Local Interactive Strategies

All that paper in the mailbox

So here’s a riddle that comes around every November-December. (And the answer isn’t what most newspaper people think it is.)

If the internet was supposed to put print out of business, why is my mailbox at home filled with slick, heavy catalogs from successful retailers? Did they not get the memo explaining that print was dead? Do they have that much money to just waste on “dead trees?”

I believe these catalogs are a successful response to a fragmented media world. And it’s a strategy that local media must begin to understand. As people’s lives become more busy, as their attention is split among many media, as they take more control of the advertising they “consume,” how do you get your message into their field of vision?

Companies like LL Bean, Land’s End, Shaper Image, Coldwater Creek know the answer: if the consumer physically touches and sees your catalog at the mailbox, finds it attractive enough to not immediately recycle it, puts it on the coffee table and later picks it up to flip through …. Somehow, this strategy leads to purchases. And those purchases cause those companies to spend millions of dollars to repeat the cycle.

Smart companies. They all have websites, good ones. But they spend millions of dollars to print and mail a catalog.

There are lessons for us in local media:

If you have a product that appears on people’s coffee tables, you’re in the game. I can skip commercials on TV and eliminate commercials entirely with my XM radio, but I can’t skip that thing on the coffee table. For printed newspapers, that’s their ace in the hole. As long as newspapers can get Best Buy’s flyer onto the coffee table on Sunday, they’re in the game.

Which makes all the talk about e-paper baffling. Amazon’s Kindle is the latest to spark this line of thinking, that somehow newspapers should try harder to shed the chore and cost of printing and delivery. Here’s a sampling: an economic analysis by a longtime newspaperman, and another taking more of a techie view of the same issue.

Guess what: advertisers (who pay the salaries of the journalists) want what the newspaper currently gives them: access to customers who are harder to reach than ever.

The challenge for newspapers and journalists is to make a product that people will welcome onto their coffee tables. That’s a very tall order considering the trend. But it’s where they should be focusing, in my opinion. If they can find the winning formula, they’ll have a rare advertising vehicle in a fragmented world. If they can’t, their numbers will dwindle to just another fragment.

But if they ignore that challenge and simply cut distribution costs as the solution, they’ll be taking themselves out of the game entirely.

Your thoughts?

( Next installment: fragmentation and local online media.)

December 10, 2007 - Posted by | Uncategorized


  1. Congrats on the big move Joe. I just read some of your past blogs and would like to comment ont the paper in the mailbox one.

    Having worked the LL Bean call center, I have some expertise on that end of the catalog line also. Many people “shop” on line, but actually call to place their orders. Although the internet side is growing fast, the personal interaction and immediate human response is still very appealing.

    There are some questions that cannot be researched online without human intervention. Many customers said the catalog colors were closer to reality than the online pics showed.

    That also leads to the social interaction of the phone/cataloge sales vs the online experiance. Many folks like to sit and mark the catalog, often sharing it with family and friends, the “how would this look on you or me”?
    Granny can get feedback before ordering the new pjs and then call it in.

    It occurs to me that the use of a computer is a very solitary expeiance for most people. We seldom gather around the monitor to look at the latest fashions. I suspect impulse buying is stronger with a catalog that shows up under our noses vs the very dilebert act of going to the web site…short of that pop up box which may be agrivating us into using the pop up blocker.

    Then there are those “big brother is watching” folks who still send their orders in via the mail using a money order for payment. They don’t want the IRS knowing how much they spend or where its spent.


    Comment by scott | January 17, 2008 | Reply

  2. […] matters. A lot. Target was playing my song (see my blog entry about all that paper in the mailbox) about the importance of flopping a Sunday flyer onto the […]

    Pingback by Themes at a conference « | May 20, 2008 | Reply

  3. […] Stop the presses? Dumb ideas refuse to die. So it looks like this will be an annual thing. Every year around this time I will repeat my counter-intuitive  statement that newspapers are making a tremendous mistake when they talk about dropping print and going online-only. Here’s last year’s rant. […]

    Pingback by Stop the presses? Dumb ideas refuse to die. « | October 27, 2008 | Reply

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