By: Leah Betancourt
U.S. newspapers haven’t entirely written off classifieds. Some papers are tackling classifieds in new and different ways to regain some footing in a market that has been largely gutted by dominant online players.
Before Janet DeGeorge, a classifieds trainer, consultant and president of Classified Executive Training (classifiedexecutivetraining.com) begins working with a newspaper, she holds a meeting with decision makers from each department to go over—in a humorous way—how they have shot themselves in the foot. They laugh at themselves and say they’re ready to change. Then she grabs their attention by telling them, “I’m here to improve your classifieds, but I’m here to stop the layoffs. And if that’s your goal, too, then work with me and we can stop all this.”
Buying a car, home and getting a job are emotional life events. DeGeorge said these classified sections have to look special.
“In the past, it was OK if your classifieds were strictly organized and someone could find things right away,” she said. “Now they have to give a design that is going to attract the hopes and dreams. So it has to be beautifully designed.”
But the function of print classifieds has changed for newspapers.
“Newspaper print classifieds still work,” said Peter M. Zollman, founding principal of the AIM Group and publisher and executive editor of the Classified Intelligence Report (aimgroup.com).
Print and digital classified ads work very differently. Zollman said digital classifieds are about extensive description, extreme searchability, several pictures and video mapping and geolocation capabilities. “You can’t do that effectively with print classifieds,” he said. “But print classifieds can be about branding, about image, and they complement each other very effectively if done right.”
Print classifieds can drive traffic to online listings “by promoting the value of the offering,’ according to the November 2013 report, “Classifieds: Completely Different from the Old Days,” a Shaping the Future of News Publishing by the AIM Group for the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers.
But newspapers have work to do and their classifieds aren’t likely going to reclaim their powerhouse status they once had.
Not Just About Revenue
Zollman said one of the things that’s wrong with U.S. newspapers is that the question 95 percent of publishers are asking themselves is how do we increase our revenue?
“Instead the question should be, ‘How do we better serve our advertisers and bring them results?’ And if you as publisher ask that question and answer it, low and behold, if you’re delivering results to your advertisers and then you start selling to more advertisers, it becomes a virtuous cycle,” he said.
Zollman recently did two case studies on newspapers that substantially improved their ad revenue in one classified category. “What it came to was very simple. We figured out what our advertisers needed and we started selling,” he said.
Serving small businesses is a big part of what El Clasificado does because it’s a large part of its customer base, so the publication is like a third-party distribution in print and online. Classifieds media publishers are becoming more like mini marketing agencies. “There are other things not just with small classifieds advertisers, but business advertisers that might need more (marketing services),” said Martha de la Torre, CEO and publisher, El Clasificado and EC Hispanic Media and chairperson of the International Classified Media Association (elclasificado.com).
El Clasificado offers its clients full web pages—and will manage it for $49 a week—or search engine optimization and mobile media marketing. The company holds workshops and training seminars to show businesses how to place a free online ad, how to use social media and they’ll soon be adding technology to help businesses with reputation management—different ways that can help their businesses grow.
“You would think this was counterintuitive, but they trust us more, and they like what they get,” she said. “Because the stronger they are, the better customer they’re going to be for us.”
El Clasificado ads include phone call and email tracking tools and includes the total views the ad has received.
“We can make it really easy for them to nurture their leads. And that’s really important for our industry to do—make it easy to connect buyers and sellers,” de la Torre said.
Automotive dealers are looking to connect with those who are already interested in buying a car. Jim Brown, vice president of Borrell Associates, said dealers are spending money online and putting it into targeted solutions.
“They are very much targeting their dollars towards people who are in the market for a car already,” he said.
That leaves a bright spot for print newspapers. Chris Maikisch, president and CEO and consulting department head of Exponent Media Group Inc., which services about 300 newspapers in the U.S. and Canada, said its Selection Comparison Report has uncovered a huge finding (exponentmediagroup.com).
The report tracks dealers’ inventory stock numbers just for vehicles that run in newspapers. Ads also include call tracking phone numbers. They compare the selection of vehicles that appear in the newspaper to the dealers’ current inventory. When the report doesn’t find a stock number, it is reported as sold.
Maikisch said they have found that newspaper clients are selling cars at the low end of 55-80 percent per month compared to dealers that historically turn over their inventory at a rate of 28-45 percent per month.
“Car dealers have, quite frankly, been conditioned to believe that the newspaper has very little value. When in fact what is taking place is the newspaper is the first source to generate activity,” he said. “So that’s how the newspaper is providing value. It’s generating activity. It’s getting people into the market, so to speak.”
“Nichification” and mobile access, advertising, and ad placement were named important trends in classified advertising in the next few years in the report, “Classifieds: Completely Different from the Old Days.”
There are 1,000 new classified ads placed every hour on ElClasificado.com. They go through a moderation queue before they go live online. De la Torre said the volume was so great they had to outsource the moderation process to Mexico.
About 85 percent of its nearly 1.5 million unique monthly visitors access them using a mobile device, according to the Global Classifieds Annual 2013 report. So El Clasificado makes sure its ads are viewable on mobile, that it’s easy to place an ad using a mobile device and that photos and video are well optimized. De la Torre said they are trying to be mobile first with their other brands: AlBorde.com, which is aimed at the Latin alternative rock community, and Quinceanera.com.
“It really shouldn’t be called classifieds anymore. It’s called marketplaces,” de la Torre said. “We consider ourselves local and niche marketplace because often in these very horizontal marketplaces, people want to search for something specific and they don’t want to see anything else.”
Serving Niche Markets
Classifieds used to be a single repository for many different products, but that has been disrupted. “I don’t see newspapers ever regaining that it its totality, but I do think they can serve some niche markets really well,” Brown said.
There’s still potential with some of the biggest classified categories. Zollman said the biggest categories are real estate, automotive, recruitment, stuff and legals.
“All five of them have significant opportunity, but most newspapers take the legals that come in and they don’t pay any attention to the opportunity to increase the amount of legals. They also don’t pay any attention to the fact that the governments are slowly eliminating the need for legal advertising. That’s No. 1. No. 2 is the stuff category. The stuff category still has great potential for revenue, but it still has to be attacked in a radically different fashion because you’re competing with Craigslist,” Zollman said.
Newspapers have streamlined the process with self-service classifieds.
Wave2 Media Solutions’ iPublish Ad Portal is a self-service platform that allows users to build and buy ads. They work with more than 200 newspapers. Brian Gorman, vice president of sales, said they first developed the ability to publish, then they developed the ecommerce part of the system so clients can publish any type of ad a newspaper sells in print, digital or mobile (wave2media.com).
“The one thing [newspapers] have going for them is they can also sell a print ad as well, where Craigslist can’t,” Gorman said. “So our system enables them to sell a combo package where the advertiser can get an ad in the newspaper and then they can also get a listing that goes up on the website that is also searchable, which is the way Craigslist works.”
Ease of use not only lowers the barrier to entry in placing ads, but it makes it easier to do business.
“The idea is to attract people to the site and when you get them there, make it really easy to do business with. It’s like any good ecommerce,” he said.
Digital and print are typically bundled together. DeGeorge says 95 percent of digital classifieds are packaged with print ads. Which type of classifieds ads bring in more revenue? It depends on how it’s defined.
“At most newspapers, print classifieds still generate more revenue than their digital counterparts, but that’s just because of the legacy of the rate card and the way we count the sheckles,” Zollman said. “So counting revenue print vs. digital is gamesmanship.”
Adpay Inc. works with more than 500 unique URLs. Deb Dreyfuss-Tuchman, executive vice president of sales at Adpay, said Memoriams.com is its fastest growing platform because of the success it has generated for its media partners. There are more than 2,400 daily and weekly newspapers configured into the Memoriams.com network (adpay.com).
The Obit Classified
Memoriams.com is an obituary order entry strategy that allows funeral directors to place and edit multiple obituaries for both in-market and out-of-market newspapers. Dreyfuss-Tuchman said Memoriams.com was created as a result of Adpay research and the discovery of how much funeral directors would benefit from the system (memoriams.com).
“So it really created an incredible time savings for them, it also created an incredible resource savings for newspapers,” she said. “But the phenomenal part is that our averages for revenue increase for obit orders for newspapers has been an average increase of 30 percent in their revenue per obituary order. It has just been extraordinary. We have a media partner site that is averaging an 89 percent revenue increase per order and they started at a $350 baseline.”
Legacy.com works with more than 1,500 newspapers worldwide and publishes nearly 1.5 million obituaries online each year. Newspapers send Legacy.com obituaries that they publish in print and online. There are URLs and other promotions that point readers to the online site where they can interact more with activities such as signing guest books (legacy.com).
Hayes Ferguson, chief content officer at Legacy.com, said its network of sites generates over 25 million unique visitors and more than 260 million pageviews each month, making it among the 50 most visited on the Internet.
“When we begin powering a newspaper’s online obituary section, we often see their traffic numbers more than triple,” she said in an email.
Ferguson said several factors drive strong traffic. In recent years, they have focused on SEO to help co-branded obituary and obituaries rank higher in search and social media. “We help facilitate visits to millions of obituaries through Facebook referrals alone,” she said.
Matching job recruiters with the right, qualified candidates is a key motivator with employment section ads. Employers are paying top dollar to attract them and using highly targeted means to reach them.
DeGeorge said that a bulk of newspaper’s online revenue comes from employment because since the recession, employers won’t sign contracts and would rather just pay the top rate and not be committed.
Get That Job
Aftercollege.com, which works with about 200 U.S. newspapers, features internships and entry level jobs for college students and recent graduates. It has 1.1 million registered users, 500,000 unique visitors each month and works with 45,000 academic departments at 3,000 colleges and universities, according to Aftercollege.com’s recent metrics (aftercollege.com).
Newspapers sell the job posting and if they have a client with an entry level or internship position that’s appropriate for a college student, it can go onto Aftercollege.com as an upsell.
Jennifer Rutt, senior director of engagement at AfterCollege Inc., said newspapers haven’t been strong with the college level demographic as readership, but the partnership allows newspapers to deliver these types of jobs to employers in a locally focused and highly targeted way.
Aftercollege.com has an estimated 400,000 jobs and internships from about 25,000 unique employers. Rutt said it only attracts candidates for recruiters’ listings who are appropriate for the job. It has looked at 14 years of student and recent alumni criteria including school attended, year in school and major.
Similar to recommendation engines on Amazon or Netflix, with machine learning, the computer looks at the big data and then makes recommendations on what Aftercollege.com job seekers should do based on what other people like them did. “It also gets much more accurate candidates for the employer,” Rutt said.
Future of Classifieds
Will print classifieds become a thing of the past? Some say no, but they won’t be what they once were.
“I think the key value that newspapers still have and still offer is their brand—and the safety and security and trust of their brand,” Dreyfuss-Tuchman said.
She said leveraging their brand to provide an innovative and safe marketplace is probably the core of the reinvention of success.
DeGeorge worked with the Grand Junction Sentinel in Colorado on a plan to revamp its classifieds. She said the Sentinel staff followed her entire plan and now has the most beautiful weekend classifieds. Its Sunday edition has a real estate and a jobs section. She said the publisher told her that it’s nearly four years later and the paper is still reaping the rewards of that redesign (gjsentinel.com).
The Erie Times-News personnel did all the specials that DeGeorge recommended for their market when she worked with them. “They went from three pages of ugly line ads to 9-12 pages of gorgeous employment display,” she said (goerie.com).
The result? DeGeorge said they went from a -20 percent in budget to a +15 percent, so they went up 35 percent from when they started.
“They credit it all to the print side. That’s the interesting thing—the print side,” she said. “No matter what I do online, the print side is what’s growing their response in that sense. That’s the feedback from every newspaper.”
Others agree. Brown said he doesn’t think classified ads are completely dead, but they have changed. He recommended understanding the strength of your newspaper.
“Newspapers have evolved into a very powerful niche as opposed to being a mass reach medium. They’re a niche. They’re still very well read by a group of affluent, older individuals,” he said.
de la Torre said El Clasificado has grown every year and never had a year without growth. She said the company is going to do an estimated $22.3 million in revenue this year, although she’s hoping to do more than that. They’re trending at about 11-12 percent digital and about 85 percent print.
“We’ve always been good with our numbers. We really looked at our classifieds,” she said.
She said they have predicted economic downturns based on what was happening in real estate and with loans.
“We’re just so sensitive to any economic downturn that we just do what we have to do and focus on what is surviving. We look at the categories that are doing well and we switch gears and focus on that category that seems to be surviving, whatever the downturn is. So far we’ve been good at it and I hope we continue to be good at it,” de la Torre said.