Village Voice Media Execs Talk Web Strategy

For the past few years, Village Voice Media has been engaged in a two-pronged acceleration of its digital publishing strategy.

On the editorial side, web and digital operations director Bill Jensen says the company has been working to “turn our products from weekly papers into daily publications online.” By posting content quickly and frequently, Jensen says VVM has been able to increase traffic on its websites to 36.5 million page views in January 2009, which exceeds their traffic from two years earlier by 20 million page views.

On the business side, chief operating officer Scott Tobias says VVM has been focused on “expanding the sophistication” of the company’s sales effort, by training salespeople to incorporate web advertising and event sponsorships into their advertising pitch.

Tobias also says the company broke each of its websites into distinct vertical sales units to enhance the effectiveness of its online ads. Under this approach, VVM sales staff can sell a restaurant client, for instance, into the food section of one of its local-newspaper websites.

So far, that strategy seems to be working. VVM’s online revenue was up 98 percent in 2007, and 93 percent in 2008. Tobias says the company has been successful in its digital business because it has been able to “transfer the relevance of the paper” to the website. “We’ve focused on selling around each paper’s rich legacy of content,” he says.

VVM has also been experimenting with geo-targeting ads for the past few weeks, and it made the technology fully functional on all of its websites yesterday. This enables each website to automatically identify most users’ geographical location in order to serve them local ads. For example, although I live in Jersey City, N.J., when I visit a VVM site on the other side of the country, I see ads placed by advertisers in the New York City area.

“We think we’re blazing a trail here for local advertisers,” Tobias says. VVM has been working on getting geo-targeting up and running since November. Jensen explains that it took a while to coordinate all of the company’s sites and their ad inventories and remap the current campaigns to the proper Designated Market Area (DMA).

Jensen says that in addition to the original web content produced by each local VVM paper, the company continues to roll out nationally oriented sites like the “nerd” blog Topless Robot. Yesterday, the company launched, a national food site that aggregates content from the company’s papers and features original blog content.

He also notes that the company is finally making a major move into the user-generated content arena with its recent partnership with the social-networking site “We were pushing information out,” Jensen says. “We wanted to start pulling information back in.”

Tobias says VVM sees social networking as “a gigantic opportunity. … It gives our readers another opportunity to use our 30 years of listings and content,” he says. “They are able to interact with it and have an opinion on it.”

The VVM/LikeMe partnership is currently in its initial phase, which focuses on local businesses — stores, restaurants, bars, etc. Jensen says phase two will incorporate events like concerts, readings and festivals.

Both Jensen and Tobias say that the recent flap over VVM’s use of the social bookmarking site Digg — which erupted when a Minnesota blogger accused the company of “gaming” the site to generate traffic — is much ado about nothing.

“I equate it to someone complaining about us having too many boxes out on the street,” Jensen says. He says that the company and its writers and editors are simply trying to get their content out there by “going to where people are” online, and that, either way, less than 5 percent of VVM’s web traffic comes from Digg.

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