Digital ad opportunities for community newspapers

MOBILE, AL—Three experts dealing with digital opportunities presented some of the products and services their companies have developed at the National Newspaper Association’s 123rd Annual Convention and Trade Show.

Sara Weaver of Mediaphormedia, part of the World Co. in Lawrence, KS, showed the session’s attendees LawrenceMarketplace.com, a section of LJWorld.com, the website for the Lawrence Journal-World.

“We wanted to reinvent classifieds in Lawrence, KS,” Weaver said. “We wanted a way to grow our advertiser base online.” Although the operation had some success monetizing its Web operations, Weaver said that online represented only about 10 percent of total advertising, and they didn’t see being able to expand that with traditional banner advertising.

“We decided to create a directory of every business in town,” Weaver said. “In Lawrence, KS, there are about 3,000 businesses. We thought, ‘Well, goodness, we only get about 300 of those businesses as customers in the newspaper or online or even in our television operation.’ So, this was a way for every business in town to have a presence on our website, and the sales team to have an excuse to knock on every door and sell them upgraded listings in the directory.”

In the first year, Weaver said, LJWorld.com’s Marketplace had a new $600,000 revenue stream. It has led to more than 400 paying customers in the Marketplace, many of whom, according to Weaver, had not been customers before the Marketplace directory went online.

“Today, it has just under $50,000 a month billing through that product, so it builds up very quickly,” Weaver said. “This is a way to build that incremental new revenue, and it gives your sales team a product they can walk in the door with and instead of 90 percent of businesses hanging up on them, telling them, ‘I don’t need to advertise, I’ve been here 30 years, if I’d needed to advertise I’d have called you by now.’ You’ve got to have a product you can get in front of them with, something other than buy a print ad or buy an online ad.”

Rather than being just an online directory, however, Weaver said that Marketplace gives advertisers powerful online tools that allow them to manage and add their own content to their directory listing. “Business owners can create their own promotable URL if they want to. Some businesses are saying, ‘This is so easy, I’m just going to use this as my website,’ so they just use the LawrenceMarketplace brand slash their business name as their website.”

Sean Polay, product manager for the Dow Jones Distributed Media Group (formerly Ottaway Newspapers), addressed the session’s attendees on how to build digital audiences. Polay demonstrated the multi-staged process he has used at his operation in the past three years to triple its online audience, significantly enhancing its revenue opportunities.

“The first thing when I came on board with Ottaway that was immediately clear to me was that we weren’t doing enough to leverage the strength of the medium,” Polay said. “We were basically taking all the newspaper content, shoveling it online overnight and not touching the website for the rest of the day. How could we possibly do that? We have this medium that doesn’t require deadlines, that doesn’t require a press run. It is always on, people are always coming to it. Shouldn’t we be enhancing the value proposition of that visit for them rather than setting the expectation that we only update this thing once a day.”

Polay said that his operation needed to leverage its news gathering assets, which were working around the clock, and to tap into the characteristics of its audience members, which were primarily a professional audience with families who were accessing Ottaway’s sites mostly at work, because that’s where they had the best access to high-speed Internet.

“We set the expectation with our online staff that they must update once a day, just for starters,” Polay said. “Just get something up fresh at noon; do a mid-day update. They accomplished that, so we said OK, go for two. Do one in the morning, one in the afternoon.”

What Ottaway saw from its sites’ online analytics, Polay said, was that its audience would look at the sites first thing in the morning to see what had been added overnight. They would return around noon to look for updates, then again around 3 p.m. for updates before preparing to go home that evening.

“We tried to insert ourselves into that behavior to make sure we were meeting that expectation, and setting an additional expectation that not only were they coming for their amusement at noon, but also coming to find out what was going on. Not only were they planning their day for maybe what they might have for dinner that night, or what kind of entertainment options they might be seeking for the weekend, but maybe we could give them something to prepare for their commute.”

Polay described something he did when working at the Providence (RI) Journal that he characterized as “a little dirty trick.”

“I put tabs on the website across the top of the homepage—8 o’clock, 10 o’clock, 12 o’clock, 2 o’clock, 4 o’clock, 6 o’clock,” Polay said. “These tabs would go up automatically; there was no way my staff could control it. The tab would go up at 8 o’clock, and that was the snapshot of what the site looked like at 8 o’clock, and then the tab would go up at 10 o’clock, and that was a snapshot of what the site looked like at 10 o’clock. If those two things looked the same, then shame on us.

“More so than setting the expectation with the audience that they could go back and see what happened at those different periods during the day,” Polay said, “it set a safety blanket with my staff that they could completely wipe out the homepage, because there was preserved copy of it, and they could come up with all sorts of new features. They could feature something else at the top. They could do a new interactive quiz. They could do something different. In fact, they had to do something different, because if it looked the same, I was going to get upset.

“And then, the audience then knew to start coming back at eight, start coming back at 10, start coming back at 12. Instead of this one gigantic peak in the morning that slid off toward the end of the day, we started to see these jagged peaks in the middle of the day. So, we set the expectation with the audience, and we set the expectation with my staff.”

Polay said that it wasn’t enough to just make these changes to his operation, but they also needed to promote the changes, which they did through a text alert product.

“The more we used it,” Polay said, “the more we gained subscribers. It became a viral thing.” No message would go out without including a URL to link subscribers back to a story on the website.

The growth his operation has experienced is only half the story, though, Polay said. Currently, Dow Jones’ online operations represents only 10 percent of online users in its markets. By 2015, Polay said, that number needs to be 35 percent.

“How are we going to do that? Are we going to keep breaking news online. Is that going to get us there? The answer to that is actually no.”

Displaying the results of his company’s research, Polay said that about 9.4 percent of the audience looks for local news online, which is also roughly what his group’s market share is for local news online.

“We nailed that. We own getting local news online on our websites. What we don’t own is everything else that people are looking for online.”

Polay said that Dow Jones is trying to expand its online horizon, presenting more than just news information on its websites, while still leveraging the medium’s strengths. Survey results showed that users wanted more things-to-do information, such as calendar information and a business search directory.

“No matter what you do,” Polay said, “you have to consciously brand these things, you have to consistently cross promote them with more than just classified filler ads.”

Polay said the company was also enhancing its stories so people would spend more time on a site, because the more time they spend on a site, the more likely a reader will click on an add. He also said Dow Jones has been adding to is websites include slide shows, user commentary, articles and blogs, related links to their own sites and off site links. They are also adding sidebars, video and interactive displays as appropriate.

“We’re starting to treat audience development like we would treat sales lead development,” Polay said. “You have your big universe of causal users, and you want to convert them to repeat visitors. And you have that universe of repeat visitors that you want to become evangelical users who advocate your products on your behalf.” The next stage, Polay said, is to transform these evangelical users to paid subscribers.

Another tactic Polay said Dow Jones is using to attract users in their markets is what he described as utility content. Although users know to come to the newspaper websites for local news, they are still going to Google, Yahoo and other search engines to find other sorts of information about the community. Polay said that a local newspaper website should be able to better capture the sorts of information that people are looking for.

“Find a pediatrician, find a wireless hotspot,” Polay said, giving examples of the sort of utilitarian information users are looking for online. “Find a clown for my son’s birthday, pick a nearby place for a romantic weekend, take a continuing education course, start a book club. All these things are things people are trying to do in our communities that we need to help facilitate.”

To meet these needs, Polay said that Dow Jones is building a variety of tools to help users find the local information they want, much of it tied into its online business directory tool.

“Anything that makes folks’ lives easier,” Polay said, “will become a more vital part of their media time.”

Another tactic Polay said he has helped implement at the Dow Jones papers is the idea of virtual beats. Content providers responsible for virtual beats are responsible for that topic across all media in which it is used—print, online and mobile. These content providers are encouraged to coordinate daily with the website team to determine better ways to get fresher content onto the paper’s website.

Also presenting during the session was Marty Novak, the director of digital media for NPG Newspapers in St. Joseph, MO.

“Content is king,” Novak said. “We’ve got to keep refreshing our content and sharing opportunities with our readers.”

Novak shared some ideas that his group has been trying, especially in its suburban publications.

“Bringing people to the site is really important,” Novak said. “One thing we’ve done that’s simple is our Athlete of the Week contest. Sports is huge.”

In this contest, the news staff nominates both a boy and girl athlete of the week. They then sold sponsorships publication by publication.

“It’s a huge traffic builder,” Novak said. “The first three days of the week, you can vote online. The results are published in the Friday papers.”

Polls have also proven popular with NPG’s papers’ readers, Novak said. “Throw these polls up, tailored to something unique to your market, something newsworthy.” The results are later published in the newspapers. The operation sells sponsorships for the polls both on the websites and in the newspapers.

Novak said that they had also sold video ads that play on their websites through the use of a tool from Jivox. “You can build a video ad online,” Novak said. “It brought us in a number of advertisers who were cold on advertising online. It also gave us the opportunity to go after TV and cable advertisers.”

NPG tried to partner with the local board of real estate agents to create a real estate vertical publication, Novak said, but the local board was reluctant to work with them on the product. NPG then partnered with a company called Trulia, which gave NPG the opportunity to create a more rich and in-depth real estate publication and online service.

Another effort NPG has tried, Novak said, was a local weather service. The website partnered with its local cable TV to provide local weather webcasts. In areas without local TV stations, the local papers’ websites partnered with radio stations to do audio weather webcasts.

NPG websites have also partnered with BrandClik, the same company NNA has partnered under the name NewzClik, where advertisers purchase words that may appear in stories on the website that users can click on to view advertising from that sponsor.

“You don’t make a lot, but you can bring an advertiser in,” Novak said. “We’re growing a lot with that.”

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