By Steve Outing
• January 2nd, 2009 • E-mail this post
In the short life of ReinventingClassifieds.com, a lot of outstanding ideas have been floated for helping newspapers resurrect their classifieds businesses. As the year 2008 has closed out (and is there anybody out there in media land who isn’t happy to have seen it pass?), we thought we’d save you the time of combing through old blog items and summarize what we believe to be some of the best suggestions that newspaper publishers and classifieds managers should implement in 2009. (In no particular order.)
1. Put design talent on the job of redesigning classifieds
There have been some high-profile print-edition newspaper redesigns this year (e.g., some Tribune Co. newspapers), but often the design teams were kept busy on the editorial product and ignored the classifieds section. Many print newspaper classifieds sections still look like something out of the 1970s or 1980s. They still cram in as much ad text on a page as possible, with little thought to usability and ease of searching for something specific.
So put your design team to work on a total modernization of the print classifieds section. A decent example of this was what the St. Petersburg Times (Florida) did in 2008, rethinking, redesigning, and renaming their classifieds section as BayLink.
And while the design team is at it, make sure they are doing the best job possible in designing links, tie-ins, and promotion to the online and mobile components of the newspaper’s overall classifieds experience.
Finally, your design team could probably improve your online classifieds. Many newspaper website classifieds are still archaic in their design and functionality, and can’t compete with some of the better online-only classifieds operations.
2. Use print cutbacks to reposition resources to digital
As you’re no doubt aware, a growing number of newspapers are cutting the number of print editions that they publish each week in order to save money. The Cincinnati Enquirer hasn’t cut print editions from the weekly line-up yet, but it will stop publishing the classifieds section on Mondays and Tuesdays.
This is not all bad news; consider the silver lining. A successful reinvention of newspaper classifieds will mean doing a much better job with website classifieds and developing new mobile classifieds services. As a newspaper staff and management’s demands for producing the daily print edition decline, there will be more energy (and urgency) put into creating killer online and mobile services. Classifieds managers should make sure they’re a big part of that.
3. Stop being timid, dammit!
2009 is going to be a rough year for the newspaper industry. On the digital front, until now the majority of newspapers have made incremental moves toward developing and offering more and better online and mobile content and services. This year will require that more radical change occurs. So start experimenting. Experiment some more. Kill the failures quickly and move on to another. Experimentation can include print; must include online and mobile; and ideally should integrate them all.
It’s abundantly clear that some newspapers are going to die in 2009 (many largely due to the debt sins of their parent companies, an economic situation that makes it unlikely that buyers can be found, and investors’ overall perception that newspapers are no longer a reasonable place for their money). In order not to become one of the casualties, classifieds managers must start innovating radically.
4. Act like your CEO (is supposed to)
Out of the recent industry Crisis Summit of newspaper CEOs held by the American Press Institute came some excellent tips for newspaper leaders. The list applies well to those who run newspaper classifieds operations:
- Act like an entrepreneur; stop thinking first about why a new approach won’t work.
- Create a portfolio of initiatives; recognize that some will fail and kill those quickly.
- Don’t wait for every data point before taking action. “Ready, fire, aim” should be the operating principle.
- Use downsizing as a tool when necessary to achieve a larger strategy, not simply as a cost-cutting goal.
- Figure out how to leverage core competencies into new directions and new niches.
- Be honest with employees, and get ideas from those on the front lines.
- Don’t sit and cower and weep about your problems. Inspire.
- Collaborate with outside entities that can bring expertise or resources.
- Pay attention to, and leverage, the brand.
5. Think outside the ‘walled garden’
One of the biggest mistakes that newspaper publishers and classifieds managers can make is in thinking that their product is a single destination for the reader/consumer. We’re in an age of information overload. That old Bruce Springsteen song, “57 Channels (And Nothin’ On),” is a joke today. Media consumers have millions of destinations to choose from in all forms of media. For 2009, focus on getting your classifieds out beyond just your own newspaper’s website(s), print edition(s), and mobile services. How can you help your classified advertisers to share their ads on social networks that they participate in? Can you facilitate getting the ads they place through you in other (even competing) newspapers by sharing revenue? Can you get their ads placed on other relevant classifieds websites? That’s a big thing you should be focusing on in 2009.
6. Become a classifieds portal
For lots of newspapers, Craigslist has decimated some of their classifieds categories, especially in the merchandise categories, but it’s also hurt in areas like apartment rentals, personals, non-skilled jobs, etc. Online, consider pulling in RSS ad feeds from other classifieds services, so your website becomes a place where consumers can find what they want, even if it may not be an ad that you sold directly. Consider working with vendors like Oodle and iList, which can facilitate that. Again, get your mind away from the walled-garden model, which is a dead end in the digital-dominated, over-saturated media environment that we now live in.
7. Get serious about mobile
You know that iPhone thingie? They’re selling pretty well (16 million at last count), and they’re spawning competitors like the Storm from Blackberry, and upcoming smartphones using Google’s Android mobile-device operating system. Within a year, iPhone-like phones (that is, handheld computers with fast Internet connectivity, GPS-based location services, and a huge and growing number of incredibly useful applications) will become the norm as consumers trade in their old(-fashioned) handsets.
Classifieds managers should not be content with letting smartphone owners use their web browsers to search or browse the ads on the newspaper’s website. (That’s clunky.) They must develop easy-to-use applications for the phone. Particularly promising are apps that utilize the phones’ location abilities. Develop an app that a consumer can search for, say, 2003-2005 Honda Civics for sale locally and see the locations of each pinpointed on a map. Click the pin for phone number and car details; click the number to call the dealer or owner; then click again to get road directions from current location. Apps like that already exist from independent developers. Hire or contract them to get you up to speed on mobile opportunities and apply that to classifieds.
8. Rethink your ad rates, and simplify them
We hear complaints (and heartily agree) that many newspapers are holding on to complicated rate structures that turn off ad buyers. Especially with website placement of ads by the user (you DO have that, right?), keep it simple. Easy-to-grasp package deals (price A, price B, etc.) are preferable to the complicated piecemeal approach ($1 extra for bold headline; $5 for placement at top of section; $3 for a grey screen; $10 extra per photo; etc.), which can tire and annoy the customer just wanting to quickly place an ad.
Is Craigslist strong in your city? If it’s selling job ads for 30 days at $75 and you’re charging 3 times that, well, take a reality check and get competitive. Some of your categories may have to go free if they haven’t already, since most Craigslist ads are free to place.
9. Treat print classifieds more like a catalog
Media and classifieds consultant Joe Michaud suggested an intriguing approach to printed newspaper classifieds: Treat them like a retail catalog, which doesn’t feature every item in the retailer’s inventory but rather promotes a set of select items (e.g., clothes based on the season). His idea is that the printed classifieds become less of a mass of tiny, unreadable type, and more of an effective promotional vehicle for some products and services, and a way to drive consumers to the full inventory of ads available on the newspaper’s website or via its mobile-device service.
10. Upsell and place classifieds in editorial sections
This idea has its critics, but some newspaper designers and consultants think that it’s a smart idea to get select blocks of classifieds into appropriate editorial sections (print and online). The print sports section, for instance, could feature a tabular block of sports cars that the advertisers have paid an extra fee to be included. Services classifieds could be set to rotate on pages in the website’s gardening area. Upsold product-specific blocks can even be placed in other publications or websites (your own or competing publishers’).
11. Take video seriously
There’s lots of opportunity with video ads, so start to take advantage of it. Nowadays, most people have either a digital still camera that also shoots video, a video-capable cell phone, or a video camera, so it’s simple for anyone to shoot their own video to sell their house, car, bicycle, or whatever. Consultants like Alan Jacobson and Janet DeGeorge believe that newspapers still have an opening to create video classifieds services and incorporate them into their existing classifieds offerings, especially since many online-only classifieds competitors (like Craigslist) don’t support video ads. Print classifieds for homes for sale, for instance, should point to online video tours of the properties. A newspaper could even hire a videographer to shoot video home tours for Realtors who don’t want to do it themselves. Video WILL play a growing role in classifieds soon, so move on this quickly.
12. Treat classifieds as content
Especially with Craigslist affecting so many newspapers by offering free ads, newspapers in Craigslist cities have seen some of their classifieds categories decimated, and as a result some have switched to various forms of free ad offers (usually limited to individual sellers and for limited length). There are several strategies for dealing with this, including offering upsold premium services to enhance the initial free ad: premier placement, extra photos, additional fee publication in print and not just online, etc. Another is to treat a page of free ads as CONTENT and sell relevant display ads around them.
Taken a step further, allow other web publishers to grab feeds of your free ads, which they can use to sell display ads around. But if you limit the feeds to those ads that pay you for wider-distribution, you and the participating publishers win.
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