Alt-Weeklies Need to Catch Up on Web Advertising, Consultants Say

AAN Convention Speaker Mike Blinder Advocates That Online Ads Be Like Print Ads on Steroids

Don’t get him wrong. Mike Blinder loves alternative newsweeklies. He admires their edgy content and desirable readership demographics. In fact, the Tampa-based advertising sales consultant has delivered talks at Association of Alternative Newsweeklies conferences in San Francisco and Washington. D.C. But while he was behind the podium speaking about his assigned topic, traditional sales training, he was dying to scream at publishers and ad directors: “You guys are asleep at the switch when it comes to advertising on the Web!”

That may be true in many cases, although the big chains are making headway. According to Blinder and other consultants, alt-weeklies — precisely because of their specifically targeted audience and content — are in the perfect position to generate revenue online. But for varying reasons a majority of AAN papers aren’t maximizing that potential yet.

Blinder will get his chance to explain how it’s done, undoubtedly in a more measured tone, next month at the AAN convention in San Antonio, where he’s been booked to tackle the issue of multimedia ad sales. Of course, in order to get the full measure of his wisdom, you have to hire his company, The Blinder Group. Baltimore City Paper and New York Press already have and will receive consultations in the coming months.

Web ads should fit with editorial content

Blinder is clear on what ad reps shouldn’t do. “You don’t say, ‘I’ve got a newspaper. I’ve got a Web site. Gee whiz, let me sell some banners and tiles.’ Or say, ‘I’m throwing all of your ads on the Internet, Mr. Advertiser, so I’m going to take a $2 up-sell per ad.’ That’s not the answer either.

“You don’t throw all the ads in a place called ‘Look at Our Ads This Week.’ You’ve got to find creative ways to marry the content of the ad to the relevant content of the Web site. It’s called contextual advertising.”

Blinder says the model is not brain surgery, but because publishers have always looked at broadcast as the enemy, it’s hard to shift gears.

“When you’re selling the Web, you’re selling broadcast, you’re selling impressions. You don’t sell just an ad,” he notes. “What you should be doing is taking the same thing you’re putting in the paper and putting it on steroids.”

He offers as an example a campaign called Top Jobs, which his firm has introduced to clients at daily and weekly newspapers. The program simply offers employment advertisers a chance to reach “passive” potential recruits — those reading the newspaper online while at their current jobs. In addition to running a traditional classified ad and placing it online among the other help-wanted listings, advertisers are also given a display ad that appears next to the day’s top news stories.

“What I just did, was I increased the reach of the ad out of the paper to the Web site, and I’ve left the ad online all week long, guaranteeing a certain number of impressions,” he says.

Such ads are also rotated from page to page, further increasing frequency of exposure, allowing an ad rep to say, “‘I can guarantee, Mr. Advertiser, that your ad will be seen no less than 5,000 times,'” Blinder says. He notes the system has worked well for rentals and automotive, as well as employment ads.

Alts, in Blinder’s estimation, are in the Dark Ages when it comes to Web advertising, still selling mostly banners, which stretch across the top of a Web page, and tiles, smaller square ads that appear in the margin or the navigation bar of a site.

Says Blinder: Alt-weeklies “are not doing the programs like Top Jobs, and the wow ads, all the new and exciting things I’m going to show at the convention that are making tons of money in the newspaper space now. It’s not about banners and tiles. That’s old-school thinking.”

Larger alt-weekly chains set pace on Web

Colby Atwood, a chief analyst with Borrell Associates Inc., a research and consulting firm with offices in Virginia, Seattle and southern California, says that while alt-weeklies may be behind the curve, it’s natural that they are not out ahead of the dailies.

Borrell focuses on interactive local media, with a concentration on newspapers, broadcast stations, directory publishers and companies that sell only on the Internet. Borrell records and tracks online advertising spending in hundreds of local markets through its WebAudit product.

The firm tries to check in on the Web sites of some leading weeklies — Chicago Reader, the Village Voice group and New Times — “to see what they’re doing because potentially they represent a more leading-edge alternative weekly group from the technology standpoint,” Atwood says.

Atwood notes that a lot of alt-weekly Web sites are making money from online personal ads and classified ads, a major source of income in the papers’ print edition as well.

While the big chains represent the leading edge, smaller papers and chains illustrate the other part of the picture.

Take the Sacramento News & Review. “We’re not actively pursuing Web advertising currently,” says Chief Operations Officer Deborah Redmond. “We do offer it as value added for some of our larger clients who have a Web presence, and we will also sell pre-paid banner ads to people who want to do them. But, generally, we aren’t actively pursuing it.”

Notes Borrell Associates’ Atwood: “As in any population, the pioneers get the arrows in their backs. A lot of weeklies are just sitting back and watching.

“I wouldn’t say that they [alt-weeklies] are making an error in strategy to be holding back,” continues Atwood. “It’s just the nature of their business. But as they move forward, they’ll be able to learn from what has happened in the last five years and take advantage of it. They won’t have to make as many mistakes as the dailies had to. They just need to use the technology to leverage their existing advantages in terms of audience targeting.”

Local advertising trend favors newsweeklies

Atwood says that as a group, newsweeklies haven’t yet been very aggressive about going after Web advertising, but the niche markets they attract give them an edge. With more advertisers going online, and with a current trend in online advertising toward local ads, he notes, alternative newsweekly Web sites have a window of opportunity.

“A lot of weeklies are competing against [online city guides provided by] City Search and AOL and things like that, but they’ve got the brand credibility in the market,” says Seattle-based Atwood. “I would trust Seattle Weekly before I would trust AOL to know what’s going on with Seattle restaurants. That’s part of their franchise.”

So how are alt papers leveraging that market clout and credibility on the Internet? As a matter of fact, one of the mainstays of Web advertising is restaurants.

Bob Doering, director of advertising at Pittsburgh City Paper, says his paper gives high-frequency dining advertisers a Web advertisement on a separate page. The online ad features digital photographs of the restaurant cuisine, hours and location.

“And then that page actually has another link on it that would go to that restaurant’s site,” he says. The paper is also working on upgrading its real estate section by making ads searchable and introducing virtual tours.

Similarly, New Times papers already have a searchable, linked Menu Guide on their Web sites available for high-frequency advertisers, according to President and Chief Operating Officer Michele Laven, who notes that a current project involves revamping the music section. “We’d like to make our music section more user-friendly, and that in itself will create more opportunities” for advertising placements online, she says.

Kara Walsh, vice-president of Village Voice Online, says that her site is already using some of the techniques Blinder advocates.

While paid classifieds from the print Voice run for free on the Web site, several premium up-sells exist, such as added links and colored type.

Premium positioning, in which an advertiser pays to show up at the top of a list, is another tool being adopted by online classified ad sections, Walsh says. Premium positioning is already used by search engines, such as Google.

Walsh says her site also offers embedded ads, which run with article text wrapped around them.

“We do a pretty significant online advertising business, both with local advertisers and with national, but I would say that local is still relatively in its infancy,” Walsh says. In local categories, “we’re barely just skimming the surface at this point.”

Village Voice Online is working on that, though, conducting training sessions with its ad sales staff on how to sell the Web in a more savvy way and having an online team work closely with the ad reps for the print version.

“I would say a general trend in our company overall is that the online and print sides are working much more closely together,” Walsh says.

An obvious example is directing readers from the print edition to the Web site for more or more recently updated information. Most papers already do this with house ads sprinkled strategically throughout the publication, such as in the calendar and dining sections.

Not knowing just who readers are limits ad appeal

One main draw for online advertisers, user-defined ad placement, requires that a site gather detailed demographic data about site visitors. Dailies, which charge for their print publications, are moving toward paid registration to access their archives online, allowing them to track visitors and their interests very precisely.

Borrell’s Atwood says that kind of accountability takes some technology, and that is where alternative weekly sites lag behind larger daily sites. “It is those kinds of technologies that allow the newspaper sales people to say, ‘We know who’s looking at our Web site. We know who they are and what they’re interested in. We’ve got these different products that we send out to them, that they request.'”

Those products — including e-mailed entertainment listings and classified advertising finds based on user requests — will attract the interest of advertisers trying to reach a particular audience, according to Atwood.

“It might be fairly lucrative if the weeklies can demonstrate that they are delivering a targeted audience that is generating results for those advertisers,” he says.

So far, the most advanced alt-weekly sites, such as New Times and Village Voice, aren’t requiring registration, except for users signing up for giveaways and other non-editorial content.

For example, New Times has within its sites a promotional page called Free Stuff. “In order to be a part of that you have to register,” Laven explains. “We are utilizing those addresses when people opt in, to get newsletters on other promotions and activities.”

The only time the Village Voice Online requires user registration is to sign up for something like an e-mail newsletter or movie-ticket giveaway. “That’s the point that we’re at right now,” Walsh says. “There’s not a universal registration for the entire site, like you’ll see on a lot of daily newspaper sites. It’s unlikely that we’ll ever go there. We offer all of our edit content in the paper for free, so it’s kind of natural that you get it for free online.”

John Ferri is a freelance writer based in Tacoma, Wash.