AAN Papers Respond to Decline in Personals Revenue

Innovative marketing is most popular approach to stem losses from once-lucrative service.

Although alternative newspapers continue to experience declining revenue from personals, some romance gurus say they haven’t given up on love.

According to AAN figures, personal advertising revenue at the average alternative paper dropped 13.3 percent between 1998 and 1999. The trend of declining personals revenue began three or four years ago, according to many AAN classified managers.

But statistics don’t deter cupids. Elaine Reiter, romance director for Westword and corporate romance director for the entire New Times chain, said her paper has made a commitment to maintaining the romance section as an important part of the paper. Reiter and classified managers from papers such as The Stranger, Isthmus and Pacific Sun have offset declining personals revenue by hosting events and workshops.

Reiter said Westword has felt the Internet’s impact, but it hasn’t slowed efforts to stay in the game. “[Advertisers are] getting quantity on the Internet and they’re getting quality through us. [We’re doing] interesting marketing, things that the Internet can’t compete with.”

For example, Westword hosted a formal gala on Valentine’s Day at Denver’s aquarium where each attendee signed up for a personal ad; 1,100 singles attended. The Stranger’s Classified Advertising Manager Nancy Hartunian hosted a Karaoke night last month, giving people a chance to “cruise on the fly or get up on stage and check each other out.” Jeannie Johnson, classified manager at Pacific Sun, hosts niche parties for particular groups of people, such as SinglesWith Kids.

“You have to market [the personals] a lot harder than you used to and you have to be consistent,” Reiter said. “You can’t just throw a party and say ‘This party’s going to save me.'”

David Dinnage, president of Boston-based Tele-Publishing International, a division of Phoenix Media/Communications Group, Inc., said he believes the results from personals are only as great as the effort put into them. If the local “Love Doctor” is able to create interesting promotions, parties and workshops, it helps the papers make better use of their classified systems.

However, Dinnage admits hard work can’t compensate for the changes that have taken place since the mid-1990s, when voice mail and 900-numbers were so successful that the alternative press was met with fierce competition from a slew of voice personal companies, along with mainstream newspapers and radio.

“Everybody and everything is getting into the game,” Dinnage said. “The market has become much more fractured and there are more outlets for single people.”

That was the reason one classified manager called it quits. Jodi Graf of Cityview in Des Moines, Iowa, dropped her personals section about a year ago.

“We negotiated with the competing advertiser [Digitized Communications] to agree that we would drop our personals service if he ran [two] full-page advertisements weekly,” Graf stated. “This created a win-win situation. The advertiser doesn’t have to compete with our service and we have our page costs covered.”

Along with the fierce competition for 900-number customers, the Internet’s arrival created a personals system that was free, immediate, and allowed singles to view bios and pictures.

Shelley Seitz, ad director with Columbus Alive newspaper in Columbus, Ohio, said she has seen revenue from personals slowly drop, despite occasional “monthly spikes.”

“We have resigned ourselves to the fact our personals are dying on the vine,” she stated. “To try to recover financially, we have shifted our focus and efforts to increasing our [other] classified sales.”

While the Internet and outside competition continue to pose problems for classified managers, there is still a market for newspaper personals. But Dinnage said the number of repeat users placing free print ads is increasing and the dating pool is getting older. This has led to a decrease in the number of minutes the service generates by those paying to respond to the ads.

“That’s significant. Ads from younger people always generate the most telephone response.”

Some papers, such as Westword, are trying to use the Internet and ads in their classified section to attract younger singles.

“When your revenues are dropping, you better be concerned,” Reiter said. “Certainly we’re looking at sharpening our own presence on the Internet. It’s a great tool to work for you, but not replace what it is that you already have.”

On Westword’s web site, the ads are not merely repurposed from the print version, although people can place an ad online or get the 900-number needed to respond. Browsers who click on “romance” can also participate in polls, e-mail ads to friends or seek guidance about how to write an ad.

Dinnage said technology is constantly changing and his company has gone abroad to keep up with trends yet to arrive in the United States, such as two-way messaging that allows people to send wireless text messages (up to 144 characters) using only a cell-phone. Dinnage said this technology, which is already popular in the United Kingdom, allows people registered with the “Cell Dating” program to receive messages through their phone immediately if a match has been made.

“The traditional voice personals is going to be going away. It’s being replaced, rapidly, by other services and technologies,” Dinnage said. “The services will continue to evolve. They will never go away. People will continue to spend money trying to build relationships.”