The New York Times finds 850 new ways to sell print subscriptions

For more than a year, coverage of the New York Times as a business has been relentlessly about its “metered model” pay wall and other digital matters. But without any media news notice, the newspaper has engineered a coup on the legacy side of its operations.

Essentially, it has replaced telemarketing as a source of selling new subscriptions with “events marketing” — pitching a booth at a well-trafficked venue like the U.S. Open tennis tournament or the South by Southwest conference in Austin and trying to sign up passers-by.

The Philadelphia International Flower Show is now one of hundreds of events where print subscriptions to The New York Times are sold.

The new sales channel has grown from a handful of local events like the U.S. Open in the mid-2000s to 850 last year, a little over a third in New York and the rest national.

Ray Pearce, the Times’s vice president of circulation, declined in a phone interview to say just how many new subs the program is yielding — but it is surely in the tens of thousands. Pearce said that events have become the second largest sales channel after the Web and that the program will expand further in 2011.

Like the rest of the industry, Pearce said, the New York Times found that selling subscriptions by phone became less effective and much more expensive as the federal “do-not-call” registry was put in place.

“We had had some success at a few venues like the Open,” he said, “so we put a toe in the water to expand it in 2007, which was our beta year.  It has continued to grow every year since.”

The Times is deeply into what Pearce called “a quality circulation strategy” courting readers who will value the papers enough to pony up the steep full rate that approaches $800 a year for people in the hinterlands like me.

“So the emphasis,” Pearce said, is not just on generating numbers of trial subs, “but getting subscribers we think we can hold onto.  We do a lifetime value analysis of each sales channel based on retention.”

The event marketing subscribers get a version of the Times’s half-price offer that is standard for print and digital trials. But rather than a 12-week introductory term, the subs sold at events are for six months. And rather than requesting payment by credit card, at event sales, that form of payment is required. Except at a few high-tech venues like South by Southwest, the offer is for home-delivered print subscriptions only, but in time it may expand to include tablet, mobile and full digital access offers too.

As for venues, Pearce said, the Times has found that film festivals and book fairs, both in the New York metro area and around the country, are especially productive. But the Times also does smaller scale events like street fairs too.

The New York Times has a permanent sales booth at Grand Central Station.

It has permanent booths at Grand Central Terminal, Penn Station and other New York metro area rail hubs, as well as the train stations in Chicago and Washington, D.C.

The work of setting up and manning the booths is entirely outsourced to an events company.

The Times has come to believe, Pierce said, that events are ”a less invasive marketing approach” than phone sales and now  has phased out telemarketing entirely. Beside being a successful way to pitch trial subs, he added, the company figures there is a benefit “from a brand standpoint” showing the newspaper’s presence to those who just walk by or stop and chat without buying.

I became aware of the events marketing campaign while judging the annual contest of the International Newspaper Marketing Association.

The INMA awards were presented Tuesday night in New York at the conclusion of INMA’s annual World Congress. (Pearce told me that the program has not been publicized previously.  It could hardly remain secret, however, since it won a prize in the competition and was a strong contender — though not the winner — for best-in-show.)

The contest is judged partly on results rather than just eye-catching creative. The Times used its U.S. Open booth as the example in its entry, and the display was straightforward — enormous color photos of star tennis players in action and some signage identifying the New York Times.

I did notice a common denominator with several other outstanding entries (and some less impressive ones) in the category I judged, which was subscription sales. Ultimately the pitch is about identity. If you are the kind of person who turns out for one of these sporting, cultural or artistic events, you may also be a potential Times subscriber.

Other entries took a more traditional — and often patriotic – approach in profiling representative readers. That theme turned up in the (Toronto-based) Globe and Mail’s multimedia Canada-centric campaign, in Dewar’s-style word-and-photo sketches of prototypical readers of a Singapore paper, and even in radio ads with music for a smaller provincial paper in India.

The two entries that I judged to be neck-and-neck for the top spot with the Times, and in a similar vein, were for the German Die Welt and the Danish Politiken (famous for running scabrous anti-Muslim cartoons a few years back).

Both papers are frequent winners of international design awards. Politiken commissioned a much decorated photographer (the Annie Leibovitz of Denmark) to produce stunning environmental photos of scholars and artists where they work. That was in service of a business decision to do much less deep discounting — with its resulting churn — and instead try to lock in committed readers at full price.

My main takeaway from the New York Times’s success with event sales, and the INMA contest generally, was an optimistic one:

There is life in the old business of selling print subscriptions after all when the task is approached with the right marketing mix of business and design creativity.

That may not send print circulation numbers soaring, but it can cushion the many well-documented digital-age forces dragging those numbers down.

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