Q: My partner and I know that newspaper ads should be a big part of our marketing campaign, but we don't know how to choose the right papers. Can you help?

A: There is a staggering number of choices when it comes to newspaper advertising. After all, newspapers come in all sizes and descriptions, and they reach a dramatically high number of Americans. More than half of all adults in the top 50 markets read a newspaper every weekday, and 62 percent read a newspaper each Sunday, according to the Newspaper Association of America. So it's easy to see why newspaper ads are central components of many marketing programs.

Three Simple Rules
While it's important to make newspapers part of your marketing mix, it's easy to overspend on ineffective campaigns. To start your media selection on sound footing, follow these three simple rules:

Rule No. 1: Select newspapers that reach your target audience with the least waste. This rule is easy to apply. Since advertising costs are often based on circulation, just examine the readership breakdown for each publication to see whether it efficiently reaches your customers. For example, a major metropolitan daily with hundreds of thousands of readers may offer too much "wasted circulation" for a single retail operation that draws business from its immediate neighborhood.

Rule No. 2: Select the newspapers your target audience reads for information on what you market. In some cases, rule No. 2 can completely override rule No. 1. Suppose you're choosing between a local, neighborhood newspaper and the major, market-wide daily. The small, local paper offers little wasted circulation when compared to the major daily. But if your customers are reading the market-wide newspaper for information on what you sell, you'll have to pay for the wasted circulation in order to reach them when they're predisposed to respond positively to your message.

Rule No. 3: Select newspapers you can afford to advertise in with enough frequency to penetrate. Newspapers are rarely a one-shot medium, so you'll need to run a consistent campaign. It's better to advertise with sufficient frequency in one paper, rather than just a few times each in several publications.

Make Tough Choices Easy
Now that you know the basic framework for selecting the right newspapers for your campaign, here's how to make sense of all the choices:

  • Free vs. paid: There are free newspapers of all types and descriptions in many communities nationwide. Some are excellent advertising vehicles, and others are not. Many media buyers will tell you that people are more likely to read the publications they pay for. So all other aspects being equal, it's often a better choice to select newspapers that go to paid subscribers. However, if you think a free publication will work for you, ask its sales rep for proof, such as success stories and readership studies, that your target audience is actually reading the publication. In some cases, the free newspaper may be covered by Scarborough Research, which measures lifestyle and media consumption by market, and the paper can show you a report detailing how many of its readers match your best prospects.
  • Audited vs. unaudited: A newspaper that's audited, such as by the Audit Bureau of Circulation, can guarantee its circulation figures are accurate and that you'll get what you pay for. By comparing audits over time, you can tell if a newspaper's circulation is trending up or down. If a newspaper is unaudited, ask to see a sworn publisher's statement regarding circulation. Any publication unwilling to provide this form of verification is not a safe bet.
  • Bulk distribution vs. delivered: When newspapers are distributed in bulk, such as the ones available for free in convenience stores and gas stations, there's significantly less control over who actually picks them up and reads them. While the publishers can guarantee the number of papers being distributed, it's more difficult to determine who they actually reach. However, many bulk distributed publications meet special communications needs or are well targeted for unique purposes. One example of this would be the various real estate guides showing homes for sale that are distributed in bulk and provide excellent advertising opportunities for real estate companies.
  • Market-wide vs. neighborhood: One way to tell if a neighborhood paper is valued when compared to a market-wide paper is to try to determine which one people are most likely to read. This goes back to my second rule above. Look at the household penetration of the major daily. If it's very high, then chances are that smaller, neighborhood papers have to fight much harder to secure readers by supplying special editorial or advertising sections, including classifieds. Evaluate the neighborhood paper by looking at other advertisers in your category. If they're advertising consistently, that's an indication they're getting results-and it's likely you will, too.