Prepare the obituary: The era of the daily newspaper as the news source is over. The Daily Tribune, Inquirer and Journals of the world have been recycled, replaced by multi-platform (online and off-line) entities that engage readers and operate around the clock. This rebirth is good news for advertisers big and small who will be able to more effectively target a growing audience.
Newspapers have been increasing their online operations in the past few years in an effort to replace falling revenue from diminishing print subscriptions as more people turn to online news and bloggers for their daily digest. Now they are going on the offense to expand their audience and build loyalty.
Publishers have been hemorrhaging print advertising dollars as retailers have been moving online. Print advertising was down by more than $11 billion (2.6 percent) in the third quarter of 2006 from the previous year. While online advertising on newspaper sites grew by $638 million during the third quarter of 2006, that is less than 6 percent of the print deficit, so the pressure is on to grow online revenue to make up the difference.
Publishers see engaging their audience through community and social collaboration features – which are part of the so-called “Web 2.0” technology wave – as the keys to driving traffic and advertising revenue growth. By incorporating “community” aspects from blogs and websites such as Digg, MySpace, YouTube and del.icio.us, publishers hope to increase reader loyalty and become the epicenter of their online news activities.
The Washington Post Newsweek Interactive (WPNI) Company saw this change coming and started to incorporate community participation into its websites two years ago. The company saw online revenue jump 24 percent during the third quarter of 2006, and by more than 31 percent for the year.
WPNI vice president of marketing Tim Ruder says bringing readers into the news process can enhance readership as well as the quality of the editorial. “Publishing is no longer in the realm of the exalted few, and to ignore the potential [of reader contributions] is suicidal,” he says.
Because reporters are generalists it is difficult for them to match the expertise of individuals on all topics, according to Ruder. “There is somebody out there who knows more” about nearly every topic, he says, and publishers can profit from giving them a forum for participation.
During the first quarter of 2007 WashingtonPost.com will introduce social networking, Ruder says. Readers will be able to create personalized Web pages to link to, comment on and share content, including articles, images and video. These new features will enable errors to be corrected and generate comments and new story ideas that can be used in print, he says.
Ruder believes that adding social networking features will increase traffic and give the company more online inventory to monetize through advertising. While adding one social aspect “won’t make us a million dollars,” collectively creating a dialogue with readers “will separate us editorially from others” and greatly increase reader loyalty, Ruder says.
Austin, Texas-based Pluck enables publishers to add social media aspects to their website without requiring programming. Pluck’s “Sitelife,” service includes the ability to attach comments to articles, create forums and blogs, and enables readers to post photos, according to general manager Eric Newman.
Pluck hosts the social areas on its servers, but the content is thoroughly integrated, according to Newman. Social networking elements “promote additional discovery on the website, which equals reader loyalty and page views,” he says.
Brad King, assistant professor of media informatics at Northern Kentucky University, says publishers who create a community by allowing readers to contribute could see “astronomic” growth in Web traffic. King warns, however, that publishers must provide oversight of the comments and user contributions so that advertisers will feel comfortable in having their ads alongside the content.
Publisher Gannett, which prints 98 regional newspapers plus the national paper USA Today, is among the most aggressive when it comes to redesigning its editorial and sales process around its community of readers.
Michael Maness, vice president of strategic planning for Gannett, says all of its newsrooms are being transformed to “information centers” that operate around the clock and will heavily rely on user contributions. “The future is pro-am, as in professional- amateur,” Maness says. Readers are asked to provide assistance in obtaining documents and images relevant to investigations and videos of breaking news events.
Maness says the Ft. Myers, Fla., News- Press got readers involved in investigating sewer utility rates, and the “crowd-sourced” investigation resulted in uncovering price fixing. At Gannett’s NYK.com, readers in the Northern Kentucky metropolitan area post information about local events and community stories, enabling Gannett to connect with a younger demographic of readers who primarily go online for news, according to Maness.
While the morning paper and nightly television news used to be the dominant sources of news, the Internet is becoming the go-to place for news for many Americans. According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, the majority of people with broadband say the Web is their first choice for science news.
Peter Negulescu serves a technology-savvy readership in his role as the vice president of digital media at the San Francisco Chronicle’s SFGate.com. Inviting readers to contribute will attract a desirable community of participants for advertisers and make the content more valuable, he says. “The role of the new media arm is to aggregate content to tell a more complete story.”
By recruiting “citizen journalists,” publishers can add to the breadth and depth of their content. Publishers most commonly offer fame as compensation, so the major cost is vetting all of the contributions to find those that are newsworthy.
By enticing readers to return to the website consistently and provide demographic information about themselves through the registration process, Negulescu says SFGate is increasing the ability to understand and deliver targeted advertising to its readers. “From a revenue perspective, adding social media engages readers more deeply,” he says.
At the end of 2006 SFGate launched Community Blogs, a section where a select group of readers write about topics of interest, and in early 2007 the website will allow readers to post comments to its news articles. Negulescu says adding reader input to the website “gives advertisers an opportunity to understand what people are talking about and how it fits with the marketing message.”
For example, an advertiser that is included in a restaurant guide or mentioned in a food review could respond to negative or positive comments. Negulescu does not expect that all marketers would want to advertise against user-generated content, so they will be able to specify the pages upon which they appear. Reader participation requires registering and providing some basic demographic information that can be used for target and email marketing.
What used to be considered newspaper websites can become information-based centers of community that provide unique value to advertisers, according to media consultant and blogger Susan Mernit. Readers/contributors can provide first-person accounts of unfolding events that will entice people to become loyal readers.
Posting reader commentary and images from the scene of a natural or man-made disaster can be more compelling than stories composed by professional journalists, Mernit says. Publishers could post pictures similar to the first images that were captured in the aftermath of the London subway bombing, says Mernit. “You want the equivalent of that picture for your audience.”
The plethora of choices for online content makes it a challenge for local advertisers to know where to go to reach potential customers, but newspaper sites are part of the daily reading regimen for many people with Internet access. Publishers that provide a community around local news can capture a loyal audience that makes for an attractive demographic. Adding user ratings of local businesses for entertainment events could enable news sites to best the local search sites such as directory services or CitySearch or Yahoo Local in capturing the community voice and attracting advertisers, according to Mernit.
HITTING LOCAL TARGETS
Advertising in print newspapers provides access to an audience that is generally located in limited geography, but online news sites can reach a wider swath of the population. Publishers that track where their audience lives can provide more targeted advertising to both local and national advertisers.
SFGate’s Negulescu says that 80 percent of his readers are in the Bay Area. The website’s servers automatically check the IP addresses of readers’ computers so that geotargeted ads can be delivered to either national or local audiences as requested by the advertiser, he says.
Gannett’s Maness says buying ads from newspaper publishers now resembles a TV purchase more than it does a print buy. “It used to be ‘How big of an ad do you want, and for how many days?’ Now it is all about audience reach.” Gannett has integrated its print and online sales so that the company can package a demographic of readers to meet advertiser needs. Advertisers who want a younger audience might spend more online, he says.
AGGREGATE AND BE AGGREGATED
In addition to allowing readers to contribute on their websites, publishers should allow content to be shared and manipulated on other sites to expand the audience. Publishers can significantly increase traffic by adding tools to their website so that readers can add links to their articles on ratings sites such as Digg or Reddit.
People who add tags (categories used by specialty search engines) to news articles through social websites are enhancing the content with metadata, according to educator King. Readers who interact with news content in this way are assembling personalized archives that create a community that publishers should encourage. “At the end of the day, Web 2.0 is a platform for communication that allows people to build other things upon it,” says King.
Publishers who join with rather than fight against news aggregation sites such as Yahoo News or Topix.net can also expand their ad inventory. Late in 2006, seven publishers, including the Hearst Corporation and Cox Enterprises, agreed to share content, advertising and technology with Yahoo News, the largest news portal. Yahoo News, in partnership with Reuters, has also embraced citizen journalism by creating the You Witness News website that enables readers to post articles and images.
Topix.net, a news aggregation site that organizes news from around the Web by location or by category, has received funding from three publishers – Gannett, the Tribune Company and McClatchy. Topix.net uses an algorithm that identifies the news stories relevant to a region, according to Chris Toiles, vice president of marketing. The company currently places AdSense ads on most of its local pages, but it can offer national advertisers targeted buys based on geography, he says.
Topix.net blends both regional and statewide stories and combines blogs with news stories, according to Toiles. Readers add 18,000 comments per day to articles and then Topix.net funnels that traffic to news publishers, he notes.
Publishers can also enhance their traffic by displaying competing news sources along with their content. Websites including SFGate enable readers to personalize pages by mixing their content with that of other news sites through a custom RSS reader. Readers can add feeds to customize their news-reading experience by category, according to SFGate’s Negulescu. Readers who visit the newspaper site every day can read news from around the Web on a branded SFGate page, which builds loyalty and keeps them on his site longer, he says.
Publishers are also incorporating content from bloggers from around the Web to increase their traffic and stickiness. WashingtonPost.com and others have incorporated Pluck’s syndicated BlogBurst content. Publishers can choose the BlogBurst blogs from dozens of categories, and the advertising revenue is split between Pluck and the publisher. Bloggers get increased traffic from links, and those that generate the most revenue will receive bonuses, according to Pluck’s Newman.
Newspapers that implement “social Web” technologies can learn more about readers and use that information to provide relevant content and targeted advertising. News, and the advertising system that support it, has been irreversibly opened so that more people can participate, and that is good news for all.
JOHN GARTNER is a Portland, Ore.-based freelance writer who contributes to Wired News, Inc., MarketingShift, and is the Editor of Matter-mag.com.