LA.com’s Insider Approach

By: Carl Sullivan

Several newspapers join forces to build a stand-alone city guide from scratch — an ad-supported, content-driven Web site in one of America’s largest and most competitive media markets. Surprisingly, this scene isn’t from the dot-com heyday, but rather from earlier this year.

“When we started, I asked myself ‘Is this 1999?'” says Lynda Keeler, president of the new LA.com, owned by MediaNews Group, which operates the California Newspapers Partnership along with Gannett Co. Inc. and Stephens Media Group. But as she explains, this could be the perfect time to launch an insider’s guide to Los Angeles — one with original content and few obvious links to its newspaper owners.

“Los Angeles doesn’t have a Time Out magazine, and the alternative weeklies don’t have great Web sites,” she says. The Los Angeles Times does have a great arts & entertainment site, CalendarLive.com, but the newspaper has built a firewall around it, allowing free access only to 7-day print Times subscribers or to those who buy an online membership for $4.95 a month. Keeler’s group sees the Tribune Co.’s paid-content gamble as a huge opportunity.

Her staff of about 20 Angelenos is working hard to build a new brand through viral marketing. “We want our site to be as diverse as the city itself,” Keeler said. “We want to have an ‘insider’ focus, to help readers find those hidden spots and undiscovered places in this sprawling city.” In a recent Q&A, Keeler told us more about her plans.

1. Why are you bucking the national trend away from stand-alone city guides? What makes you think you’ll succeed?

Lynda Keeler: The timing is perfect for LA.com. As an entirely new media brand, we’ve looked across the competitive landscape and evaluated what’s worked, learned from what hasn’t worked and developed something that fits in with how people in Los Angeles live their lives. Also, we believe that TIVO has not just impacted how people watch television — but it’s given power to the people and control across all facets of their lives. We have a saying at LA.com: We’re much like the water — LA needs to be filtered. More than any other city, LA has been hard for traditional city guides to capture. LA is sprawling and confusing — Angelenos often find themselves tourists in their own town. LA.com fills a void, providing not only timely, usable content Angelenos demand (and don’t feel that they can get reliably elsewhere), but also the ability for them to purchase tickets, use interactive tools to plan their evening, day or weekend, and insider tips.

2. How will you compete with all the established media and Web sites already covering Los Angeles?

LK: LA.com is less about competing with newspapers and other guides in Los Angeles and more about filling a void with a product that Angelenos (and those passionate about LA) and advertisers desire. Our advantage is that we are nimble and able to quickly change to meet what both consumers and advertisers want. We are not afraid to partner with other media brands and cultural institutions such as KCRW and the L.A. County Museum of Art to create unique branded entertainment as part of our offerings. For advertisers, we are working hard to create new ways for the brand integration they need — everything from branded blogs, dedicated newsletters and special advertising sections.

3. Tell us about your no-brainer guides, “secrets” and viral marketing efforts.

LK: Our goal is to create a host of interactive tools for Angelenos to get more out of where they are going. We want them to park their cars once and then give them two to three different things to do at one time. We want the guides to become so useful that people send them to their friends. We already are seeing a high pass-along rate. Some examples: You want to visit the Getty Center, but don’t feel up to spending all day there. Go to LA.com’s No-Brainer Itineraries, find the Getty Center itinerary, and print it out. In addition to telling you how to get there, where to park, what to eat, and what else to do in the neighborhood, you also learn via the itinerary’s Tips section that the Getty Center offers one-hour collection highlights’ tours.

Additionally, users can find helpful guides — such as the Shopping Guides. Users can print out the page listing the area’s stores and parking information. Users also can find Parking Secrets (PDF download), Freebies and Bargains and a Discount Guide listing the various stores offering discounts, perks and free samples when LA.com is mentioned. Coming soon: the most amazing display of e-mail postcards that include everything from standard greetings (Happy Birthday) to unique LA ways to get friends together (Hey, let’s meet for a smoke).

4. Newspapers are beginning to pay attention to sites such as Craigslist and Tribe. What threat do these types of sites present to newspapers? How will LA.com respond?

LK: What’s interesting about these sites is that they have tapped into the power of a social network — communities that are buying, selling or simply networking. We’ve incorporated aspects of this into LA.com — LA.com becomes a hub for people in LA, complimenting what sites like Craigslist do but adding a filter. People that are online want to “use” — not just read. We’re looking at — and smart newspapers should be looking at — ways for readers to use information — not just read it.

5. Before joining LA.com, you were vice president for interactive services at Sony Corp. of America and general manager and vice president at Columbia TriStar Interactive. What aspects of these positions do you bring to LA.com? In general, what can newspapers learn from broadcast and innovative corporate Web sites?

LK: Entertainment properties, by their very nature, allow you to be more creative in terms of marketing and partnerships than traditional corporate sites do. During my tenure at Sony/Columbia TriStar, I’ve had to create engaging destination sites for movies and TV properties, unique marketing vehicles, viral campaigns and partnerships to get the marketing message to as broad an audience as possible — and then create a network effect. My experience has taught me to understand, create and harness the networked community to make the audience participate. At Sony, we were early adopters of technology and aggressively used segment and database marketing to get the word out. We worked on surprisingly low budgets to create a real dynamic environment. At LA.com, we’ve created a brand in less than a year that is resonating with an audience that has not been effectively reached by traditional media in cost-effective way. I know how to take a dime and stretch to a dollar. It’s dynamic, flexible and it has to be fun.

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