March 21, 2010

As newspapers struggle with shrinking revenue from classified ads, new Web sites are reinventing classifieds by extending their reach with social networks, mobile presence and partnerships with other sites.

Print classified advertising revenue declined 70 percent in the last decade, from $19.6 billion in 2000 to an estimated $6 billion in 2009, according to Rick Edmonds, Poynter’s media business analyst.

Some forecasts are hopeful, but an uptick won’t likely come without reinvention. Revenue from all forms of newspaper advertising is expected to rebound 2.4 percent in 2010, according to a Borrell Associates report published in August.

Among the report’s five reasons for optimism is that newspapers are selling smarter. “Today’s leading newspapers are much more proactive about discovering and meeting customer needs, selling against the competition, and taking no client for granted,” it says. At the same time, the analysis concludes, “The papers that will do the best are the ones that can reinvent themselves to serve smaller advertisers on the marketing side.”

Such reinvention is part of the approach of Christopher Ryan, president of Future of News, and Steve Outing, founder of the Digital Media Test Kitchen at the University of Colorado School of Journalism and Mass Communication (and a former Poynter employee), have described major changes that newspapers need to make.

Newspapers believe they can simply improve their Web sites, Outing told me, but they haven’t realized they have to go beyond their own networks and monetize outside their own site.

It’s not too late, Ryan said, for newspapers to reinvent their classifieds business model. This means changing to a proactive approach that helps people sell their products.

Improved presentation and new features

Many newspapers run print classified ads online as they run in the paper. The ads are abbreviated, and it takes several clicks for users to view them, which creates a poor user experience. A couple of sites have taken steps to address this.’s classifieds section, which includes ads from several New Jersey newspapers, allows garage sale ads to be viewed on a map. Users can hover over map points for ad details and click through to the listing. Each garage sale can be added to a driving tour with a route.’s classifieds section, powered by Kaango, posts details on sellers, including ratings, when they started selling on the site, and how many ads they’ve posted. Users can make offers and post comments directly on the listing page.

Classifieds distributed on social networks

Oodle, launched in 2005, offers consumers free listings that are automatically posted to hundreds of sites in its network, such as MySpace and

Craig Donato, Oodle’s founder and CEO, told me the site gets 600,000 new ads per day. The social Web is going to have a big effect on classifieds, he said, and Oodle is leading the way.

Oodle runs Facebook Marketplace, which accounts for 40 percent of the company’s traffic. Donato said if a user associates his Facebook identity with an Oodle listing, it shows up in Facebook Marketplace. If a user provides his Twitter user name, Oodle geocodes the ad and tweets the classified ad.

In a few months, Oodle will have a mobile app so people can view and post ads from their phones, according to Kirsten Bollen, an Oodle spokeswoman.

Some news organizations working with Oodle include Media General, ABC television news sites, Cox Broadcasting and some New York Times Regional Media Group newspapers. (Disclosure: I have done social media consulting for New York Times Regional Media Group newspapers.) Oodle gives its partners access to the full network of Oodle’s ads and tools, but each site has its own look and feel, according to Bollen.

When Oodle powers a classifieds site, Bollen said, it splits the revenue with the partner. If the partner participates in the sales process (for example, if it sells ads to local businesses) there are additional commissions and revenue splits.

Classifieds as set of services

Ryan is currently developing a classifieds platform called AdEverywhere, which will offer marketing and advertising tools — print, online and mobile — for small businesses and individuals.

AdEverywhere is based on the idea that a newspaper is not just an ad platform, but an advertising agency that provides services for local businesses. Ryan said newspapers will be able to use AdEverywhere, which will integrate with billing systems, as a replacement for their classifieds systems.

A business would be able to create an ad in AdEverywhere that would automatically be placed in the newspaper’s classified ad system. Listings could be tied to specific print and online news stories and be set to appear on mobile phones, RSS feeds, Facebook, Craigslist and text-messaging services.

AdEverywhere would display ads so users wouldn’t have to scan through highly abbreviated listings, according to Ryan. With garage sales, for instance, sellers would assign categories to their items, and buyers would be able to use those categories to find merchandise.

AdEverywhere is under development and it will be two to three months before it’s ready for the general public, though some components could be ready sooner.

The service implements many of the ideas Ryan and Outing outline in their Classifieds Manifesto:

  • Display relevant classified ads alongside news stories. News sites can use a story’s tags to serve related classified ads on story pages.
  • Display ads in a grid layout. Newspapers classifieds can be dense and difficult to read. If they were presented in a grid, with consistent icons and keywords such as “pet friendly,” people could easily scan for what they want.
  • Integrate mobile. For example, a mobile app that could access geotagged listings could be really useful for people looking for a car.
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