.
Games get played, as media pick and choose what to include in their “metrics” and how to spin it.
This presents massive challenges to anybody who’s trying to make advertising decisions. Top-line circulation numbers mean next to nothing, and the AAM cautions against comparing different outlets.
I usually try to offer sound advice at www.newmediarules.net, but in this case, the flux is so great – and the universe of variables so large – that the best I can do is offer up a general caution to know what you’re buying! Get the best numbers you can for the edition you can buy, while resigning yourself to the fact that the salesperson trying to take your money can’t answer most of your questions.
Here are some good ones to ask, just the same:
- What’s the circulation? How much of that is paid, and how much of it is complimentary?
- If you’re including apps in your readership numbers, will my ad actually appear in an app? How often? In what context?
- Are you giving me numbers for combined circulation, or for the edition I’m buying?
- Will my online ad appear behind a paywall, or can anybody see it? (Note that readers/viewers/listeners who pay usually make up a higher quality audience.)
- How much of your television audience watches live, as opposed to recording and watching later?
- Does your TV or radio show have a podcast? How many subscribers? Do you redact the commercials or include them in the podcast?
- How many of the “hits” on your web site are unique users? How many are real people versus crawlers and web bots?
I could go on for pages, but you get the idea. I expect most of these questions will just get you a blank look, because the media themselves are hopelessly lost and behind.
For now, there’s no rulebook – just a toolbox. And the main tool is a healthy dose of skepticism and a willingness to ask hard questions.
This ran in Auctioneer Magazine, September 2013. Used by permission.
By Carl Carter, APR
Good news coverage about your upcoming auction can give your business a welcome boost. But it usually doesn’t just happen by itself. Here are a few things you can do to encourage media coverage without having to hire a public relations pro.
Survey the local media landscape. It may seem laughably basic, but you can only “pitch” your auction story to media who are around to hear you. If you’re promoting an auction in a rural community with no daily newspaper and no TV stations, you obviously will need to either extend your reach or just gear your expectations to that reality. In smaller rural communities, you may be able to score a few minutes on a talk radio station by calling the show’s producer. Don’t overlook local news blogs and newsletters. I’ve seen a local garden club newsletter stoke interest in an auction.
Determine what your purpose is. Do you want to promote an upcoming sale? Or is it your aim to attract future business for your auction company? This will drive both your timing and your message (not to mention whether any costs come out of the auction budget or out of your own pocket). If you’re hoping to promote the auction, your outreach to media needs to begin at least three or four weeks before the sale date. Once you’re within about a week of the sale date, it’s hard to get any helpful pre-auction coverage without rushing the media outlet – a very bad practice.
Identify the story. And here’s the tricky part: It’s probably not your auction. Editors are up to their eyeballs in announcements of upcoming auctions. But within the details, there may be an item that’ll get people talking. It could be as small as the button off a Civil War uniform. A good way to see the hidden story is to think about what you go home and tell your spouse about. I was once getting a ho-hum media response on a famous basketball player’s house until I mentioned that his bed was selling with the house, because at seven feet, he required such a huge bed it wouldn’t fit through the door. Editors love surprises and unexpected twists.
Respect the “reach.” Before 1999 or so, local newspapers (and to a lesser extent, TV stations) would often cover news within a radius of 100 miles or more. Today, their coverage area is far more local. A mid-size daily (let’s say one with a circulation of 50,000) won’t usually venture far past its own county line. If an editor says your auction is outside the coverage area, accept it without whining and arguing. Otherwise, you may annoy him to the point where you’re not welcome next time you have a story to pitch.
Respect media staffing cuts, too. Since 2006, some 15,000 newsroom jobs have vanished as newspapers have closed or cut staff. TV stations, likewise, have cut back severely. Even if you have a great story, you’re probably not going to get a reporter and photographer to come out for the afternoon. You may have to settle for a quick phone interview, and maybe a request for you to provide a photo. If the TV station sends someone out, it’ll probably be a “one-person crew” which consists of the camera operator and no reporter. Even the Chicago Sun-Times recently fired its entire photo staff and started teaching reporters how to take better pictures with their iPhones. (Seriously, I can’t make this stuff up!) The editor can’t send people he doesn’t have, and you want to nurture a good long-term relationship.
Target the reporter, not the outlet. To borrow a phrase from Ronald Reagan, newspapers don’t write stories. People do. Find the web site for the newspaper or TV station you’re hoping to interest in your story, and look for stories compatible with yours. Check the byline. You’ll probably even find the reporter’s email address right alongside the story. Remember that most “pitches” and press releases go to editors, so if you can find the right reporter, you may have a better chance of getting his or her attention.
Decide on a delivery method. You don’t always need a press release. A well targeted e-mail may do the job. You don’t need to blanket the entire news staff with emails. Should you call? Maybe, but only to make sure the reporter still works there and ask for permission to email her a story idea. Don’t try to pitch it on the phone. Once you’ve sent the email, don’t call again. If she likes the idea, you’ll hear from her. Remember that reporters hate phone calls more than measles. If you do call, try to keep it to less than 30 seconds unless the reporter starts asking questions.
In short, keep it simple. Find a good story and tell it to someone who can pass it along. Give yourself a chance to get lucky.
Warren Buffett’s been known to make a smart bet. So why would he sink $344 million last year into the “dying” business of newspaper publishing?
Because, in his own words, “Newspapers continue to reign supreme … in the delivery of local news. If you want to know what’s going on in your town – whether the news is about the mayor or taxes or high school football – there is no substitute for a local newspaper that is doing its job.”
The key word here is local. That’s where most live auctions – and indeed many online auctions – happen. It’s easy to forget that for the most part, these are local affairs, with local buyers. There’s no substitute for cost-effective media to reach those locals. As long as the paper draws a major audience, it’ll be a useful tool (at the right price) for promoting your auctions.
Independent local news blogs (mostly run by reporters displaced by newspaper layoffs) really haven’t gained the traction they need to give you the numbers you need for promoting your auctions. AOL (remember them?) had the brainstorm of hiring locals around the country to write local news for “hyperlocal” sites under the name of Patch. But those never caught on, and AOL is now shuttering the project.
Dull as they may be, newspapers are still a powerful tool. They’ve lost a lot of readers, but they still have a lot. And it surprised everybody to see that – at least for now – they’re no longer losing readers. During the past year, they basically held their own in terms of both readers and revenue.
Across the board, newspapers – in print – are still reaching up to 30% or more of the people in a local market. Outside of a good sign or a well placed billboard in a small town, I don’t know anywhere else you can reach that big a share of your prospective local bidders.
A few caveats:
- Your mileage may vary. You’ll want to check the circulation and vitality of the local newspaper where you’re considering ads. Small and midsize dailies (the kind of newspapers Buffett’s been buying) seem to be reaching more locals in print. It’s notable that when Buffett bought most of the newspapers in the Media General group for $142 million, he passed on the Tampa Tribune because his focus was on the smaller ones. Bigger isn’t necessarily better as an investment, and it may not be as an ad vehicle.
- A few newspapers – notably those owned by Advance Publishing – have begun to cut their print days to three a week. I’d stay clear of these, because most people are creatures of habit. We don’t like going back and forth, reading online some days and getting a paper in the driveway on others. My own local newspaper, The Birmingham News, has been part of Advance’s unfortunate trend, along with the New Orleans Times-Picayune and a number of others. It’s worth noting that once the newspaper quit coming every day, I dropped the print version every day but Sunday and began to just read the news on my tablet.
- My bullishness on small and midsize dailies doesn’t carry over to advertising on their websites, for a number of reasons. At any rate, more than half the newspaper websites have begun to charge for online content, which makes them more attractive to investors like Buffett but it dramatically reduces the number of people who see your ad. I’m inclined for the moment to advise allocating online dollars to the online portals and contextual ads such as Google.
My firm – NewMediaRules – has provided communications services to auction companies since 1996. While best known for public relations, we also provide media consulting, strategic communications planning, research, copywriting and design. If you’d like to know more, visit the web site at www.newmediarules.com or give me a call at 205-823-3273.
Carl Carter, APR