'Get Your Cheap Web Sites Here!'

By: Steve Outing A number of newspaper companies that operate successful Web sites also build custom Web sites for local businesses, which makes for a nice revenue stream to support the publishers' new media operations. As I've pointed out in a couple of recent columns, getting local businesses -- especially retailers -- online is good for the businesses and good for you, the publisher, because increasingly local retailers will need to conduct business online in order to fight off an aggressive wave of national cyberspace retailers that are grabbing local retail dollars.

A new program in Chicago takes the idea of building Web sites for local companies -- not exactly a novel idea -- to a new level by trying to encourage many businesses to launch their own Web sites. The Chicago Sun-Times is in the middle of an experiment called the "Chicago I-Challenge," which offers local businesses a commerce-capable Web site for $500 a year -- below typical market rates -- with the intent of trying to turn Chicago into the "most wired city."

According to Sun-Times director of online publications Fred Lebolt, the idea is to drive revenue by offering up Web site design and hosting services at a reasonable rate and making the process simple enough for businesses with no previous Web experience. A business that buys (or leases) an I-Challenge Web site gets basic site design services, a 10-page commerce-enabled site, inclusion in the Sun-Times Web site, and registration with the major search engines. It's meant to be more of a full-service offering than what a business might get if it got an inexpensive Web site through an ISP but had to do much of the site building itself.

I-Challenge is a partnership between the Sun-Times and I-Works, a Chicago Web site design and hosting company. Also involved is World Business Chicago, an economic development group affiliated with local business organizations that seeks to increase Chicago's reputation as a center for international business; one of that group's strategies is to help make the Chicago area an Internet center as well.

Lebolt says that the program is designed for both small and large businesses, and those companies expressing an interest thus far don't spell out any trend. It's been a mix of small companies who've never had a Web site, to larger companies that want multiple low-cost sites to be used by various divisions.

The program runs through December 23, and while another program next year is possible, no plans have been set yet. Businesses can reserve sites for $85, and then pay $50 a month to "lease" a site if they don't want to fork over $500 upfront to "buy" a site. That's meant to be an enticement for companies that might want numerous sites but don't want to pay $500 per site in one lump sum. When the sites are up for renewal after the first year, the price for another year will be "significantly less than $500," but a firm pice hasn't been decided on yet. (The higher first-year prices takes into account the initial site design services provided.)

The basic package does not include a custom domain name, but that can be had for a small additional fee to cover domain registration fees. The lowest-cost sites will have Web addresses like "www.searchchicago.com/companyname." Other beyond-the-basics services for the business site owners are available on an a la carte basis.

The basic sites won't allow the businesses to set up extensive online stores, but they could use them to take secure online orders and then process the credit card payments themselves. For a local store to be enabled to sell an inventory of goods on the Web, it would take more than the $500-a-year package, but at least this is a step in the right direction to get local retailers e-commerce enabled.

Lebolt's crew is spared the work of actually creating the sites and writing the HTML for each business -- that's I-Works' job -- but he says it's nevertheless a fair amount of work for the newspaper in confirming sales from among those local companies that expressed an initial interest, and handling billing. The paper also is committing significant promotional resources for the I-Challenge, including extensive in-print advertising and direct-mail promotions. Mass mailings also went out to the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce membership and other business associations.

The I-Challenge program also has a public service component, where charities are given a basic 5-page Web site without charge -- with no restrictions on what they can do with it.

Lebolt won't talk about the revenue model, except to acknowledge that it's primarily a revenue split between his newspaper and I-Works. But a bonus for the Sun-Times is that if the initiative is successful in getting lots of businesses online with custom Web sites, they become a business directory for the newspaper site when a search feature is added. The Sun-Times does not have a full-fledged Web community guide service, as do some other large papers, but rather has some components of a city guide, plus a relationship with telecommunications company Ameritech; its Yellow Pages service is featured on the Sun-Times site.

Movements in right direction

I featured the Chicago I-Challenge in this column because I believe it's another example of news companies realizing the importance of helping to get local companies to do business online. It's not just a revenue opportunity anymore, it's also a matter of ensuring the survival of the local retail community, upon which so many publishers rely for their own survival.

Business associations also are starting to realize this, so publisher partnerships with business associations and chambers of commerce -- as is the case in Chicago -- make a great deal of sense. It's time for local news publishers to lead the way for small businesses who may be having trouble finding their way on the Web.

Contact: Fred Lebolt, lebolt@suntimes.com

More e-commerce

Still need convincing that online shopping is a threat to traditional local businesses? Consider last week's news that the Levi Strauss company is starting to sell its flagship bluejeans and its line of Dockers clothing on the Web. It joins another clothing giant, The Gap, in giving consumers another reason not to make the trek to the local shopping mall.

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This column is written by Steve Outing for Editor & Publisher Interactive. Tips, letters and feedback can be sent to Steve at steve@planetarynews.com


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