Peter Wagner: Winning back advertising lost during the COVID-19 pandemic

Many publishers, and their staffs, are worried about jump-starting their local advertisers following the COVID-19 shutdown.

Although they’ve faithfully published their paper, often at a loss the last three months, some former client’s media confidence and buying habits have changed. We’ve had three long-established weekly newspapers close or combine with neighboring papers here in Iowa. Elsewhere, two once highly acclaimed daily papers have cut their publishing schedules to once a week.

But a great truth remains! Locally printed newspapers, and in many cases also the local free circulation shopper, still provide the greatest buyer response for any and all local advertising dollars invested. The community newspaper continues to offer the greatest reach and most response for any media in the local market.

Local businesses want to advertise and need to advertise. But most don’t know when, how or what. Now, more than ever, our printed paper industry needs to teach local retailers the information they need to know to effectively place their best image in front of the public.
Newspaper and shopper ads — to be most effective following the government shutdown of retail stores, salons, bars, restaurants and entertainment centers — need to boldly advertise three key messages.

First, they need to focus on the message that their business is bringing back the availability of products and service the recently sheltered consumer desperately wants and needs.

Second, those same advertisers need to assure the paper’s readers of the steps they are taking to make sure the buyer will always be appreciated, comfortable and safe when shopping that business.

And, third and most important, every ad has to feature a serious incentive to motivate the buyer to shop and buy now. The incentive could be anything from a “buy one and get one free” deal at a bar or restaurant to deep discounts on a variety of merchandise at a local retailer.

The local bowling alley can get in the game by offering every third line free and I’ve even seen some local theaters successfully discount the price of their movie tickets knowing they can more than make up the difference from the sale of their highly profitable popcorn and soda with more seats filled.

But if we, as publishers, expect our advertisers to promote and discount, we must be willing to do so, too. Many of us have seen tough times before, but rebuilding our position during a slow economy will either make us stronger and better or push us out of existence.

To survive, community newspapers must create a solid plan and then faithfully work that plan. It is important to stay focused, prospect businesses that you know you can help or that you see are being aggressive in your market and provide new ideas and fantastic service.

The biggest roadblock for those of us who sell print advertising is that we fail to clearly tell our story. Our competition is consistently stomping on our image, but we are not responding with the facts and success stories we have to tell.

We need to share how our paper connects to the community. We need to report the solid demographics of our readers.

As customer service representatives we must start sharing the many research, unique advertising design and total marketing services we provide. And that includes any and all online, broadcast and digital services the paper has available.

We also need to be ready to quote rates, share deadlines that give advertiser time to prepare copy and have solid knowledge of the specific distribution of our various publications.

And why? Because with businesses reopening and summer blossoming, our readers are going to be out and about, shopping and connecting.

Here is what you can count on in the next months:

1. Most women, and even some men, will rush out to shop whenever they can. You can depend on it. Your publication NEEDS TO BE READY to lead those eager buyers to the best opportunities. Your paper needs to be selling advertising NOW to run consistently with the local business district reopening to retrain area residents to shop your town first.

2. Shopping, eating and entertainment habits will have been broken and “old favorites,” such as once-frequented bars and restaurants will have lost once-loyal patrons due to social distancing regulations. Both old and new advertisers will need to be educated in the basics of how to create and distribute powerful messages to their desired audience.

3. Advertising salespeople will have to be more patient and responsive to the whims of their customers. Advertising dollars will be tight and advertising buyers are going to be more selective and demanding. Your once easygoing advertisers will expect more hand holding, fresh data, unique copy and design ideas and the assurance that they are making the right decision. That concern will create a huge expectation that every campaign will produce noticeable results.

4. When regular shopping eventually returns, customers are going to be interested in what each business continues to do to make sure the facility and inventory are clean and safe. Sell your clients creative ads that tell exactly what steps the shop, bar, restaurant, event center or theater has taken to be truly “customer safe and friendly.”

5. Most importantly, never forget the advertiser’s mindset: They are absolutely overwhelmed by the pandemic and have fallen into a void of uncertainty.

It is a new world. But for those of us who still believe in the power of the hometown paper, it is an opportunity to become each local advertiser’ trusted adviser and promoter of local businesses. It can be a challenge or an exceptional opportunity depending on how you play it.

Peter W. Wagner is founder and publisher of the award winning N’West Iowa REVIEW and 13 additional publications. This free monthly GET REAL newsletter is written exclusively for State and National Press Associations and distributed by them to their members. To get Wagner’s free PAPER DOLLARS email newsletter for publishers, CLICK HERE! The two monthly email newsletters contain information completely different than found in Wagner’s monthly Publisher’s Auxiliary column. Wagner can be contacted by emailing pww@iowainformation.com or calling his cell at 712-348-3550.

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