To Build Inventory and Ad Revenue, Newspaper Sites Let Users Socialize

Newspapers have long been a centerpiece of local community life, but paper publishers are recognizing the need to foster community in new ways through their Web sites. Tribune Interactive, for instance, recently announced it will enable social media features on its sites through a partnership with VMix Media, which plans to announce additional deals with paper publishers in the coming month. Not only could social tools keep users coming back to check up on city hall happenings or high school sports scores; they could fulfill a dire need for new ad revenue streams and ad inventory.

The Bakersfield Californian struck out into the social sphere two years ago with its Bakotopia site, and since has developed ten social networking sites, each centered around particular communities or themes, including one dedicated to area newcomers, and another frequented by residents of nearby mountain town, Tehachapi. Since adding the social functions, the publisher has seen audience traffic rise 15 to 20 percent, said Dan Pacheco, senior manager of digital products for The Bakersfield Californian.

For newspaper sites in need of creating more volume, enabling user-generated content “is the cheapest way to foster bigger growth,” said Ken Doctor, lead news analyst at media market research firm Outsell. User-created content can double inventory volume at a production cost of one to three percent the cost of staff-produced newspaper content, Doctor added.

Bakotopia plans to connect users to one another and relevant news through tagging. In addition to creating more places to push its news content, linking profile pages or blog posts by keywords will also make for highly-targeted contextual advertising.

The site will also introduce free business profile pages featuring user ratings and reviews. Merchants will be able to run display ads on their own pages and those of their competitors. Another up-sell: an enhanced profile allowing users to respond to user reviews or send messages to regular customers.

“It’s individuals interacting in a community just like the way they do in real life,” said Pacheco, who added that relationship-building marketing opportunities like these “will ultimately be more valuable to local advertisers.”

That’s not to say there’s no place for national advertisers in these newspaper networks. The Denver Newspaper Agency, a joint operation of paper publishers MediaNews Group and The E. W. Scripps Co., aims to create a national network of social sites running off its YourHub platform. Starting in over 40 Denver metro area regions and rolled out to Scripps properties in Florida and California, the user-generated sites feature blogs, reviews, forums, event calendars, and yellow pages and contextual advertising.

The network even has a separate sales staff, according Outsell’s Doctor, who researched the social newspaper phenomenon for an October 2006 Outsell report. “This is a different kind of [salesperson] who is rooted in the community…who doesn’t come from that newspaper background,” he said.

Looking to reach a local audience, international advertiser Starbucks spent $100,000 to sponsor a YourHub community, according the Outsell report.

Both YourHub and Bakomatic, the software that powers the Bakotopia sites, are available to other sites for licensing. Other newspaper publishers also sell proprietary social software, including Morris Communications’ Morris DigitalWorks, which offers a photo blogging tool called Spotted, and Belo, which powers photo sharing on San Antonio site through its PixShare application.

Taking the buy-out route, The McClatchy Company purchased community sites and in December. McClatchy, which publishes local papers The Fresno Bee and The Modesto Bee, aims to reach a younger audience through the acquisitions.

To interact with older business-minded users, The Tacoma News Tribune paired up recently with social networking platform provider Konnects to create an online community of Puget Sound-area professionals. Users can create interest groups, forums and blogs, and determine degrees of separation from other network members.

“For the paper, this is a way to strengthen ties to the business community,” said Jim Crabbe, president and CEO of Konnects. The platform also integrates news article links with relevant user-generated content areas, he said. The vendor is rolling out a feature soon allowing businesspeople to promote their profiles through keyword-targeted ads featuring images, text, and links to profile pages. “Now we’re advertising individuals at a company versus just a company,” Crabbe added.

Beginning with an integration that kicked off last week, Tribune Interactive will incorporate VMix’s user-generated content platform on its newspaper sites. The user-created videos, photos and blogs will generate quite a bit of data allowing the publisher to develop new advertising segments based on content categories, zip code, gender, and who’s viewing and uploading what content.

Referring to a popular arena for user-generated site content, football, VMix co-founder and EVP Terry Ash said, “We know [newspaper site] CPMs could be much higher if they could isolate 18- to 25-year-old football fans from the North end of Chicago.”

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