The Coffee News pamphlet has been doing its weekly round in cities, towns and suburbs throughout New Zealand since 2001, and businesses are lining up to have their ads in the periodical. So, what is the secret to this unassuming publication and its longevity?
On a not-so-recent team trip to the St Luke’s mall food court for a healthy serving of unhealthy food, something caught my eye. Sitting on a table was the Coffee News, a double-sided brownish piece of A3-sized paper often found gracing newsstands or benches in local cafes and restaurants.
It would be fair to say the humble Coffee News is not the most stylish of publications, and the team and I couldn’t help but giggle in well-meaning amusement at aspects of its format, which looks like it hasn’t been updated since its inception in Canada 1988 (I later found out that’s because it hasn’t), wherefrom it went on to become a successful global franchise. But the dated, cheesiness of it is all part of its charm.
A thin stream of (sometimes questionable) trivia, quotes, horoscopes and newsy bits and bobs can be found at the centre of the paper, flanked by a bombardment of ads, 32 to be exact, 16 on each side. These range from real estate, to funeral homes to the police, to scientology books—and it was these somewhat low-brow, yet standout (in the literal sense) ads that caught my attention.
Why are these businesses keen to advertise in the Coffee News? It's readable, tick, snackable, tick, entertaining, sure. But let’s be honest, it’s not exactly editorial excellence. But nor is it trying to be.
What’s its secret?
There are now 32 separate editions of the Coffee News, which are sent around the country weekly and people love it. Why?
“The coffee news hasn’t changed since it started about 28 years ago,” says Coffee News New Zealand director Helen Fisher, who’s been with Coffee News since it first launched in New Zealand in 2001, and is also tasked with pulling together her local Franklin Coffee News.
- You can read how Coffee News came to be here.
“I guess there might be a little bit of a nostalgia feel about the Coffee News. There’s also the fact that it’s only available in cafes and takeaways and waiting areas.”
So, unlike most media, Coffee News isn’t striving to be everywhere at once. It’s comfortably uni-platform.
“You can’t read it online, you can’t subscribe to it, so the only place you can get it is in a café and it kind of fills a need for people who are waiting. To fill the time up while their order is being filled and so on, sometimes people get sick of looking at their phones all day.”
Fisher also points to a revival of the traditional.
“There’s been a return to printed reading. Kindles, for example, came in and lots of people thought it was a great idea, but I was listening to the radio the other day and there is a resurgence of physical paper-back books.”
The Coffee News doesn’t have audited circulation stats like newspapers do, says Fisher, but she says her local Franklin version is distributed to over 150 outlets, with each café taking between 20 and 120 copies.
It also runs monthly competitions, which she says are another way to gauge the volume of people scanning their eyes over it.
“If we run a competition for an iPad we are likely to get five to 7,000 entries over a four-week period, and there is only one entry per week, per person so we aren’t getting spammed by people,” she says.
She says the Coffee News's mantra, is that it’s going to be around three meals a day, seven days a week. “For us it’s about trying to improve [businesses'] branding and awareness in the community. It’s the repetition that Coffee News provides that helps to build that branding for them.”
Fisher says circulation has also increased. As the café scene grows, so does the Coffee News and it strives to be in as many as it can. “I’m printing more copies than I was ten years ago, simply because there are more outlets for them to go in.”
“We’ve got a lot of feedback from readers,” Fisher says. “Readers love it. This is the only business I have been involved with where someone phones up to tell me how much they love it.”
She says deliverers of the Coffee News are filled with stories of people waiting for the latest issue at certain times on delivery days.
“The cafes love it as they are seen to be the good guys handing out something free for their patrons to read … we are part of the scene these days. I like to think we have got a reasonably good name, people know more about us now than they did when we first were brought to New Zealand about 15 years ago.”
Fisher says advertisers, normally small to medium businesses, tend to stay with Coffee News for a long time. The rates to advertise are also ridiculously cheap, at $35 per week, plus GST, according to its website and there’s no charge for ad design.
Part of the attraction to advertise is Coffee News’s promise of exclusivity, where it won’t include an ad from a competitor.
“In Franklin there is a real estate agent who has advertised with me there for 10 years and she was on a waiting list for four to five years before she could secure the space, and when her name came up, she grabbed it.”
Fisher says there are already about six more real estate agents waiting for the day the current one gives up her spot.
“That exclusivity kind of locks people in as well. If you’re used to seeing a real estate agent every week seeing the Coffee News, you don’t sell your house every few years so the agent would have to be in your face for a long time for you to want their service.”
The Coffee News also doesn’t have a lot of competition, Fisher says. “I don’t think there are many competitors in terms of café publications, but there are lots of competitors for the advertising dollar and I guess we come up against local papers and magazines … but it’s a bit different. There are no other publications that only go to cafes.”
More than meets the eye
Fisher says there are quite a few "psychological things” built into the design of Coffee News, where you can’t help but read it.
“We try and get some eye-catching images that protrude out the side of the boxes towards the content so you’re getting a glimpse of the ads at the same time,” she says.
“And with the competitions we run we hide the Coffee News guy in one of the ads so people have to find him and look at the ad to enter the competition.”
When looking at the coffee news in a more analytical way, it is quite a clever format. The ads are there in your face and you can’t help but read them, but for some reason you don’t mind. Maybe because it’s not trying to hide behind what it's doing.
You could arguably compare the format of coffee news to a Facebook newsfeed. With content in a thin stream down the middle and the ads to the sides. You read down but you can’t help but glance sideways occasionally (plus, some of the ads are too funny not to read).
To add to this point, people are distracted these days and are probably quite okay with tapping into a bit of easy, snackable content while drinking their morning coffee. It's an easy, mostly mindless read.
Offline vs. online advertising
Fisher isn’t swayed by online advertising. In fact, it irritates her, she says.
“If I want to watch or read something online and I’m forced to sit through an ad, I won’t watch the video.”
She compares her frustration to lollies at a supermarket check-out aisle. “If I’m at the check-out and there are lollies by the counter, I refuse to buy them because they are throwing them at me. So I never tell people to advertise online. It suits some businesses to get their name out there but we all know that word of mouth is probably the best form of advertising.”
The more someone sees your message, the closer they are to buying something or using your services, she says.
“When it comes to advertising, every little bit counts.”
- If you're also wondering why infomercials are still a thing, then by all means, click here.