When I worked in circulation at a newspaper, we printed visitor’s guides to hand out at the local summer festival. These guides were chock full of ads from local businesses who had bought space in these booklets to get their name out during the festival. In fact, that’s all they were – page after page of ads. For sure, the newspaper was interested in getting the booklets into the maximum number of hands, so advertisers could say, “Oh, yes, I saw people with the booklets here and here and here.” The booklets held value for the newspaper as a source of revenue and for the advertisers as a marketing tool. Both of those parties had vested interest in everybody at the festival having a visitor’s guide. Trying to meet that goal provided a valuable lesson on keeping the user in mind in your strategy.

See the challenge from their perspective (aka listen)

The problem was the booklets didn’t seem to have as much value for the festival-goer – the user. Advertising is something we tend to enjoy, endure, or try to escape as users. If the trailer for the superhero movie you’ve been waiting for two years to see pops up on your Twitter timeline, you’re likely to enjoy that. When Spotify suggests you “watch this short video to get 30 minutes of uninterrupted listening,” you endure it to get your half hour of ad-free music. When you, a non-farmer, get a sales paper from the farm supply store in your mailbox, you throw it away – escape. Visitors at the festival didn’t seem to enjoy the book of ads. Some endured it to use as a fan or shade from the unforgiving summer sun and heat. But many of our potential users asked what the booklet was and chose the escape route with a “No, thank you” once they got our answer.

Figure out what they want from you that you’re not offering

People wanted to know where and when events were, places to eat, if there were discounts or coupons, and how to have fun. They were looking for immediate gratification for the weekend. As we were distributing the guides, the circulation department frequently got the question “Is there a map in there?” People asked that with hope. They wanted a map. Once they heard there wasn’t a map, we’d ended that hope and proved we had nothing useful for them. They declined to accept these free booklets.

Offer something they’ll find you to get

To alleviate some of our distribution obstacles, in 2016 I decided we should give the people something they wanted for free and package the booklets with it. We had a few hundred branded tote bags that had been written off, so for inventory purposes they “didn’t exist.” We could do whatever we wanted with them. Knowing that at the festival people usually need something to help them carry the things they accumulate – especially around the parade when they’re grabbing up candy, cups, beads, etc. – I thought these bags would be great to give something to the community and help us get visitor’s guides in people’s hands. We put a booklet in each one of these bags. We inserted some quickly composed flyers in the Thursday newspaper. The flyers – printed on neon colored copy paper – advertised free bags (while supplies lasted!) available at the newspaper office Thursday afternoon, Friday, and Saturday morning of the festival. I also posted a picture of me carrying the tote on the paper’s new Instagram account and shared it on Facebook.

People started calling and showing up to the office asking for the free tote before we even began delivering booklets on Friday. Saturday morning, I set up shop outside the circulation department with a cardboard sign that said, “FREE TOTE BAGS.” People on the way to the parade stopped and grabbed bags. People who had gotten spots along the parade route early, walked back to get bags then reclaim their spots. By the time the parade started, I had maybe a couple dozen bags left, and I handed those out within a few minutes. Meanwhile, the other circulation workers who were only handing out booklets were dealing with our usual issues of hoping people would take that product for free and wading through the rejections.

Re-evaluate if and how you’re meeting users’ needs and adjust

The bags were a great success, a fact that was noted in a meeting the next year before the festival. That success helped me illustrate what the crowds at the festival are looking for – instant gratification. I pointed out, “If you’re walking around downtown enjoying the festival, right then you’re not looking for a nursing home or car insurance.” (Yes, those were some of the ads in the booklets.) I brought up that we were repeatedly asked about maps, something the user wanted. We discussed it and decided to add a map and schedule to the guide that year.

It took time, sweat, and disappointment for us to realize we needed to consider more than the wants of the newspaper and its advertising clients. We had decided for the users what they did or should want, and it didn’t align with what they wanted and needed. By failing to present our users with something they found helpful and relevant, we made it harder for us to satisfy the goals of the paper and the advertising clients – to get the most festival attendees to have the booklets in their hands. Once we made this small step to put the user back in the equation, we took some of the stress off the distribution process. Circulation workers were happy to say “There’s a map on page x” as they delivered and handed out the guides because we were giving people something they wanted, something they could use.

Do what you can, accept what you can’t

Of course, then it rained during the festival weekend that year. You can always try to do better, but you can’t control the weather!

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