Magazines must avoid Yellow Pages' fate

Customer loyalty must not be at the expense of diversification and creativity, writes the CEO of children's specialist title First News.

It is a sad reality that news stand sales are in decline. As the latest ABC figures clearly highlight, print circulations are falling across the board with women’s weeklies being hit particularly hard.

In a world dominated by technology, there is no escaping the fact people are accessing information in many different ways – predominantly via a three-inch screen as opposed to a newspaper or magazine.

As founder and chief executive of a children’s newspaper, our shrinking sector is not something I can ignore. However, we have managed to achieve year-on-year growth in sales since we launched First News 11 years ago, bucking the trend and beating the odds.

Our survival, and indeed our success is down to a number of factors. We recognised early on in our journey that staying true to our brand and our customers was essential. However, such loyalty must not be at the expense of diversification and creativity.

Having founded Thomson Intermedia (now Ebiquity), a global marketing analytics specialist, I know that building up brand equity can provide the fuel needed for positive change. While not losing track of your current business, new opportunities must be anticipated and capitalised on.

A striking example of a company that failed to embrace change and monumentally failed to take advantage of new technology was Yellow Pages. It initially saw potential in the digital revolution, starting up Yell.com, but did not recognise the full extent of opportunity or indeed the speed of change.

Instead of working with both the traditional and digital elements, and migrating clients over, the company had competing sales teams. It continued to focus too heavily on its original business as the world around them was changing dramatically. As a result, Yellow Pages failed to realise the impact until it was too late and saw shares suspended in 2013 at just 0.17p – an astonishing plunge from a peak above 600p six years earlier.

The companies that Yellow Pages had perceived to be its competitors were no longer its biggest threat. The new online businesses starting out of garages were the much bigger risk, which they simply failed to recognise. 

In such a rapidly changing market, businesses need to be thinking like start-ups. They need to come up with innovative and creative ideas which appeal to and engage their customers – while staying true to their brand.

We sell over 80,000 hard copies of our newspaper every week. This year we have topped the children’s ABCs for the first time, fighting off competition from the many glossy, cover-mounted monthly magazines.

Our core business is making national and international news accessible to young people, which we have stuck to firmly since our launch.

Yet we have moved with the digital times and identified new opportunities. Our website features a range of additional content and we signpost this via the paper itself, encouraging readers to go online for more information, surveys and competitions.

We launched a digital education literacy tool to our schools market last year, which engages children in news stories and increases their learning. This innovation won a nationally-recognised teaching award and we now have a growing customer base in the education market, which is a key expansion area for our business.

I do however firmly believe that the hard copy will always have an important role to play. This is not about sentimentality, but rather from what I have learnt during my career. My time as a director at Mintel, going from printed reports to digital and as a non-executive of Bloomsbury during the Amazon Kindle revolution, has taught me that consumers still like a physical read.

For children brought up on iPads and touchscreens, a printed newspaper is often a welcome change, which we will continue to ensure they have access to. We can take advantage of the many opportunities that digital has to offer but know that there will always be a place, albeit a reduced place, for a hard copy and the different experience this brings to a reader.

Ultimately businesses must listen to and understand their customers’ changing needs in order to exploit all advantages, particularly in a declining market. 

But remembering, of course, to glance regularly over their shoulder.

Sarah Jane Thomson is chief executive of First News

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