Classified solutions

Classified advertising — which includes cars, jobs and homes — used to account for 25-50 percent of newspaper revenue. Most of that advertising has migrated from print to national aggregators online, such as CraigsList. If newspapers can recover even a portion of this lost revenue, it could be a game-changer. How’s how we propose to improve classifieds online:

Make it easy to use. In one respect, CraigsList is better than newspaper classifieds because it’s free. But more important, CraigsList is easier to use than any other newspaper classified site and that may be the bigger competitive advantage. Ironically, CraigsList isn’t particularly easy to use, but it’s easier than every other system. That’s why we made our solution easier still.

Make it easy on the eyes. Classifieds need not look like HTML 1.0. Our solution provides easy-to-use templates so any user can create a beautiful, professional-looking ad. See the description page, below.

Make it free. If newspapers are going to compete with CraigsList, and every other free classified site, they need to meet or exceed every feature of every other site. So basic listings must be free.

Make it make money: There are plenty of ways to monetize free classifieds:

  • Sell context-sensitive, behaviorally targeted display ads adjacent to free listings, such as the display ads for Pohanka Honda, below.
  • Sell ads on to the category-specific search pages, to get the attention of buyers even before they begin their search. See the category-specific search page, below.
  • Provide “premium” listings above the free listings in search results, as Google does now.
  • Serve up links to “premium” listings at the bottom of any page that provides the details of a free listing. You can see examples beneath the heading “Check out complete listings” on the description page, below.

The examples described above are primarily for commercial customers. Here are some of the upsells for private-party advertisers:

  • More photos
  • More keywords
  • More prominent appearance and position in search results
  • Choice of visual “theme” for your description page
  • Block links from competing ads from appearing on your description page
  • Allow ad to appear active longer
  • Make it safe: Craigslists shouts “Let the buyer beware!” — which doesn’t give anyone a warm, fuzzy feeling. While newspapers should leverage their reputation as the most trusted medium, even they cannot vouch for ads posted online via their self-service tools. So newspapers must provide a “reputation engine” where users can post their experiences with sellers, both good and bad, as eBay does now. Providing sellers with a means to manage their reputations online is another source of revenue.

    Make it the biggest and best marketplace. How? By aggregating CraigsList and every other local classified site, to provide one-stop shopping for every buyer.

    Read more on the design thinking behind the team’s approach to the user interface (SND Update)

    homepage_class
    Classified homepage, above

    category_specific_search
    Category-specific search page for cars, above

    results_page
    Results page, above

    listing_pageDescription page, above

iPhone solutions

iphone_05Our solutions for classifieds, display advertising and small businesses are based on existing technologies and existing audiences. Our solutions for monetizing the iPhone are based on existing technology but an emerging audience because the current audience is rather small, but growing.

Mobile remains new, so it offers opportunities to pursue revenue strategies that may not have worked on previous platforms. For instance:

On the internet, there is a cultural prohibition against paying for content – that’s why we don’t believe in micro-payments or subscriptions. Mobile users may not be willing to pay for content either, but they are buying iPhone apps that provide features to customize content on iPhones. So we propose to offer a suite of low-cost features to enhance the experience of content consumption — rather than charging for the content itself — beginning with this feature set:

offline_011Off-line reading: Download content that’s normally online-only for use when you don’t have web service. Allows you to take content on a plane or subway.

geo_011Geo-tagging: Tells you what is near me now to connect you with news and advertisers as you move through the world of weather, traffic, events and hyperlocal discounts and sales.

files_011Archive/export: Save and share data and permalinks. It’s a way to link your mobile and desktop experience and to share data with your friends.

custom_011Customization: Do more than change the background color. Organize the news the way you want to read it by eliminating what isn’t relevant and emphasizing what’s important to you.

text_011Text-to-speech: What better use for a mobile news device than to combine up-to-date news with audio player functions? Perfect for walking, running, subway, trains, etc…

If we’ve learned anything about online, it’s that if we don’t charge now, we can never charge in the future. While we don’t believe the iTunes model will work for content, we do believe it will work for features that enhance the experience of using the content.

Read more about enabling and facilitating impulse buys for news apps. (SND Update)

Display advertising solutions

Step 1: The new homepage. Homepages get more traffic than any other single page on a news site. Typically, they provide a convenient digest of the newest posts on a site, which is a convenience to users. But this benefit to users creates a problem for advertisers and content providers who depend upon advertising revenue from display advertising. Here’s why:

Depending on the level of SEO, 15 to 35 percent of users enter a news site at the homepage, then exit. This provides relatively few pixels on this single Web page to monetize an entire site. If homepages were redesigned to compel users to view more pages to meet their information needs, then sites would have more opportunities to generate revenue. To do so, homepages must be converted from digests to tables of contents.

Digests and tables of contents both provide a window into a site’s news content. But tables of contents do not discourage further exploration, while digests unnecessarily reduce reviewing of inside pages. For instance, a book’s table of contents doesn’t stop you from reading. Neither does the table of contents of a news magazine — some, like Esquire’s, encourage you to read more.

Story pages, rather than homepages, are the key to monetizing a news site. These inside pages have fewer elements than homepages, so they can provide a more effective environment for advertising by allowing for larger ads and fewer distracting elements.

Our solution was inspired by this New York Times prototype. However, the New York Times prototype is more a digest than a table of contents, because its well-crafted headlines and summaries may satisfy an enduser, and provide fewer reasons for further exploration of the site.

In contrast, our solution merely offers a “taste” of a site’s news content, using fewer words to entice endusers, rather than satisfying them with a summary. It also differs in these other, important respects:

Our solution is based on a multi-block grid, which provides the flexibility to increase the amount of space devoted to a headline to signal its importance and reflect editorial news judgment. It also allows photos to be cropped and scaled for maximum impact and legibility, rather than forcing them into pre-determined holes.

We’ve eliminated ineffective leaderboards and skyscrapers, and replaced them “Deals of the day” at the bottom of the page which are part of our solutions for small businesses. Unlike leaderboards and skyscrapers which often annoy and distract users while rarely provide meaningful information, these deals offer a true benefit to users. This is an example of “advertising as information.”

These advertising messages also differ from conventional ads because they don’t compete visually with each other, nor do they detract from the overall, pleasing appearance of the page.

homepage_03

Click here for larger view of homepage.

Step 2: The new story page. Changing the homepage to force more views of story pages is the first part of our two-part strategy to increase revenue from display advertising. The second part is changing the story page to provide a more effective environment for advertising messages. This will produce better results for advertisers and motivate advertisers to spend more on online advertising. Here’s our strategy:

  • Dramatically increase the size of the ad to 480 pixels by 480 pixels.
  • Reduce the amount of clutter to create a more attractive environment for the ad.
  • Limit ads to one per screen to increase impact.

inside_page_01
 
This solution looks more like the The New Yorker in print than any news site online, but we think that’s a good thing. It’s based on this prototype for the Daily Record.

While most online execs might blanch at the notion of one ad per page, the fact is that most sites can’t sell all the ad positions currently available, so why not run the paid ads bigger? As long as the table-of-contents-style homepage creates more pageviews, more advertising opportunities will be created to offset any losses.

But more important, if one big ad per screen delivers better results for advertisers, then advertisers will be willing to spend more with the sites willing to offer the more effective format.

And finally, what if that big ad provided more than a brand message, but an experience? What if that ad “came alive” onMouseOver, just like a photo in Harry Potter’s newspaper, The Daily Prophet?

To take full advantage of the Web, advertisers must build true interactive experiences within their ads, with the means to capture the attention, preferences and contact info of potential customers. These ads will no longer need to shout and annoy users, because their message is the only ad message on the screen. Instead, these ads will “rest quietly” next to the editorial content, and only “come alive” when users opt in for the advertising experience, thus providing a better reading experience as well.

Read more about the prototyping process and how the team worked through the issues. (SND Update)

Small business solutions: Beyond the click

Our group considering options for small and medium businesses started by putting ourselves in business owners’ shoes, imagining:

  • A handful of employees, if that many
  • Probably only one location, and probably not exactly where we’d like it to be
  • Little time to just think or plan strategically
  • A total marketing and promotion budget less than $1,000 a month
  • Disruptive pressure from “big-box” retailers
  • A tendency to spend marketing dollars on the “squeakiest wheels,” meaning sales reps who come calling consistently and insistently — Yellow Pages, maybe radio, maybe the local paper (depending on market size)

Web banner ads probably don’t help small/medium businesses much, especially if the message is poorly crafted, includes no calls to action, or points generically to a “brochureware” Web site.

That annual Yellow Pages ad fills the name/address/phone/category need well enough. What Web advertising should do for small businesses is deliver the message they want to deliver to prospective customers right now, not what they put in the book once a year.

What’s the deal? What’s the special offer, incentive, promotion or value proposition that brings customers in the door this day, this week, this month?

The deal should be the next thing beyond the click for small/medium businesses, and that’s what we created — a way to aggregate, browse, search and promote the best deals from the businesses in a newspaper.com’s community.

A typical newspaper.com — pretty much all of them, honestly — places banner ads in a way that makes them blind spots for Google, Yahoo! and the other search spiders. We don’t treat the advertising messages — the deals — as content. We should. We should put them in databases that are at least as well optimized for search as news articles. Then we should promote the best of them as chosen by users (via printing/redemption of coupons), the most urgent of them by creating limited-time or limited-number coupon offers, and the latest offers placed by advertisers.

We built some wireframes (download the PDF here) that show how these indexes might look and work, how they would connect to advertiser brochure pages, and what we and advertisers could accomplish from them. One appears, below.

deals_03

 
So much more to say, and we’ll lay out more details in the coming days, including:

  • Evolving services for small/medium businesses to include reputation management – showing business owners what people say about them all over the Web, whether they have a site of their own or not.
  • How this works underneath banner ad servers, targeting techniques, even ad networks — because the focus is on services for small businesses beyond the introductory message couched in a banner.
  • How it scales up to larger businesses, and to different size newspaper companies.

Stay tuned, check out the PDF examples, and add to this discussion. We need your help to make this practical and profitable!