By Adam Ward
Something interesting is happening in the newspaper business. These days when people talk about the influence that online content and advertising exerts on newspapers, they focus on the negative aspects, which are plenty. But nobody seems to be talking about the online attention newspapers are getting for a markedly offline product: inserts.
Inserts are those slick advertisements that slide out and scatter across your floor when you open your paper. Sunday inserts often have more pages than the newsprint does. Newspapers like inserts because A) they don’t affect the layout, size and production of the paper (the advertisers pre-print inserts and ship them to the newspaper’s press facility, where inserting machines stack them neatly together and slide them into the news pages as they come down the conveyor belt), B) they get to charge per 1,000 copies inserted and C) they don’t care about the mess they make for the delivery boys and girls trying to put elastics around them, or for that matter, the readers.
For readers of the newspaper, inserts are a slight annoyance that must be dumped in the recycling bin along with the Travel (or in my case, Sports) section that will never be read. Readers may look at an insert if it catches their eyes, just like they do with ads on the pages of the paper itself. But for the most part, readers subscribe to the paper to read the news. A reader would never have multiple subscriptions to the same newspaper, because once news is read, it is old news, even if seen on a fresh sheet.
But for shoppers, a newspaper subscription may not be about the news at all. For shoppers, Sunday inserts are a goldmine. And if shoppers can get a good deal on one can of beans from an insert, they can get the same good deal on two cans if they have two identical inserts. And if a shopper normally eats five cans of beans each week, it may be cheaper to get discounts on five cans by buying five subscriptions to the same newspaper than it is to pay for all those subscriptions.
So buying multiple subscriptions sounds crazy, but that is exactly what is happening. Walk around your neighborhood some Sunday morning and look at your neighbors’ driveways. Many won’t have a newspaper at all, but I’ll bet you’ll see some that have up to eight copies of the same paper lying there. Congratulations, you’ve found a shopper. More precisely, you’ve found a couponer.
While there is nothing new about shoppers, inserts or newspapers, multiple news subscriptions does seem to be a new practice. And for that, newspapers have the Internet to thank. Specifically, they have bloggers to thank. Yes, the same people that are competing with newspapers for advertising dollars are helping them increase their circulations.
One silver lining of the sluggish economy has been the explosion of coupon websites and mommy blogs, many of which are making out quite nicely as affiliate marketers. Consumers are flocking to these sites to get deals on everyday items because they can’t afford to pay full price for anything anymore. And what they are finding is that many of the best deals (particularly on grocery items that people more or less have to buy week in and week out) come from coupons in the Sunday paper. Some coupon blogs even list all the deals you’ll find in the paper each week. And whereas many online coupons can be printed just once (making shoppers grumble when they find out too late that their toner has run out), there is nothing stopping a shopper from using two insert coupons on two of the same items.
I’m somewhat fascinated by this. Shoppers are going online to find deals. In an effort to provide information on deals wherever they can be found, bloggers are encouraging shoppers to buy multiple newspaper subscriptions (because ironically, like newspapers, the bloggers are trying to build readership on their sites by providing accurate, quality content). Shoppers are following the bloggers’ advice, which increases newspaper circulation, which newspapers can then use to attract quality advertisers. Newspapers are showing that they are still an effective vehicle for delivering advertiser messages straight to shoppers.
Newspapers are fond of touting both subscription numbers and readership. The conventional wisdom is that three people will read the same newspaper subscribed to by one person. I wonder how many shoppers buying multiple subscriptions throw a wrench in that metric. Ultimately, I don’t think it matters, since subscription and readership numbers are used for attracting advertisers (and justifying ad rates); and if people are buying multiple newspapers because they are planning on buying more products, I don’t think advertisers will have a problem with that.