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…