Also posted at www.AIMGroup.com
Recently I’ve reviewed a number of small newspapers’ websites and strategies, particularly around classifieds. As you might expect, there are a few common threads. They are not universal, by any means. Some sites need a lot of work, and some just need some tweaking.
Before I get into those areas for improvement, I should say I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the openness of smaller newspapers to thinking differently, compared to larger papers. On the other hand, if you don’t have much auto advertising, I suppose you’re more likely to see that category as opportunity rather than risk.
So, a few recommendations for smaller papers to generate results:
1. Clear strategy for classifieds. Many papers still seem to define classifieds as “whatever comes in on the phone.” There’s big revenue opportunity in acting more intentionally about these categories. Why not decide to be the best resource in your region for buying a car, finding a home or getting a job? Why not be the best place for advertisers looking to find those consumers?
2. Classifieds as categories, rather than as a homogenous mass. Neither consumers nor advertisers think much about “classifieds.” They have a job to fill or a car to sell or a house to buy. Speak to those needs in product mix, in site navigation, in promotion.
3. Targeted products. Keep them simple, and focus each on consumer and advertiser needs in a category. The needs of a homebuyer are vastly different than those of a jobseeker.
4. Simple pricing. Figure out what price points make sense for advertisers in each vertical category in your market. Pick no more than 3-5 and be prepared to shift based on feedback.
5. Clearer site navigation to classifieds. Many sites make it unnecessarily difficult to find that car for sale. Highlight the classifieds categories in sitewide navigation, on every page.
6. Show off your assets. Top Jobs is an excellent model for all classifieds categories. Why? Because it takes advantage of something newspaper sites have, that no vertical site has: drive-by traffic. Find ways to pull classifieds content onto every page, not just jobs, and not just on the home page.
7. Cleaner branding. Sure, I’m a believer in creating a new brand that says “Hey, our homes site is much, much more than simply the newspaper classifieds.” But if it isn’t, do you really want to put the time and effort into promoting MontanasBestRealEstateForYouOutofTownSuckers.com? Better to keep it simple, and leverage your marketing dollars more efficiently.
8. SEO’d site structure. Why make a site look smaller than it has to be? Many small newspapers have a small news site and a small auto site and a small homes site, all under different URLs. Google happily sees them all as separate small sites, and ranks them accordingly. Yet simple URL changes could make the collection look like a medium-sized site, and earn it the higher rankings it deserves in all categories.
9. Better use of space. Encourage your web designers to think in terms of “static” and “dynamic” content. Dynamic means story headlines that change regularly, and ads that change regularly. Static means logos, navigation, lists that don’t change, basically things your users will quickly learn to ignore. The first screen of every page — from home page to classifieds verticals — should be heavily weighted with dynamic content. That first screen is prime real estate. Be ruthless. Every pixel should be there for a reason.
10. Less clutter. Somewhat related, but mostly about ads. Cut down on the number of display ad positions. Tiny rectangles aren’t effective for advertisers. If you have small advertisers who need a low-priced solution, find one. Reserve your display ad inventory for those who need, and can pay for, high visibility.
11. Reposition as a partner. Newspapers in small markets have an opportunity that their large-metro brethren have long since lost: They can be a real partner to local merchants, employers, realtors and auto dealers as these businesses seek customers online. Done right, this opportunity represents real growth for small-market newspapers.
Taken together, these points mean smaller papers are leaving significant money on the table in classifieds categories, and the amount is probably just a function of their market’s economics and demographics. The good news is, those smaller publishers seem much more willing to make the changes required to go get it.