Dealing with the elephant: Hire Web-native salespeople

This is the third post in a short series I’m going to write about the business model for online news before I go back to my usual habit of banging my head up against walls made out of giant rolls of newsprint.  The starting point, the givens in the equation, are listed here.  Suggest what I should throw my weight at next using the Skribit widget in the sidebar of my blog.

Elephant in the room, part deux. by Cody Simms on Flickr
Elephant in the room, part deux. by Cody Simms on Flickr

Perhaps you’ve read, once or twice, a screed that I or others have written about what sort of skills an entry-level reporter should have these days if they expect to get a job anywhere other than a community weekly. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

The problem is, I don’t know if anyone has given your advertising department the same speech.

This is a crucial step in the incremental-growth projects I’m laying out here.

Because you can’t sell video business listings if your salespeople don’t know what’s going on in the online video world.  Because you can’t explain why your business directory looks so superior to search engines if you don’t read up on SEO.  Because you certainly can’t explain your local blog network to advertisers if you’re not familiar with the traffic and content and level of activity in the local blogosphere.  Because you can’t sell a fleet of niche social networks to advertisers if you can’t explain the value of the Long Tail.

The list goes on, full of things that should be obvious to news content producers at this point, but what about advertising content producers?

That’s right, you’re going to need sales reps who can produce content; I’m talking about something more than a graphic artist here.

Here’s what I’d be looking for in an ad sales rep if I were hiring one today:

  • Blogs and reads blogs.
  • Participates in social networks.
  • Knows how to shoot, edit, post video, and watches online video.
  • Has marketing skills beyond stickers and t-shirts.  Can make an engaging presentation in any format, whether it’s a handshake/smile/chat, Powerpoint, flip chart, or video conference.

And if you can’t find someone who can fill that role full-time, consider hiring a local videographer or small production house to put together advertising video from time to time.  Find a local partner and try to pay them (in part) with a sponsorship or advertising in trade.

When it comes to marketing, keep in mind that you, news producer, desperately need to get across to sales reps what it is that’s new, different, better, improved about your online product.

That means making presentations to them about new products, verticals, databases, and your fancy new content management system.  Yes, to be clear, I’m saying that you absolutely must get up from your desk and go stand in front of a room of advertising employees and explain to them why that mashup you just built is so cool, and what sort of advertisers you think might be interested.

Crazy, right? News and advertising working together?  Get used to it.  If you can’t find sales reps that understand what you’re working on, then you’ll need to consider going out on sales calls with them yourself.

That doesn’t mean you need to start memorizing rate cards and upselling, it means that you, person who built that awesome map with all the data overlays of crime, liquor store robberies, and standardized test scores, need to go tell the community (read as: the chamber of commerce, or the Elks, or the Rotary Club) why your project is so cool.

So get out there.  Hire people who can sell more than a banner ad.  Train your current reps to shoot and edit video.  Don’t skip over the advertising department when the new computers and cameras get ordered.  Write simple one-page summaries of the cool stuff you build online, and send it out to the whole department.

Hire like you mean it.

Hire a sales force for tomorrow’s product, not yesterday’s.

Dealing with the elephant: Incremental change

This is the second post in a short series I’m going to write about the business model for online news before I go back to my usual divisive blathering about how to avoid bureaucracy and feed trolls.  The starting point, the givens in the equation, are listed here.  Suggest what I should tackle next using the Skribit widget in the sidebar of my blog.


“Elephant Mud Frolic” by Intrepidation on Flickr.

If you read the post I wrote last week about building better business directories on news Web sites, you’ll notice a few things about the approach I’m taking to talking about the business model(s) for making money in online news:

  1. I’m not offering up some massive overhaul to the entire system of paid journalism at the moment, like taking newspapers non-profit, but there’s a lot to be said for that model, depending on how you feel about PBS or the BBC.
  2. What I’m making an attempt to focus on are incremental changes; ideally, these should be moves that can be put into action at your site quickly and effectively, without major staffing or organization overhauls, even though that might not be the worst idea.
  3. There are plenty of ideas floating around the Web that qualify as “little things” you can do to grow revenue on a news site, but I think somewhere in between the smallest things (like adding Google AdSense or other targeted text-link ads to all your ad positions) and the largest things (complete re-organization of the news industry), there’s a market for ideas that revolve around some of the medium-sized steps you can take to open new revenue streams that have little, if anything, to do with your print product.

For example, how about starting an ad network for local blogs?

It’s a simple equation:  Local bloggers have content; the local news organization has advertisers.  Keep it simple: Sell banner ad positions on the network as an upsell when an advertiser buys a spot on your news site.  “For $5 a month more, we can put your ad on a network of 25 local blogs with X average page views per month.”  Split the revenue with the bloggers 50/50 or come up with a formula based on page views.

Also, add a page featuring the latest headlines from the blog network to your news site.  For bonus points, keep an eye on that page and feature links to posts on relevant local blogs on article pages on a regular basis.  For super extra bonus points, throw up a Ning network for the local bloggers to give them a place to talk with each other directly.

So again, as with the business directory plan, you’ll find that running an ad network for local blogs involves the news and advertising sides of your organization actually communicating from time to time as you add new blogs to the network and award monthly revenue shares.

I’ve seen examples of local blog networks maintained by news organizations, and I’ve seen examples of advertising networks for higher traffic blogs, but has anyone tried what I’m pitching here?

Dealing with the elephant: Build a better business directory

This is the first in a short series I’m going to write about the business model for online news before I go back to my usual harangues at editors and rants at reporters, among others.  The starting point, the givens in the equation, are listed here.  Suggest what I should tackle next using the Skribit widget in the sidebar of my blog.

Product Placement: Elephant Car Wash by Ricardo Martins on Flickr
Product Placement: Elephant Car Wash by Ricardo Martins on Flickr

Let’s get down to business.

My goodness, do you pay a vendor for some sort of business directory full of aging addresses and phone numbers and little else?  Honestly, I know you do. And while some vendors might be better than others at keeping their data current and you (possibly) have some sort of forced upsell from print (see #2 here) that brings in a few dollars for each “featured” listing, you’re missing out on a boatload of revenue because the data is mediocre, and the presentation is always worse than that, with one notable exception.

I often throw the LJWorld’s Marketplace up as an example of a forward-thinking revenue stream.  Yes, it’s a business directory, but each listing comes complete with a graphic ad, video in some cases, hours, a locator map, and — here’s the important thing:  It’s easy for a local business owner to log in, claim their business, and update their own information.

That’s not some magical wonderful technology, it’s just taking advantage of the idea that a local business owner probably knows more than a cold-calling salesperson in a cube farm trying to verify data and upsell a “featured” listing.  As a bartender, I hung up on this sort of salesperson on a regular basis.

Make it dead simple for business owners to claim and update their listing.

Then, once they’re involved, maybe it’s time for a nice little online upsell.

When you sell a business a “featured” listing, really feature it!  Not just at the top of the list, but on your site’s home page, like at LJWorld.com, and not just there, but on relevant section pages.  Targeting advertising to content should be obvious enough by now: The sporting goods store wants to advertise in your sports section online, just like it does in print.

I’m not talking about banner ads here.  Keep that in mind — image-based advertising is useful for branding, but you cannot live on CPM alone.  Unless you’re an absolutely massive major metro, you don’t have the inventory (read as: traffic) to sell.  Instead, you’re offering a business listing (with a higher price for bells and whistles like video, mind you) that includes high-powered text links from places like your news site’s home page to your advertiser’s domain.  Search engines love that stuff.

Once you have that database of engaged business owners, tagged with relevant categories and sections, you should have a ready made list of sales leads when it comes time for that annual high school football preview or that summer event package.

Steps to implementation:

  1. Start gathering information.  Choose the fields you want to include on your business listing pages.  Create a (free) simple web form using Google Docs, then start collecting data from your existing advertisers and local businesses. Act casual. You’ll be calling them back later once you have a prototype ready to show off and sell.
  2. Develop or purchase a better piece of business listing software.  I recommend Marketplace, or develop your own in Django if you’ve got the staff/chops. SEO is crucial here. If this step is financially or contractually hairy, consider whether your existing business listing provider’s software creates an XML feed of entries, or a CSV export, or something similar, in which case there might be some structured data in there that you can work with.  If all else fails, plan to hand-code the featured listings you’ll be selling on select pages.
  3. Start gathering content for businesses that are buying the bells and whistles.  You’ll want existing video if they have it, but a more likely scenario is that you’re going to need to send a human being to the business with a video camera.  It would help if you trained advertising salespeople to use a video camera — and even better, to edit and produce short pieces about businesses.  More about that in another post in this series as soon as I get to it.
  4. Roll out the targeted featured listings and your new directory.  Make it clear to advertisers that they can edit their own listings.  If a business is mentioned in a news story, link to the listing. Promote the new directory and point advertisers to the upgraded listings with video.  If you’ve chosen to let readers add ratings and reviews, promote that feature in print and online in any story that mentions the business.

Bonus Round:

Build a local database (or wiki?) of local questions and answers, and sell featured placement in those pages to the relevant businesses.  Lucas Grindley wrote about this idea recently (business plan and all) after Google’s Knol launched.  Mahalo is a better model for this purpose than either Knol or Wikipedia.  The goal should be a human-authored page that contains the answers to a common question about your town.

For example, in Santa Cruz, answer questions like “Where can I park for free downtown?” and “When is the Boardwalk open?” to really please actual readers looking for actual information.  It’s not hard to imagine the businesses on Pacific Ave. and Beach Street that would fight for the chance to sponsor those pages.

The local FAQ is fodder for a different post, and deserves some mockups and diagrams, too.  I’ll get to that shortly…

The business model is still the elephant in the room

As much fun as it is for me to make clever lists and shout from the hilltops about what I think your news organization should be doing, how they should be doing it, and why they should be doing it, no matter what argument I (or anyone else) has in favor of a certain technology or against a certain methodology, the broken business model of newspapers remains the giant elephant in the room.

Big 5 - Elephant by TheLizardQueen on Flickr
Big 5 – Elephant by TheLizardQueen on Flickr

Let’s start with a few different angles on the state of the news business.  I’m not saying that all of these are absolute truths, but I am saying that all of these angles lead to the same conclusion.

  • Print circulation is dropping, online readership is climbing.  We don’t yet know how best to turn online eyeballs into income.
  • Print advertising revenue is falling, online ad revenue is climbing, but the former is happening at a much faster pace than the latter.  We don’t yet know how best to turn online eyeballs (or community, or participation, for that matter) into income.
  • Regardless of what else we change about our print edition, or how we present information online, or how we reorganize our newsrooms, funding investigative and enterprise reporting must be part of the core mission of the industry.
  • The Web has disrupted the traditional relationships between print advertisers and their customers (and between print advertisers and newspapers) more than it has disrupted traditional relationships based on print newspaper content.  We need to find new ways to connect advertisers to consumers in a way that leads to profits for our organizations.

If you accept any of those points as a given, you come to the natural conclusion that the problem of working out new business models for news organizations needs our attention, and not just as an aside.

An Aside: I’m going to assume that it’s necessary for major metro newspapers to survive and thrive as news producers.  I don’t always believe that’s true, frankly, and there are any number of organizations getting started online, including folks doing critical investigative reporting, that could be part of the proof that this society has outgrown its need for newspapers as the “lifeblood of our democracy.”  That said, again, I’m going to assume — for now — that we need to save newspapers.

All this is just a fancy way to lay out a little plan I’ve been thinking about lately:

I’m not going to write any manifestology here for a while.  Instead, starting with my next post, I’ll explore some online news business model questions — and opportunities — for, say, ten posts or until I get bored with it.

Things I might write about:

  • News organizations as Web development shops
  • Building a better business directory
  • Relevant text link ads based on that better business directory
  • How to hire and train advertising salespeople who can produce content
  • Basic, incremental changes you can make today to start bringing in extra pennies

Please do add your suggestions in the comments, or use the Skribit suggestion box in the sidebar of my blog to vote on these first five bullet points.

Debunking the coulda-shoulda-woulda myth of online news

I’m trying quite hard to stay out of the business of chasing after curmudgeons with a laptop in my hand, shouting “But you got it all wrong!”

Trying. Quite. Hard.

So let this be just a generic blanket response to a common misconception about the business of online news.

The premise, as laid out in hand-wringers running in handsome op-ed columns in handsome print editions all over the world, periodically:

If only newspapers had charged for online access to the news when this whole Interweb thing got started, they wouldn’t be in such a mess right now.

This, my friends, is a false assumption.

So here’s the deal: Putting the news behind a paywall as early as, say, AOL’s heyday – or earlier if you prefer – would have actually served to accelerate the rise of blogs, citizen media, and flight away from news-on-paper.

Why?

Because pulling your content out of the stream of connections that is the Web would have led to members of your community making even more connections themselves, without your help.

Newspapers would have essentially ceded the public forum to the public, an admirable and honorable move, but not a profitable one.

Make it harder for a person to get informed about their surroundings through your product all you want, but please don’t walk around assuming you’re The Only Game In Town.

That’s a topic for a different post, but rest assured that your readers know how to communicate with each other without your help.

They’re not as dumb as you think.

Smart single-copy sales

In the IHT, via Romenesko:

“Now The Standard is fighting back, using a new, cashless payment system to try to make it easier for Londoners to buy the paper, even if they do not have the necessary 50 pence, or $1, in their pockets. Instead of handing over a coin or two, readers touch a card, called Eros, onto specially equipped devices at more than half of its 300 vendors around London.”

That’s what I’m talking about: Modernize the experience of buying the print edition if you want anyone to even think about doing it.

Wait, it gets better, I love this part:

“The Eros cards, which can be bought via the Internet, offer a discount on the price of the paper. The discount increases with the frequency of purchases.”

Now we’re talking: Buy the card online (or at a kiosk on the street, I’m hoping) and you actually get a better deal than you would with your quarters, er, pence, and the deal gets better the more often you buy the paper.

So not only are you now modernizing the purchase experience, but you’re building brand loyalty and putting a piece of marketing for your paper in the pocket of the consumer.

Yes to all of that, and yes again.

Modernize everything.

The one dollar newspaper

Call me some sort of radical, but here’s a simple proposal that I think could provide newspapers with a big boost in single copy sales, and profits, too:

  1. On the rack or in the box, your newspaper now costs one dollar. When was the last time you paid less than a dollar for a bottle of water? When was the last time you paid less than a dollar for a cup of coffee? Do you really think the majority of readers who buy single copies are going to stop buying them because now they don’t have to figure out how many nickels they need? Which brings me to…
  2. Your boxes now accept dollar bills. Again, when was the last time you worried about whether or not you had exact change for a soda machine? Don’t make me think about having quarters in my pocket (I never do) or where I can get change. Modernize those boxes so they actually look like machines anyone under the age of 65 might interact with on a regular basis.

That’s it, just two steps to better sales. Add a credit card swiper to the boxes if you really want to get wild.

(This idea came to me while posting a comment on John Hassell’s Exploding Newsroom blog – check it out.)

[UPDATE: Yoni Greenbaum posts a comment with a link to the best newspaper boxes I’ve ever seen.]