Press Pass program rewards subscribers and advertisers

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In a variation on rewards cards offered by grocery stores and other retailers, the Kentucky New Era in Hopkinsville gives subscribers a KNE Press Pass. It won't give them access to a news conference or a high school football sideline, but it will get them special offers from select newspaper advertisers.

Just as a grocery store customer might get $1 off a package of coffee by presenting a rewards card, the holder of a KNE Press Pass key tag might get a discount or a free item at a restaurant or a percentage off a new set of tires. The offer should be unique to KNE Press Pass subscribers, although sister publications such as the local military base paper may participate as well.

Press Pass, now in its fourth year, was the brainchild of New Era President and General Manager Chuck Henderson, said Business Manager Sheryl Ellis. After kicking the idea around for several years, Henderson finally told the staff to figure out how to make it work, she said.

Today, 150 businesses are Press Pass sponsors. In return for offering something special to newspaper subscribers, the sponsors receive advertising packages of varying levels that can range from a listing in promotional ads up to color ads in both the New Era and the newspaper serving Fort Campbell. The highest level of sponsorship, platinum, also requires an advertiser to pay $150 for a year's subscription.

The most popular part of the program for both subscribers and advertisers is the daily ad in the top right-hand corner of the front page, said Circulation Manager Tony Henson. The space is watched by readers and coveted by Press Pass advertisers, who get it for free on a rotating basis as part of their sponsorship.

"But in exchange for that space, they have to provide something free to our subscribers," Henson said. Examples have included t-shirt giveaways and free services. Medical offices have offered free gift bags, and a pharmacy offered a free fleece throw with a $25 purchase. Fast food restaurants have been particularly successful with the promotion, he said.

"It can be something free with a purchase. It just has to have the word 'free' in the special," Henson said.

Inside the paper is another house ad touting the advertisers offering deals during the next three days. "Not only do you get what's on the front page that day, you have three days of being on Page 2A, letting people know that that's coming."

The start-up cost of the Press Pass program was minimal – $800 for the initial set of key tags sent to subscribers. Henson said the main expense is in-kind services such as ad space and an employee's time spent keeping up with who gets to go next in the upper right-hand corner.

"That particular element of the program is without a doubt the most work-intensive part of the program," Henson said. "We have to have someone who is specifically calling these businesses trying to keep that lined up. It's not always easy to get the person who makes that decision on the first phone call."

Of the original 175 Press Pass sponsors, some proved not to be a good fit for the program, he said. Some worried about "a thousand people rushing in their store." Some tried to pass off as "free" a service they provided to customers anyway. And some went out of business.

Henson advises that other newspaper companies thinking about a similar program might consider starting off with a smaller number of sponsors, say 50. A smaller number would allow for more stringent regulation of the freebies and discounts, to ensure that subscribers really are getting something special with their Press Passes and advertisers really are offering something unique in return for the prominent position in the top right corner of Page 1.

On the other hand, last year the New Era pulled in $11,000 just from the platinum sponsors buying the $150 subscriptions. "That's a pretty good return on investment," Henson said.

For more information contact Tony Henson at thenson@kentuckynewera.com or Sheryl Ellis at sellis@kentuckynewera.com.

Jane Nicholes

Jane Nicholes is a freelance writer and editor based in Daphne, Ala., and a former editorial writer for the Press-Register in Mobile. Email her at jbnicholes@att.net.

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