How local knowledge keeps Junk Mail ahead in the classifieds market

South Africa’s media dynamics are unlike those anywhere else, says Junk Mail Publishing’s Felix Erken

August 13, 2012

South Africa’s media dynamics are unlike those anywhere else, says Junk Mail Publishing’s Felix Erken – and it’s this knowledge of the local market that has enabled the Junk Mail stable to stay ahead of its online and print competitors.

Erken’s key insight has been that while Junk Mail’s future is online, there is still a huge and lucrative market for print publications that has helped to fund online development.

“We embraced the Internet very early, in 1996, and 71% of all our ads are now placed via the web,” says Erken. “But we also still sell over 100,000 copies a week of our print publications. Even at R20 a copy, it’s still much cheaper than the Internet for millions of South Africans – and for a lot of people it’s much faster too. This digital divide is still the reality of the local media landscape.”

The Junk Mail stable includes the flagship sites JunkMail and JobMail, as well as AutoMart, TruckandTrailer, FreePropertyAds, Lovemail and machinery sales site Mascus. In print, there are three regional editions of Junk Mail, Cape Ads, JobMail and four vehicle sales publications.

Erken says understanding the needs and buying patterns of the South African market has been key to Junk Mail’s success. “We have 20 years of experience in the classified ads business, we know this market intimately, and we’ve designed our categories, our publications and our online sites around that knowledge. That’s why we’re not unduly worried by the influx of global competitors. Someone planning their company out of Seattle or London would never dream of publishing print classifieds because that’s not how their world works.”

What global competitors miss, says Erken, is that while print is no longer in its heyday, “it’s never declined at anything like the rate people predicted. Our print publications are still a good, profitable business that delivers great value to buyers and sellers alike. If you want to sell something, your chances are best with us.”

Not that Junk Mail is resting on its laurels. In 2010 the company took the bold step of removing paywalls from all its online properties, and separated the online business completely from print. “We still want to optimise all the opportunities that remain in print, without diluting the focus of the online team,” he says. “So our print and online teams are often competing for the same customers, which keeps them on their toes.”

The company is also ramping up its mobile presence, recently relaunching a much faster version of its mobile sites. “Mobile is a completely different environment from the desktop and people use it in a very particular way,” he says. “Mobile ad placements have gone from zero three years ago to 17% now, and we expect that to take off in the next few years.”

“Classified advertising is a ruthlessly competitive business,” says Erken. “What has kept us ahead for 20 years is understanding that it’s also extremely local. Whatever medium our customers find most convenient, that’s what we give them. We’re also a very results-driven organisation — we look after what works, even if it’s not trendy.”