Newspaper and magazine advertising versus online search

June 2013

I generally resist making direct comparisons between two specific marketing tools, and this because any decent marketing strategy and plan should seek to align the most appropriate tool(s) to a specific objective. In other words, it can be an apples and pears comparison because two different marketing tools can be there to deliver two different aims of the strategy.

However, for two clients I’ve worked with in the last 2 years or so, I have made the direct comparison between newspaper and magazine advertising versus online search, and this in terms of their respective appropriateness, effectiveness and return on investment. And I’ve done this because, before working with them, both clients were spending a good chunk of their marketing budget on newspaper and magazine advertising and very little on online search, and this despite the fact that research showed that online search was the main channel consumers used to find suppliers in their respective markets.

A brief case study on each…

1.  The kitchen brand

With showrooms across Scotland and their own manufacturing plant in the north of the country, this is a strong brand but one which was spending its marketing budget without a clear strategy in place. Specifically, it was pumping money into newspaper and magazine advertising, and although this had a role for further building brand awareness and saliency in the market, it was putting little focus on online search. I identified a research piece which clearly showed that, when consumers want a new kitchen, the one thing they generally do is search online for potential suppliers. (A point which will shock few people reading this.) I transferred funds to online search – both paid and organic – and the results were dramatic: sales leads up 75% year-on-year.

2.  The holiday cottage brand

A relatively premium offer with nine holiday lodges and cottages in the north of Scotland, though with poor occupancy levels and a brief to me to reverse that position. And I have indeed reversed that position, with bookings up 38% last year and, to date, up a further 49% this year. Again, this has been achieved by diverting funds from printed ads to both paid and organic online search.

In both cases above, the marketing budget has not increased – in fact, for the kitchen brand, we’re now spending less than the bad old days when money was being wasted on too much press advertising. But isn’t it just obvious that online search is central to delivering a marketing strategy for these types of markets and therefore should have been happening anyway? Well perhaps, but that’s easy to say when you don’t know the specific circumstances (which I won’t bore you with here) but, in any event, there were some other factors at work and indeed ones which will apply to countless businesses across the UK:

  • SMEs (which both the above are) often do not employ a marketing person at a senior level (or at any level) and therefore any strategy and plan is established by the business owner or, in the worst cases, the sales manager or director (normally a recipe for disaster). Whoever does it, the key problem is that it isn’t within the individual’s core area of competence. So the point is that they’re making decisions without the knowledge to always make the right one, and that often means that they take the easiest and simplest options – and press advertising relative to online search is certainly an easy and simple option.

  • Newspaper and magazine publishers employ pushy sales execs who are actively targeting businesses where they know they can get away with selling ads the businesses don’t need. Is that fair? Yes it is – pick up any regional newspaper in the UK and you’ll find it full of ads for local businesses which don’t need to be in there (or not all the time, or not for the type of ad which appears).

On the last point and if you run or work for an SME, just think about the number of calls you get from sales execs from
publishers relative to web businesses specialising in online search (it’s probably 20:1). And a few further words about those pushy sales execs…

They aren’t, typically, personally bad and dishonest people, but they are under huge pressure from their employers to sell advertising space in a fast-declining sector. And they’ll achieve this through whatever means they can get away with, and if that means telling the odd porky pie then that’s just what they’ll do. What’s more, all of those I’ve ever spoken to (and I mean ‘all’) know little or nothing about wider marketing, so when they start by offering you ‘advice on your marketing’ then put the phone down on them as quickly as you can, because, surprise surprise, that ‘advice’ will normally be that 100% of your marketing budget should not just be spent on press advertising, but 100% of it with them. As an example of how little the average publisher’s sales exec knows about marketing, when I told one from a magazine who was trying to sell me ad space for my kitchen client that “I’d get better value for money using those sort of funds on SEO and PPC” (search engine optimisation and pay per click) she said “I don’t know those terms – what do they mean”. To me, that’s a bit like a car salesman asking for an explanation on what a train is when told by a potential customer that they’d decided to use such a means of transport to get to work instead of a car.

As I’ve already indicated though, newspaper and press advertising can still have a role in many marketing plans, with two specifics being for building brand awareness and saliency in a market, plus tactical events – e.g. a sale or stock clearance.

A few final and important points to summarise and consider:

1.    If you’re an SME, and whether or not your offer is local or national, and you’re spending the biggest chunk of your marketing budget on press advertising, then you’re probably largely wasting your money – or at least you could almost certainly be spending that money more wisely and with a much higher return on investment.

2.    There are a number of markets where online search isn’t important, but those markets really are now in the minority. The bottom line is that most folk in most markets look for the stuff and services they want online, and worth keeping in mind that 84% of the UK population now has access to the internet.

3.    If you don’t know the extent to which your target customers, B2C or B2B, search online in your market(s), then find out – there are normally ways to establish the facts.

4.    Newspaper sales, in particular regional titles, continue to decline. That’s also the case with printed magazines, and for either you have to now have a very good reason to spend your money on advertising in them. And even if you have that reason and it’s fully aligned with your strategy and plan, ask yourself if the cost of the advert wouldn’t, anyway, be better spent on either paid or organic search (or perhaps other digital activity including online ads).

5.    Online search marketing is largely measurable, newspaper and magazine advertising largely isn’t (though certainly can be in some circumstances).

Newspaper and magazine advertising isn’t quite dead, but relative to online search it’s become decidedly semi-conscious. So come on SME owners – wake up and smell that online coffee.

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