Seattle Times Debuts Classifieds Profit Strategy

By: Steve Outing

Most newspapers that have put their classified advertising on the World Wide Web have followed the standard "upsell" model: Raise the overall price of placing a classified ad in the newspaper, then use that extra money to fund publishing the ads online. It's a simple, straight-forward approach that has, for many newspapers, brought a respectable amount of revenue to their new media departments.

At the Seattle Times (Washington state, U.S.), classified liner ads from the Times and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer have been on the Web for a year. But the newspaper opted not to do a forced upsell; rather, the ads have run online strictly as an added-value service to advertisers, while newspaper executives watched how often the online classifieds were used.

The Times recently introduced its revenue-making strategy for online classifieds, and the basic concept is of offering "enhanced" online classifieds to print advertisers for a modest fee. This is a voluntary upsell, in that print advertisers are asked if they would like their ad to appear as simple straight text when it appears on the Web -- for no additional charge -- or to include one of three Web enhancements.

$5 extra per ad

For an additional $5 per liner ad, an advertiser can include a live Web link in an online ad, and/or a live e-mail link, and/or boldface colored text. As an example, some auto dealers are including live links in their Auto-For-Sale liner ads which include links to the dealer Web site, or an e-mail link to a salesperson.

Greg Raece, Internet sales manager for the Seattle Times, says the enhanced Web classifieds program is already showing results, even though it was "soft launched" on January 1 and has not been promoted yet. University Mazda in Seattle, for instance, has been using the service and has sold at least two cars as a result of the live Web links to the dealer's Web site. A company that sells condominiums in the Seattle area likes that ad readers can get to their Web site with one click, he says.

Raece says that when the Times staff looked at the printed classifieds section, they noticed an increasing number of Web addresses (URLs) on ads. The companies placing those ads -- including Realtors and auto dealers -- looked like good prospects for a service that would provide live links online to those already-published Internet addresses, so those companies were approached to try out the new service. Before the enhanced ad program was launched, URLs in ads -- which were dumped from the paper's front end system and converted to HTML -- simply showed up as normal (unlinked) text on the Web.

Not everyone has a Web site, of course, but even those non-Web advertisers can pay the extra $5 to have their company name or other wording in bold-face and in red. Raece says a surprising number of advertisers among the early users of the enhanced online ads are willing to pay the extra $5 for the highlighted lettering.

In the first month, more than 1,000 of the enhanced online ads were sold, but Seattle Times classifieds manager Roy Schaefer emphasizes that the program was rolled out slowly. Classifieds sales representatives have now been trained, and Raece has hired two salespeople to push the Web ad service. Now that they are in a position to market the service to the public, an ad campaign to promote the enhanced Web classifieds will begin in the next week or so. Schaefer says that last Friday, 270 online enhanced ads were sold, and he anticipates that the program will be popular.

The Times also is selling banner ads into the online classifieds section, and banner advertisers are allowed to sell into specific sections. An ad might be placed adjacent to the "C" listings in Autos For Sale, or next to the Funeral listings, for example, says Schaefer.

Atex system adapted

The enhanced classifieds program has been under development for some six months. It is integrated into the paper's existing Atex proprietary editing and classifieds system, and was developed by in-house programmers. Raece explains that the forms the sales reps fill out when taking an ad order over the phone were modified, with new fields added so that the reps could enter Web URLs, e-mail addresses, and specify which enhanced options the advertiser has ordered. This information is carried over during the conversion to HTML, and the live Web and e-mail links included in the final HTML output for the Web site.

Training the classifieds staff was a major undertaking, and included individual training sessions and group meetings in the company auditorium. Sales reps first were given an orientation about the Web, then trained specifically about the enhanced online ads offering. Schaefer says that there have been relatively few problems, although the sales reps had to be trained to know what a correct URL looks like.

The Times Web site also converts display classified ads into Web format. Using a system built with Adobe Capture, ads are scanned, distilled and text extracted, then the components of the ads are split up into liner ads. (The paper is currently doing this only with Sunday advertisements.) An ad for a Realtor that contains listings for several homes for sale, for instance, is broken up during this process into multiple liner ads -- one for each home listed. Those ads are included with other liners in the online classifieds section, and display advertisers have the option of paying for online enhancements to the converted display ads. The pricing depends on size of ad and goes up to a maximum of $250.

The site accepts online ordering of ads by consumers (for print and online ads combined; no online-only ads accepted), but the process is not yet perfect. An advertiser placing an order online will still get a call-back from a sales rep to confirm the order and pricing. Schaefer and Raece say they hope to streamline that process in the future to make it an entirely online experience. At this point, it's still simpler to place a classified ad using the telephone.

Contact: Greg Raece,

Digital City acquires Total New York site

Online city guide company Digital City has acquired the key assets of WP Studio of New York, developer of the Total New York Web entertainment guide (and Web sites ada'web and Spanker). The sites become productions of Digital City Studio, which will produce original programming content for Digital City metro sites around the U.S.

Digital City Studio will begin developing Digital City New York, with a launch expected later this year. The Digital City network currently includes sites in 13 U.S. cities. Most of the sites remain accessible only to America Online subscribers, but a Web version of most Digital City sites is expected.

Digital City, owned by America Online and the Tribune Co., has been trying to ink content deals with media outlets (especially newspapers) in local markets. This deal demonstrates that established media players are not the only game in town, and that online city guides are beginning to find competent content partners among the many Web entrepreneurs now plying the news and information business.

NewsTracker as news filter

In my last column about the NewsTracker clipping service by Excite, I made the comment that this would be a useful service during major news events, as a way for Internet users to easily and quickly check out the coverage by various media. As Ed Vasquez of ClariNet pointed out, however, the service would be of limited value when a news event is first breaking. NewsTracker crawls through its 300 Web news sites twice a day and thus would miss hourly updates posted by some sites. For a daily summary of a major news event, of course, the service would be quite useful.

Comments Vasquez about the service, "I would say that as a clipping service, it's very good. Mainly because it's free. From a news perspective it publishes from a medium historical context (the content is not up-to-the-minute, but it is clearly not long term historical). Biggest question is whether all these entrants into the publishing arena will survive without a proven revenue model. Excite is banking on advertising, as are many Web based publishers. Others gamble on user subscriptions. Again, unproven. In the long run, it will be interesting to see who survives."


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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive three days a week. News, tips, and other communications may be sent to Mr. Outing at

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company


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