With the recent push toward “native” advertising, we’ve learned (if we hadn’t known already) that ads can be “news.” In terms of local information value, ads-as-news may never trump the apartment-house fire that leaves several families homeless — but it has become clear that there’s room for both, especially in the local digital space. One of my favorite venues for ads-as-news is the biz/org Briefs column that runs on the homepage in Reade Brower’s three Village Soup papers in Midcoast Maine.
For an example of these, I recently took a look at the Courier Gazette (Rockland) and Camden Courier dual site’s homepage and then browsed down to the second paid biz/org Brief, “Transform Your Wet Basement into Dry, Usable Space.” Very smartly, Evergreen Home Performance placed the brief right after after Midcoast was been hit by heavy rains that, no doubt, had some homeowners bailing water from their basements or at least having to dry them out to prevent mildew. This ad, very definitely, is news in Midcoast.
A couple of inches below Evergreen was the brief “A Celebration of German Food and Wine Tuesday, March 19 at Nautilus!” with a mouth-watering photo of sauerbraten and boiled potato topped with parsley that Nautilus Seafood & Grill would present on the big day. Again, this is news in Midcoast. The tiny ad clicked onto the restaurant’s complete menu for the 19th.
Altogether, the three local sites are running a total of 303 of these biz/org Briefs this week through Village Soup’s bizMember program aimed at attracting and keeping the loyalty of businesses that now have many choices on reaching customers through the Internet. For-profit businesses pay $24.95 per week for a brief, and nonprofits and individuals pay $14.95. (Annualized, this amounts to $300,000-plus in revenue for the three news sites — and keep in mind that the biz/org Briefs are only one part of Brower’s online ad revenues. He also has bizOffers and – for nonprofits – orgOffers, and display ads. (All three nameplates also have subscription print papers with their own advertising.)
While the Briefs appear in the same type font and format as the news briefs in the column on the left side of the homepage, Brower thinks readers are discriminating enough not to be confused about which is which.
In his recent gloomy assessment of the present and future of online advertising, Reuters columnist Felix Salmon said of native ads, of which Village Soup’s bizBriefs are a pioneering example:
“There’s a certain amount of promise there, and the native-ad industry is certainly going to grow from its present size. But it’s tough: building these things is a huge amount of work for the advertiser, with no guaranteed payoff. And selling them is even more work for any publisher.”
Not exactly, according to Brower: “Self-publishing with the Village Soup platform is very easy,” he says. “Twenty minutes a day is enough to keep up with it and there are many automated features so that businesses can write their briefs ahead of time and have them released at the day and time of their choice. They could do their daily specials for a week all at the same time and input them once. They could then repeat them on a reoccurring basis.”
Brower did acknowledge that “many businesspeople can’t be bothered with self-publishing ads, or just forget as it is not as critical part of their day as ordering more food or supplies or paying their bills.”
Still, several hundred businesses do manage to place “bizBriefs” in Village Soup every week.
Village Soup’s three market areas — Rockland and Camden and the rest of Knox County and adjacent Waldo County — have a total population of about 78,500. Village Soup doesn’t have any significant competition in addition to Brower’s own long-established, and breezier, Free Press print and web publications, which share much of the same markets. A new entry in Midcoast is the regional Penobscot Bay Pilot, whose founders include Holly Edwards, the daughter of Richard Anderson, who founded Village Soup but went bankrupt. Edwards was associate publisher of Village Soup when her father owned it.
Native ads are becoming all the rage, but a lot of the activity seems to be occurring on social platforms like Twitter and Facebook, not on community news sites. That doesn’t seem to make sense, because, as Village Soup shows, community sites could offer these kinds of self-serve native ads for as little as $24.95 a week — a fraction of the cost of a small display box — and still sell enough to create an appreciable revenue stream. Brower said he hasn’t experienced any net losses of display ads because of the less-expensive native ads. His native ads are an always-open door to new and returning businesses.
At Village Soup, businesses have multiple choices in advertising choices. They can go print or online, and then several ways within print and online. They seem to like having those choices. Is there any reason to think businesses in the markets of other websites don’t want to have the same array of choices?
Tom Grubisich authors The New News column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of LocalAmerica, which is partnering with InstantAtlas to develop sites that will present how communities rate in livability. Local America is featured on the Reynolds Journalism Institute’s Pivot Point site.