11 Strategies for Publishers to Get Their Share of Local Online Advertising

If I were headed back to a local news operation today instead of trying to escape the blizzard that is shutting down Manhattan, here’s what I’d be focused on from the Borrell conference on local online advertising:

1. Help advertisers with their digital lives. Jeff Jarvis uttered this line within the first few minutes of his keynote kicking off the conference, and it set a theme for pretty much everything that followed. News organizations “have always told advertisers, ‘We want to help you with your business,’ and now we gotta mean it,” Jarvis told a crowd of 400 conference-goers seeking local routes through the digital ad terrain. The new approach, he said, requires a transition “from selling space to selling service.”

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Such help often has nothing directly to do with ad placement. Many small advertisers simply want help showing up in Google results. Others are worried about how their reputations are being enhanced or undermined by such reputation-makers as Yelp or Angie’s List. A sales rep won’t be able to solve these problems herself, but she can provide a valuable service to her customer by connecting them with such services as Yodle or Marchex. And in the process, she can build a relationship with a potential advertiser.

2. Help advertisers improve their relationships with customers. “Most local, small businesses don’t manage their customers,” said Chris Hendricks, McClatchy’s vice president for interactive media. “They just wait for them to come back.” Advertisers who learn to interact effectively with customers in digital environments that their customers find useful and interesting — Facebook, Twitter, foursquare — are apt to do more and better business with those customers.

3. Help advertisers help publishers with content creation. When I asked members of the conference’s opening panel what they were doing to improve those relationships, Chris Jennewein of San Diego News Network described the blogs he set up for advertisers to post their own material. SDNN charges advertisers $500 a month for unlimited postings (they recommend two to three per week). Only a handful of advertisers are using the service, though SDNN just launched it last fall.

The idea, Jennewein said, is to create useful content as well as generate additional revenue. Advertisers’ posts are labeled “Sponsored Blogs” and appear in such sections as Living and Business as well as the Opinion section of SDNN.

In an interview at the conference, Richard Anderson, CEO of VillageSoup, described a more extensive version of this approach. At the weekly paper he owns in Maine, he said hundreds of advertisers have become “bizMembers,” posting material directly to their blogs on his site. (I’ll return to the topic of advertiser blogs in a subsequent post.)

4. Help advertisers help publishers with advertising creation. A number of vendors are providing self-serve ad creation solutions that publishers can use to reduce their cost of doing business with small advertisers. (I’ll be returning to this topic to see what GrowthSpur, PaperG and others are up to.)

5. Devise a strategy to connect your local users with national advertisers. More often than not, this means joining one of the ad networks created by Yahoo, Google or Microsoft. Each offers pluses and minuses depending on your circumstances, but if you can find a good match, it can add significant revenue.

6. Get familiar with recommendation sites such as Yelp so you can discuss them knowledgeably with advertisers who are worried about their impact on their businesses. Even before most publishers — and advertisers, for that matter — have come to grips with these recommendation services, second-level services such as Marchex are emerging to help advertisers manage and improve digital reputations resulting from online raves and rants.

7. Get in on the coupon craze. Newspapers are understandably worried about the future of their inserts business; those coupons and flyers stuffed inside Sunday papers can amount to as much as 50 percent of a paper’s ad revenue. Revenue from online coupons is more modest so far, but sites such as Zip2Save are producing results for publishers as well as advertisers.

8. Get serious about training your sales staff. Especially if you’re asking your legacy staff to sell digital ad products, they must understand what they’re selling. Newsrooms have had to train their staffs in multimedia journalism; now it’s the business side’s turn.

9. Keep it simple. Forget about selling on a CPM (cost per thousand) basis with small, local advertisers. You can track CPM on your back end for internal accounting purposes, but create ad packages that advertisers can relate to — so much per month with a minimum number of impressions — rather than a deal they can’t understand.

10. Get familiar with location-based, online services such as foursquare. Dave Morgan, one of the nation’s most successful serial entrepreneurs (Real Media, Tacoda and now Simulmedia) points out that these kind of services, which enable playful interaction among customers of various businesses based on where those customers are at a given moment, have caught on mostly in New York and San Francisco. If you’re somewhere between those high-tech meccas, you still have time to get a step ahead of your advertisers. (Chris Kouba’s report on Morgan’s take on the future of digital media is worthwhile, by the way.)

11. Get some of your eggs out of the advertising basket. Morgan, who worked as a First Amendment attorney for newspapers before launching his digital career in the early ’90s, said he believes news “will be much more subscriber-supported” than it has been in the past. A board member of newspaper publisher A. H. Belo Corp., which owns The Dallas Morning News, Morgan noted that stiff increases in the paper’s circulation prices have resulted in relatively small circulation declines. In a brief interview after his conference remarks, he said he told New York Times executive editor Bill Keller just the other day that he’ll gladly step up and pay for the online edition of the Times.

McClatchy CEO Gary Pruitt (also a former First Amendment attorney) told the conference that he’s quite comfortable with advertising as the main revenue source for McClatchy’s digital businesses. But McClatchy also plans experiments with paid content in areas where there may be more money to be made from subscribers than advertisers. By way of example, Pruitt mentioned the legislative information service run by McClatchy’s News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C.

Speaking of paid content, I’ll be back in New York next week to cover PaidContent’s one-day conference on the topic.

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