Recent figures from the Advertising Association reveal that regional newspapers - which claim the second-largest share of advertising revenue after TV - saw advertising spend rise by a respectable 2 per cent to £713 million in the third quarter of 2002. Conversely, national newspapers saw their share fall 1.6 per cent to £444 million.
So why is the regional press doing so well? Are new advertisers, keen to make their marketing budgets work harder, using a more accountable medium? Has the wake-up call from agencies and advertisers sunk in? Or is a staple diet of classified ads keeping it buoyant?
Classified advertising is the bread and butter of regional press, so, as a proportion of overall spend, national advertisers comprise a slim proportion. However, the current economic climate has forced advertisers to readjust their marketing budgets and look at alternatives. Paul McGarr, the head of regional press at ZenithOptimedia, cites the example of Woolworths' store brand Big W.
"For store launches, Woolworths would normally use TV and some regional press and radio, but for the first time last year it asked to look at regional press," he says. "It worked better than splitting the media spend."
Les Middleton, an associate director at MediaCom, says some clients have liked what they've seen. "There are a couple of brands that are not doing as much TV and national press and have moved towards using more local markets. Audi, for example, hasn't used it in any strength in the past but that's changed recently. Skoda and Volkswagen are following suit. It seems to be working quite well, certainly for Skoda, which has spent more than £1 million in the regional press during the past year."
For Specsavers, the sixth-biggest regional press advertiser, local newspapers are essential because of their unique relationship with their audience.
Stewart Roussel, the director of local and regional marketing at Specsavers, says: "Local press commands more personal interest and attention from a consumer. Like a dentist or doctor, we are part of the community and regional press gives us proximity at a local level."
Regional press, through the Newspaper Society, has persuasive evidence from its recent and comprehensive Conversion Study to show new advertisers why local press can be used to their advantage. New analysis shows how new advertisers and those with low levels of consumer awareness should employ a high use of colour advertising and higher-frequency insertions to execute a successful campaign. Established local press advertisers should have a consistent presence, and the use of colour advertising apparently more than doubles the growth of awareness.
Recent case studies by the Newspaper Society have also helped to back up the efficacy of using regional press. Specsavers, for example, found that using the regional press brought good results (see box). For Roussel, the case study showed clearly that the most effective form of advertising was colour press ads. "Colour advertising was a winner by a long stretch. It's far better to have a colour ad on page 20 than a mono on page five. People tend to read regional newspapers cover to cover," he says.
Imperial Leather is an example of a non-traditional regional press advertiser being converted to the medium through a successful test. The company tried out local press advertising with the launch of its Wake-Up Shower Bar last September. It was found that when local press ran alongside posters, a higher level of awareness was achieved and sustained for longer. For Chris Thompson, the marketing manager at Imperial Leather, the test "clearly demonstrated why local press has become a serious consideration for future activity".
COI Communications, which is the second heaviest spender in regional press, has found the medium useful to convey specific messages. Jeremy Found, the head of media at COI, points to a recent vehicle crime reduction campaign run on behalf of the Home Office. "We piloted the linking of display and classified advertising by running small ads in the used car classified sections of local newspapers," he says. "We were able to reinforce the main message in an appropriate environment by running copy such as 'Wanted, cars left unlocked. Mike the Car Criminal'."
Inside agencies, it would seem that the Newspaper Society's initiative to improve the perception and manageability of regional press is paying dividends. David Hoath, the Newspaper Society's marketing director, lists names of new national advertisers joining the fray: "New advertisers to regional include Camelot, Ford, Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Mobile. We're getting tactical money from the BBC and ITV and we've made a breakthrough with British Airways and Orange."
Agencies are satisfied that regional newspapers are reforming and becoming easier to deal with, a point which the media owners are keen to emphasise. Stephen Parker, the managing director for regional newspapers at Trinity Mirror, says: "We are in a position now to make quantity and quality sales calls, and the creative solutions that we are offering to national advertisers and agencies have similarly improved."
But McGarr believes that unqualified sales staff within the newspaper groups can still cause problems, resulting in poor advertisement placement felling a campaign. And Roussel is adamant that old habits die hard with small local businesses still getting preferential rates and placements.
"If they (newspaper groups) were really serious about growing the percentage of national advertiser revenue, they would have reformed the business.
But because their foundation is built from local business, that's where their energy is focused."
SPECSAVERS SEES HIGH RETURN WITH REGIONAL PRESS
Specsavers spends 16 per cent of its £20 million total spend (£3.3 million) on regional press, and its consistent presence in the 12 months to July ensured high levels of advertising awareness. During a study on the effectiveness of the regional press undertaken by Millward Brown with the Newspaper Society, Specsavers invested 21 per cent of its media spend in the study areas. Its share delivered 27 per cent awareness, significantly more than both radio and national press, and second only to television.
Surprisingly, even during periods where there was no television activity but where local press remained on the schedule, respondents still claimed to have seen Specsavers' advertising on television.
ADSPEND BY MEDIUM Q3 2002
Medium pounds m % change*
Television 847 9.3
Regional newspapers 713 2.0
Direct mail 554 8.6
National newspapers 444 -1.6
Business magazines 299 -6.0
Consumer magazines 190 1.9
Outdoor 183 5.1
Radio 120 0.7
Total advertising 3,349 3.6
Source: Advertising Association
* year on year.