Rise Up! A Classifieds Manifesto
Classifieds are dead. Long live classifieds 2.0
By Christopher Ryan and Steve Outing
It’s not too late.
Popular wisdom would have newspaper classifieds in the grave. But that’s just wrong.
While the classifieds sector of the newspaper business has seen billions of dollars move to online media in the last few years, and lots of revenue simply disappear to free digital classifieds services, we don’t believe that the trend line will inevitably end at zero. With some revolutionary new ideas, better leveraging of new technology, and a new mindset by managers and strategists at newspaper companies, classifieds revenues can turn the line upward again.
The best prospects are new and better digital models for classifieds for newspapers’ websites and mobile-device services. But even print classifieds can bounce back, albeit not to the levels of the past.
Of course, this assumes that those responsible for running newspaper classifieds operations are able to adjust their mindsets, throw out old ways of doing things and old business models, and set forth on a path of reinvention, not just incremental change and piddling experiments.
Newspapers still have large audiences — so there’s still the opportunity for revolution. So we not-so-humbly offer this Classifieds Manifesto:
1. Change your entire business model! Right now!!!
Under the old model, when newspapers held near-monopolies on classifieds for their communities, the job was to passively sell lineage. Attract as many advertisers as possible and cram them into as few pages as possible, making money printing ink on paper and then getting out of the way. That’s history.
Your job now is to help people sell cars, homes, bicycles; rent apartments; sell homes; find people jobs, and dates, and handymen. Reinventing newspaper classifieds means becoming more active in the selling process. This will require some thinking outside the box in setting up new classifieds-related services and new businesses.
For example, lots of people sell their cars privately, because going to the trouble of doing so usually brings in more cash than trading in the old car at the dealer. But that’s a pain, and not everyone appreciates or is comfortable with strangers coming to their homes to check out their car. A local newspaper can provide a convenient, safer alternative by creating its own used-car lot.
Here’s the scenario: Publisher rents a secure parking lot, installs some security cameras, and invites sellers who pay for an ad in the newspaper and its website (and other affiliated or partner publishing properties) to park the car in the lot. Car shoppers see the ad then drive to the lot where they can see the car, take it for a test drive, or let a mechanic check it out. The newspaper has hired a salesman to watch over the lot and let potential buyers take test drives, perhaps even handling the sales transaction for the car seller. The ads may even be free, and the publisher earns money from a commission percentage on the final sales price. The sales person you’ve hired could even produce video ads for the cars, for a fee, which go on the newspaper’s website.
A related idea is to either rent space or use some of that empty office space caused by laid-off staff and create a “store” or warehouse-like facility where people selling items can find them in the printed or online classifieds section, then drive to the facility and inspect and buy the item (bicycle, lawnmower, diamond ring, etc.). The seller places a free ad and drops off the item; when it’s sold, seller gets payment minus a percentage cut for the publisher.
Both of those ideas involve extending the role of a newspaper from merely hosting ads, to hosting ads and assisting in or completing the transaction. An even more radical but similar idea is for the newspaper company to become a Realtor itself — or more specifically, to hire a licensed Realtor (or several) and create a new division that sells homes. Selling your house this way would be no different than working with any other Realtor, except that the newspaper’s ad and marketing departments would provide a full range of marketing materials and ads to the seller for free. The publisher’s income, of course, comes from the commission the seller pays upon sale of the property.
Wouldn’t that make the Realtors in town so angry that they wouldn’t do business with the newspaper any longer? If they’re not bringing you as much money as they used to, this might make financial sense, still. Or let local Realtors compete to become your partner in this. Or take a slightly less aggressive approach and offer free advertising and an agent to handle the transaction, so that selling a home this way falls in between working with a traditional Realtor and a FSBO (for sale by owner).
You get the point. Do business outside of the traditional publishing box. Extend your role beyond the traditional.
2. You are strong! Flex your editorial muscles!
Newspapers remain the dominant source for local news content that no one else has, so whether in print or on the website, people will continue coming to the local newspaper. As a place to find classifieds ads? Not so much any more. So to play to your strengths, pull selected ads out of the classifieds section “ghetto” and position them next to relevant editorial content. For example, aggregate all the golf-related liner ads and put them in a box near golf stories in the Sports section; this can be done in print or online. You’ll be providing added value to the classified advertisers by applying this to all sorts of categories.
Those ads should still be included (also) in the main classifieds section, but repeated in editorially contextual placements. Such added-value placement could be sold for an extra fee (upsell), but it may make more sense to include this as a core part of the service to advertisers to enhance your value to them and compete against free classifieds sites.
3. You have to make it easier, man!
This goes for print and online, but the typical print classifieds section is the worst offender. Get rid of the traditional 10 columns of dense, tiny liner text that must be scoured ad by ad to find what you want. Instead, move to designs that make it easy for a reader to scan a page of ad content and spot specific things.
The idea of using grids or tables to feature, say, a list of cars for sale — in place of the usual column of hard-to-scan liners — has been around for a long time. Newspaper designers who bothered to pay attention to classifieds as long as a decade or more ago recommended using grids or tables to make it easier for the reader to scan and target specific characteristics (Honda – Accord – 2005 or newer). But their good ideas were rejected by the industry, and for the most part still are today. Let’s recognize that this is a smart idea that can make print classifieds relevant and useful again.
Another way newspaper classified liners make it difficult for readers is by abbreviating words to save space. (Mary Lou Fulton of the Bakersfield Californian calls traditional newspaper liner ads “haiku.” She’s right.) Often the abbreviations are so obtuse that you can’t be sure what they mean, and this makes it more difficult for a reader to scan a long column of ads. Instead, use standardized graphical icons to represent things like number of bedrooms, allows pets, etc. This change can make a page of printed classifieds more useful and powerful, rather than annoying.
Similar principles can be applied to online presentation of classified ads, whether a directory-like page of cars for sale, or a list of search results using grids and graphic icons to make it easier to find exactly what you want from a long search results page.
4. Your rate structure sucks! Simplify it!
One of the worst sins of newspaper classifieds operations in the Internet era is the convoluted pricing schemes that many publishers cling to. While the (mostly online) competition is free or fixed price, you can still find newspaper classifieds call centers and online ad ordering systems offering customers byzantine deals. In this landscape, rate manipulation won’t be tolerated, since advertisers have effective, and typically cheaper, alternatives.
That doesn’t mean that the upsell is dead, but offering a long list of upsell options is no longer a relevant practice. A better approach is to offer packages or tiers: Good, Better, Best. Upsell features can be added to the Better package; yet more to the Best package.
You want potential advertisers to understand what they’re getting and how much it will cost. They should be able to figure this out quickly and easily, without answering a bunch of questions or making a lot of web-form selections to get to a price. Simplifying rate structures this way can put you back in the game. And by the way, your base-level package may be free, with higher-tier packages offering significant extra value for a fee.
5. Craigslist, eBay, Monster.com et al are killing you; do what they don’t do!
This is not to say that you can’t crib good ideas from your online-only competitors, but also look at what they are NOT doing that you can. Some of the ideas that fit here were mentioned above, like creating a convenient way for private vehicle owners to sell their cars without any hassle by letting you handle the whole process, from advertising to final sale. Create a video-production department that landlords and home sellers can use to create video tours of a property at low cost, which the seller can post on YouTube, to social networks, include on the newspaper website, and link to in printed classified ads.
Even in categories that seem as though they’ve been lost to Craiglist, there are opportunities. For example, develop a garage sale mobile phone application that people can use to search for sales offering specific items (e.g., kids clothes); the app will identify current and future sales and pinpoint them on a map, and give driving directions. That gives garage sale advertisers incentive to do more than just place an ad on Craigslist.
6. Expand your scope! Think like an ‘agency’!
A key to reinventing newspaper classifieds is to branch out, where the newspaper takes on a local ad agency-like role. You’ll succeed if you can turn your classifieds operation into a one-stop solution for local businesses to market and promote themselves. For instance, some newspapers have had success in working with Yahoo!, where newspaper ad reps are taught how to sell online ads into local exposure through Yahoo!’s web properties while also continuing traditional sales into their paper’s print edition and website. So reach out and find other partners who can help spread a seller’s message beyond just the newspaper properties with online and print bundles.
A local newspaper also can provide additional components of an integrated marketing package to go beyond simple classifieds. For example, let’s consider a hypothetical customer, Sam the Handyman. The newspaper might offer Sam a marketing package, which would of course include classified ads in the print edition and the paper’s website, but also could include tools for Sam to create a website or blog, and a direct-mail campaign option, and another to spread his ad to other relevant websites, and an option to purchase Google search ads targeted at local homeowners. Using a Good-Better-Best packaging strategy as mentioned above, Sam can choose how aggressive of an integrated marketing campaign he wants to buy. And it’s all handled by one party: his local newspaper.
7. Don’t be afraid to ask! Tell local consumers to support their community
“Buy Local” is a common refrain in many communities, as small businesses get pushed out of business or hurt by out-of-town giants like Wal-mart and Starbucks. Such a message can be applied by a local newspaper, which should make no apologies about asking community members to save local journalism by supporting their hometown newspaper. Of course, you have to offer classifieds packages that meet advertisers’ needs and are competitive with what’s available to them online. If you follow the directions laid out in this manifesto, you’ll have that covered.
So a campaign to drum up new classifieds business can point out how using, say, Craigslist does not support the community, while doing business with the (reinvented) newspaper keeps money in the local economy and supports local journalism and a healthy local watchdog press.
8. Think for yourself! Lead, don’t just follow!
This applies especially to newspapers that are part of larger media companies with multiple newspaper properties. In the current newspaper crisis environment, it’s false economy for corporate to mandate that all its papers do things exactly the same. Now more than ever, you want people to experiment and try new things, so enable them to do so and provide incentives if they succeed. An era of rapid change like what we’re in now does not lend itself to homogenization.
Corporate officers can certainly make recommendations, and even mandate implementation of a solution or program that turned out to be a wild success in an experiment at another paper. But prohibition and discouragement of experimentation simply doesn’t work in a fast-changing and dangerous environment like the one we find ourselves in today.
9. Be smarter about using your staff! They should be doing outreach!
By now, newspapers shouldn’t be wasting too much time of human staffers answering the phones to take ad orders. Website forms should be the first place that classified advertisers are directed, where they can select packages, enter ad text, submit images and videos, etc. Only if an advertiser does not have Internet access (increasingly rare) should a phone number to place an ad be offered. (A voicemail tree can urge those who do call on the phone to place their ads online, and only those who need to will persevere through the voice prompts to talk to a human sales rep.)
And recognize the increasing importance and sophistication of mobile phones. Newspapers should have mobile applications that people can use to place and pay for ads from their phones. (Since most phones now include cameras, and many have video capability, too, this makes it especially convenient to place an ad from a mobile device.)
With good automated ad-taking systems, human staff can be set loose on pro-active recruitment of new advertisers — hitting the streets, the phone, and e-mail to find new customers, with the “burden” of sitting and waiting for calls to come in a thing of the past.
10. Want to survive? Shift innovation focus to the ad side!
Newspaper culture long has favored the editorial side at the expense of those who toil to financially support the journalists by selling ads. As a result, much newspaper digital innovation (indeed, this goes for the print edition as well) has occurred with content and design. You may have noticed that some recent print-edition newspaper redesigns have affected every section of the paper except for classifieds. Too many print classifieds sections still look basically the same as they did two decades or more ago. Newspaper website classifieds sections too often look archaic compared to online-only classifieds competitors. (I’ll exclude Craigslist, here, since that site design hasn’t changed much in a decade.)
Newspaper publishers must shift more innovation resources to classifieds, indeed the ad operation overall. Experiment more, and devote more of your innovators’ and designers’ time on improving and reinventing classifieds. Bring in a manager (and remove the old one if he/she is getting in the way) whose charge is to innovate out of the mess newspaper classifieds finds itself in.
11. Be a powerhouse! Integrate print, web, and mobile!
A mistake we often see is a print section full of classified ads, with only some of them containing “weblinks” — short codes that a reader can type on a newspaper webpage to find out much more information. Every print ad should have a weblink, which provides an advertiser’s full message: expanded text, photo or photo gallery, videos, reviews of the product, make-a-bid feature, ask-the-seller-a-question link, seller’s user ratings, etc.
Do you really expect an advertiser today to pay you for a few words that get printed and added to your website, and that’s all they get? Get real; that hasn’t worked for years. Your ad ordering systems should be capturing as much data as the advertiser is willing to give, which then makes multiple options for distributing the advertiser’s message possible. Among the data capture should be location information (geo-tagging of ads), which can be used in a variety of ways depending on the medium that the ad appears in. If you’ll refer back to point No. 6, you’ll see that by collecting lots of information from the advertiser, there will be more opportunities to spread the advertiser’s message further, from placement in social networks and other websites, to video directories, to mobile phone applications.
Ignore the naysayers! The game is not lost!
Craigslist, considered the culprit in much of of the newspaper industry’s classifieds decline, pretty much does one thing: a searchable website of ads by city or area, with a few add-ons like RSS feeds, and there are some third-party add-ons like iPhone apps that let you search and browse Craigslist sites. By following the advice in this manifesto, a newspaper classifieds operation can re-empower itself and get out of the doldrums that threaten to kill off the newspaper industry. Indeed, we dare say that a local newspaper that reinvented its classifieds by following the guidelines set forth in this manifesto could pull a lot of business away from Craig and other serious online competitors.
There’s not much time. Classifieds managers! Publishers! Rise up! Reinvent! We can do this!
Christopher Ryan is president of Future of News LLC, and is currently developing a distributed-solution for newspapers and others called AdEverywhere. Steve Outing is editor of ReinventingClassifieds.com, columnist for EditorandPublisher.com, and a media consultant.