Five Ways Newspapers Can Improve Online Ads
Anyone who has spoken to me about the current state of the news industry knows how much I'm against pay walls or charging micro-payments for news. It's a nice idea, but I just don't think it could ever work. And why do I think that? Because I don't know anyone (other than journalists) who would ever pay for online news.
The way I see it, we can continue to live in this bubble of pretending that people care enough about newspapers to pay for them online, or become realists and deal with models that do work, but just aren't working good enough right now.
First we must ask ourself one question; why don't online ads work? Why can't ad departments place a premium for online ads? Here is one reason:
Need I say more? Online ads suck. This was found by my colleague, Scot Hacker, from a reputable news radio station Web site. In fact, several eyetrack studies have actually shown that a person's gaze will avoid anything on the page that resembles an advertisement. They called "Banner Blindness" http://www.useit.com/alertbox/banner-blindness.html
The reason why I think online ads don't work is because newspapers are taking a print advertising model and applying it to the Internet. Sure, the advertisements animate now that they are online, but in my opinion that causes me to avoid them even more.
So what can we do about this issue? Innovate. Use the medium in ways that give users a better experience. Here are five ideas I've sketched out in my notebook.
Idea number 1: Send coupons to my cell phone
I never cut out coupons. I wish I did, but I don't. Boy what would I give to be able to send coupons from a Web site to my cell phone. To really make it work, you would have to make it really really easy to do.
There are probably lots of ways you could do it, but I envision a way to simply drag ads that are on a Website over a special bin placed on the side of the screen, which would collect all of deals I found interesting. Then with one click I could send them to my cell phone. No registration required, because all that would do is hamper the number of people using this service.
You could take this idea even further by making it possible to take the coupons that are on the cell phone and make them redeemable at the cash register when I purchase goods. I realize the complexity involved with this and the partnerships that newspapers would have for form with retailers; but the results could be big.
If I saw a sign at the cash register of my local grocery store that said "Look for our ads on YourNewspaper.com and send them to your cell phone" that's all the marketing I would need to give it a try.
Idea number 2: Database ads
Ads online could do so much more to provide a service than just display a brand name. With the Internet, the possibilities are endless. Why can't ads tell me something more about a business than just its name?
A display ad on a news Web site could tell me more about its inventory or allow me to make a reservation right from the ad.
Let people make reservations or appointments with the haircut place, the spa, or the chiropractor right from the ad. I truly believe online advertisers need to get out of this mindset of bargain tabloid-style ads that flash and basically annoy people, and start thinking about ways they can offer a service to the communities they serve.
Idea number 3: Local Yellow Pages
Everyone knows that the Yellow Pages were once the definitive guide to finding anything in a town. It's a shame the phone companies were the ones that came up with that idea years ago. The good news is that they really haven't translated well online, and are quickly losing the market to Google. Some people use yellow pages online, but not nearly as much as the phone company would like.
The problem is that they are taking the model of the phone book and shoveling it online. When I need something specific I don't search by the business name or the type of business I'm looking for; I simply type in what I need. I usually just search Amazon; because Amazon – unlike the YellowPages – searches by inventory not businesses. The other day I wanted to find a small audio mixer board. I know there are lots of vendors here in Berkeley that sell them, but Yellow Pages had no clue what I was talking about while Amazon returned a gigantic list of them from vendors all over the U.S.
Newspapers won't be able to compete on a national level with Amazon. But they could easily partner with local businesses and get updates on their local inventory to index on a MarketPlace-type Website.
The Lawrence Journal World is one of the few that are actually trying some thing similar with some positive results. They aren't indexing by inventory, but by keywords. So I could type Pizza and I might get lucky. The idea is that it's local, and that's where the newspaper's power lies.
Idea number 4: Marketplace (mini-Amazon)
Take the previous idea to the next level and the newspaper site could even serve as the venue for selling these goods. Right now both Yahoo and Google are doing this by helping to sell goods for businesses on their Web sites; however they are doing it on a national level. Too bad for the person that wants to buy it locally. This also eliminates businesses that provide services.
How neat would it be to schedule your next oil-change appointment on the newspaper Web site, or to book a gardner for the next time your on vacation? How about booking a haircut without calling on the phone?
There are untapped local markets all over the U.S. for selling goods online. Even Amazon realized at one point that they couldn't sell everything themselves. So they decided to sell it for people who already had the infrastructure in place. With the right staff, newspapers could tap into this market.
Idea number 5: Offering Small Business Web sites
Here is a statistic for you: Only 44% of small businesses have a Website.
To me that screams opportunity. To be fair, a few newspapers have tried offering hosting services with little success. I think they were trying to tap into a market that was already flooded with vendors and confused customers.
Small businesses want a simple solution to showcasing their business online. Most of the people probably don't know a lot about the Internet, and they probably don't want to spend a lot of time figuring it out. If newspapers could create a venue for this market, they would have more than just a business Web site, they would serve as an integral part of that business' online presence.
KISS: Keep it simple stupid
When I was in journalism school my professor had this acronym he would use about how to write a story. I think recently the tech market has finally started to wake up to the fact that people are confused about technology and they want things that are simple and easy to use.
I'm not convinced that Craigslist stole the classified market because it was free, I just think it was easier to use. I've tried placing classifieds in my local newspaper and figuring out all of their arcane rules and character count was like pulling teeth. I put up a Craigslist ad in less than five minutes.
Any newspaper wanting to try any of these ideas would have to adhere the this principle in my opinion.