Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Ice cream shop out-‘fans’ S.F. Chronicle

The report yesterday that newspaper circulation declined another 5% in the latest reporting period got me thinking about ice cream for two reasons.

First, anyone who loves newspapers would rather ruminate about rum raisin than the relentless, 20-year slide that has brought weekday circulation to less than 40 million copies today from an all-time high of 63.3 million as recently as 1984.

Second, it reminded me that the folks following the tweets of my favorite ice cream shop in San Francisco – a quirky place called Humphry Slocombe – now vastly outnumber those who buy the San Francisco Chronicle on any given day of the week.

The shop, which produces such exotic flavors as prosciutto ice cream and beet sorbet, has 301,352 followers on Twitter vs. the 223,539 individuals who buy the print edition of the San Francisco Chronicle on an average weekday or the 10,639 people who follow the paper’s website on Twitter.

Think about it: A barely two-year-old business with no marketing budget in a modest storefront in a less-than-fashionable part of town now has a larger and arguably more passionate audience than a once-mighty metro daily that traces its history back to 1865.

How did it happen and what does it portend for what’s left of the Chronicle and the newspaper business?

Apart from the fantastic Fudgesicle sorbet and Guinness gingerbread ice cream on offer at Humphry Slocombe, the unassuming start-up has mastered the art of zero-cost online marketing through such media as Twitter, Facebook and Google Local.

“We started with online marketing because it was free,” said founder Jake Godby, who can be readily identified when you visit the shop by the ice cream cones tattooed on his forearms. “There is no time gap between what you are thinking about and actually doing it.”

As you can see from the Google-sponsored video embedded below, Godby and his partner, Sean Vahey, quickly learned to leverage the social media to build a community around their product. Friends told friends in food-crazed San Francisco about the place and the owners played into the game by rotating the flavors every day to create a sense of novelty, scarcity and excitement.

When word gets out on Twitter that duck-fat pecan pies are available, people stop what they are doing and race to the Mission District in the hopes of snagging one before the always-limited supply is exhausted. The effort, by all accounts, is well worth it.

It didn’t take long for the Humphry buzz to extend to Yelp, where fans themselves took up the cause of helping to promote the business. On the Fourth of July, the mother of all mainstream media joined in: The New York Times treated the shop to a mouth-watering, six-page spread in its Sunday magazine.

Through the skillful use of social media, Humphry Slocombe has built the sort of passion and engagement that would be the envy of any brand. In an age of user-controlled and user-generated media, every successful brand – including newspapers – will have to do the same thing.

Newspapers can be social media, too – even if they are printed on dead trees. To build passion, community and interaction, they must:

:: Build buzz by providing compelling, if not to say provocative, coverage – the more unique, the better.

:: Build community by incorporating all manner of user-generated content, including ratings, reviews and comments.

:: Build value by helping consumers save money and by helping advertisers make money.

If newspapers continue tottering along as the staid, imperious and unimaginative institutions that many of them have come to be, then get ready for the third decade in a row of continuously shriveling circulation.


Blogger Jeff Sigmund said...

Alan –

The circulation figures you cite in your post are incorrect. The circulation data released by ABC does not reflect the total circulation of newspapers in the U.S. It is derived from U.S. daily circulation newspapers that are ABC member papers with comparable data filed in time to be included in the ABC FAS-FAX report. That is only about half of the nation’s daily newspapers. The correct weekday circulation – using Editor & Publisher, the same source as you cited for the 1984 circulation - was about 46 million copies in 2009 (the most recent figure available).


Jeff Sigmund
NAA Director of Communications

12:46 PM  
Blogger heyalchang said...

The key point is not that the newspapers should be more like Humphry Slocombe. It's that newspapers customers will all increasingly be more like Humphry Slocome.

Humphry Slocombe speaks to an audience that's larger than the circulation of the local daily paper. They do it at virtually no cost and they do it as often as they want. Further, isn't this way of reaching a customer not only cheaper, but on-demand, and more engaging?

All the compelling, provocative unique content a paper adds won't have Hunphry Slocombe spending 25 cents on contributing to a newspaper's revenue stream. Alas, there is nothing unique (yummy ice cream not withstanding) about Humphry Slocombe. These tools are available to any company in the city.

Much of the local newspaper model is predicated on businesses paying over and over to reach their own customers through paid advertising. This structural shift from two expensive printing presses per city to 10 low-to-no-cost printing presses per mobile device owner can't be addressed simply by better engagement.

fwiw, while Alan's 3-point plan is late, if decent, advice, such advice has to-date been followed by a few well-heeled companies per line item. Now, movement in these directions run headlong into entrenched competition - unique compelling targeted content (Facebook/Twitter), business reviews & comments (Yelp), and helping consumers save money and advertisers make money (Groupon+the infinite Groupon clone army).

1:56 PM  
Blogger Gabriel Sama said...

I know it's sexy to compare Twitter followers to newspaper (paid) readers, but isn't it an apples to oranges comparison? If it's about popularity, SM numbers certainly show that. Better to compare Twitter followers to Twitter followers, I think. The SF Gate has only 10,000 followers, so your point is still made. But fans and followers are not the same as paid readership, even if it's declining at a horrendous pace. http://twitter.com/SFGate

4:20 PM  
Blogger Newsosaur said...

This is a response to Jeff Sigmund at the NAA, who questioned my estimate of the current circulation of U.S. papers.

Because the NAA stopped publishing circ numbers after 2008, I have decreased the number by the 7.1% drop in the spring of 2009 and the 8.7% drop in spring of 2010 that were reported by the Audit Bureau of Circulations. On that basis, weekday circ today is slightly less than 40 million.

If the NAA wishes to update the figures using this or a different methodology, I would be happy to consider using it.

6:00 PM  
Blogger Steve Ross said...

Just to be clear, Sunday circ peaked in 1994, daily non-afternoon circ peaked in 2004. The dropoff from 1993 peak was due to drop in afternoon circ.

All that said, only about 40% of US households now read a daily newspaper ON PAPER. That's the most "mass" of any mass medium except radio (fewer than 25% watch evening news, for instance). But it is a steep drop nonetheless.

Newsosaur is right; newspapers have to pay more attention to what readers want, and how they want the dish to be served. Ice cream seems to be part of the mix....

7:23 PM  
Blogger MrMediaPro said...

The news continues to be more and more negative with no end in sight. Where is it going to end? The revelance factor is non-existent, the under 35 demographic may never physically touch a newspaper again. News papers no longer provide local news, staffs have been cut back and providing national news is a why bother, everyone is capable of aggregating nationa news. It is truly said but the Tribunes of the world have themselves to blame..Arrogance and ignorance, tough act to follow.

7:32 PM  
Blogger Ramblin' Man said...

I have a Twitter account that I almost never look at. I have a dozen or so feeds that automatically pop up on my Twitter account that I almost never look at. And when I do look at it, I only see 1 or 2 of those feeds because the ones on top are duplicative and bury the older feeds. I have a phone capable of receiving tweets instantly, but I don't want it going off every two seconds.

It's very easy, in an extremely brief window of time, to connect to a cool Tweet and then never think about it again. Yet, until you deliberately disconnect, you're forever counted in those numbers, which give the numbers NO VALIDITY at all.

Now, perhaps your ice cream shop is so popular and fantastic that the number of idle followers is nominal. There's really no way to know. So, what does it do for the newspaper industry when an "insider" like yourself offers a serious comparison to paid circulation?

Newspapers wouldn't be so dead if we'd stop trying to kill ourselves.

7:12 AM  
Blogger matism said...

Actually, you nailed the REAL problem in your 6th paragraph: "...what does it portend for what’s left of the Chronicle and the newspaper business?"

Newspapers' PRIMARY problem is that "what's left" is EVERYTHING in their product. While there's nothing wrong with some "left", if there isn't a corresponding "right" the publication collapses like any unstable towering edifice. Yet NONE of them seem to be able to learn that.

5:18 PM  
Blogger Dredd said...

The newspaper, the ice cream, and the thingy we Twitter with all have a common factor: they contain some of the same ingredients that Twinkies contain.

The Twinkie system of news has somehow engulfed us all.

8:04 AM  
Blogger rplothow said...

Do you believe that newspapers should adapt to the Internet Age or not? If you do, your columns should reflect it. Of course print circulation is falling -- many people are reading the same material online. So, if you're serious about tracking newspapers' readership, track both print circulation and online readership. Otherwise, your metrics are meaningless.

Roger Plothow
Editor and Publisher, Post Register
Idaho Falls, Idaho

7:15 PM  

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