What Internet Consumers Think of Newspapers' Web Classifieds

By: Steve Outing

One of the first studies by the newspaper industry of consumer reaction to online classifieds has some good news and some bad news for publishers.

The good news: Newspaper classifieds Web sites are viewed by users as more appealing than other online classifieds services. The bad news: Newspapers' Web classifieds are not seen as an essential source of classified advertising information online.

These findings are among some of the early results released for a pilot online classifieds study conduct by the Newspaper Association of America (NAA) market research department and the market research firm Response Analysis. In-person surveys of 150 American adults were taken earlier this year, and a full report on the research is due to be published in mid-October.

Mike Donatello, manager of the NAA market research department, says that the study represents the first attempt to gauge consumers' reaction to the myriad of choices available to Internet users looking for classified advertising information. Participants in three cities were instructed to spend time with two local online newspaper classifieds sites and two competing classifieds sites operated by other companies. They were observed and asked to assess such things as ease of use, frequency of use, timeliness of content, depth of content, etc.

The comparisons were, in essence, between broad-topic, locally oriented sites (the newspapers' classifieds) and niche, national online-only classified Web sites. But as Donatello points out, national classifieds sites typically are broken down into geographic areas, so that they do have a direct competitive impact on newspaper sites. A national rental properties service like RentNet, for example, may have a Chicago classifieds area that is every bit as comprehensive as that of the local newspapers. (In the survey sessions, participants were asked to view the online-only sites in their specific topic area -- e.g., automobiles, employment or real estate -- and compare it against the respective classifieds topic area within the newspaper classifieds site.)

Here are some of the key positive results from the survey (from the perspective of newspaper Web sites). Newspaper classifieds sites were:

More likely to have been visited by survey participants than the online-only sites. That's not terribly surprising, given local newspapers' brand equity. Rated higher overall than non-newspaper sites. Seen as being less complex and easier to use than non-newspaper sites. Perceived as offering more information. Perceived as being better at providing up-to-date information. More likely to be bookmarked by the survey participants. More likely to be rated as "cool." Rated as being more "innovative" than non-newspaper sites. And left participants feeling like "part of a like-minded group." Alas, there's some disturbing news for newspaper publishers as well, as some of the results may point to weaknesses in newspapers' competitive position online:

Survey participants complained that newspaper sites' Web pages took too long to appear on-screen. (Most didn't bother -- or didn't know how -- to turn off graphics loading on their Web browsers.) Newspaper sites were seen as more "irritating" or "annoying" than non-newspaper sites. Newspaper classifieds sites were not seen as "essential tools" in purchasing a car or home or finding a job. Donatello warns, "If newspapers' Web classifieds are, for whatever reason, not seen as a 'first-stop' source of classified information online, then we may have already lost our traditional, top-of-mind position in the classifieds marketplace." It's that last item, of course, that is probably the most significant point to come out of the NAA research. Newspaper classifieds sites do seem to be doing a good job overall, with only some minor complaints about user experience being recorded in this survey; but there's room for improvement.

But Donatello says that newspapers nevertheless face a serious threat from the online-only classifieds sites -- which he plans to document in several case studies that will be included in the final research when it is published later this fall. The non-newspaper sites are over time evolving to "look" more like newspaper sites -- that is, offering contextual information and news to accompany the classifieds listings. As the two types of sites grow to appear more alike, the big question is if newspapers' brand equity can hold the competitive edge against the cyber classifieds competitors as their services reach critical mass.

Just how important are Web classifieds? Some other results in the NAA research indicate that use of online classifieds are growing substantially. Survey participants were asked what sources of classifieds they turn to, in general. Local daily or Sunday printed newspapers came out on top, predictably, with 90% of participants saying they used newspaper classifieds in the last 12 months. In second place came weeklies and shoppers (ad-only newspaper), at 65%.

Internet or online service classifieds came in at third place, with 59% of the participants saying they had used them in the last year. A spring 1996 NAA survey of classifieds usage showed only 12% of total adults used electronic classifieds. Clearly, that's a figure that newspaper classifieds managers should note as they refine their electronic strategies. (But note that the 12% figure is of total adults, while the 59% figure for today is of Internet users, so this does not mean that the NAA has charted a five-fold increase in use of Web classifieds in the last year.)

(The NAA online classifieds research study included the following newspaper Web sites: Chicago Tribune; Chicago Sun-Times; San Jose Mercury News/Mercury Center; San Francisco Chronicle/The Gate; New Jersey Online; and Philadelphia Online. Non-newspaper sites included: CyberHomes; Real Estate Xtra!; Auto Web; Auto Trader Online; CareerMosaic; and The Monster Board.)

Contact: Mike Donatello, mdonatello@aol.com

Old columns bring new comments

In the last week, I received two letters from readers commenting on columns that I had written more than one year ago. Both letters were critical of viewpoints expressed back then. Given the extremely fast pace of change in the Internet publishing environment, I'm not sure any writer should have to defend what he wrote more than a year ago. A lot of water has passed under the bridge in that amount of time.

Now, electronic archives are wonderful things, yet as my experience demonstrates, there's a down side to such easy, convenient access to a writer's past work. I would prefer that people read my columns when the information is fresh!


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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 steve@planetarynews.com

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


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