In this regular Street Fight feature, local marketing gurus David Mihm and Mike Blumenthal kick around some of the biggest ideas affecting the local search ecosystem and the broader industry. Send us an email or leave a comment if you have specific topics that you’d like them to touch on in future columns!
David: Hey Mike, hard to believe we are already winding down July. A little birdie told me you were in our nation’s capital last week presenting to an audience of local newspaper operators. I thought we might talk about some of the cross-currents those folks are facing this week while it they were still fresh in your mind.
Mike: I was! I was invited to speak at the Association of Alternative Media conference in D.C. Essentially the niche weekly newspapers of the world. A wide mix of newspapers, some of whom are really knowledgeable about digital marketing, and some who are just getting their feet wet and are struggling to understand how they can fund their primary mission.
Unlike many of their mainstream counterparts, who face different problems, many of them were more interested in news than selling ads. But they are also facing a rapidly changing advertising landscape and in some markets, the loss of locally owned businesses. So they are figuring out how to adapt.
Some of the bigger, more sophisticated papers have made the move to an agency model. But many of the newspapers that serve smaller markets are struggling with the transition.
David: If there were even a few “more sophisticated” papers, they are ahead of their competitors in radio, TV, and national-local print. It feels like most of that set is still leading with their own ad products, or at best Google and Facebook ads, rather than putting any critical thought into the channels that are best for their small business customers, and building out solutions to address those channels.
And to be fair to the guys in the smaller markets, digital solutions may not be the best channels — or at least not the same digital solutions as in urban markets — as we spoke about last time.
Mike: These papers have a real solid skill set. They know how to tell stories, write copy and take great photos. They know how to communicate and it’s that skill that they need to translate into a benefit for the small business customers.
They also sit at the center of community life and act as facilitators of interaction and support between the business and not for profit worlds. Sort of a Zipsprout, but truly local in approach.
David: It’s true. Local papers are still rightly seen as community hubs, perhaps still more offline than online, but in both worlds just the same.
The flip side is that lots of opportunities to facilitate offline connections between community residents and community residents, and local businesses and community residents, have fallen by the wayside. Community meetups, guest lectures, and street fairs should be regularly hosted by these papers (and sponsored by local businesses). As we know from Local U, putting “butts in seats” for local events is hard, and these alternative weeklies are uniquely positioned to be able to do so.
Mike: I think that is a great idea and a few them have taken that tactic. But many are so short staffed, it might be a stretch for some. But worth striving for.
David: Then partnering with local non-profits, a la the Zipsprout model you mentioned, seems like an easy way to piggyback on work that other (noncompetitive) organizations are already doing. I guess that would be my advice to remain relevant on the offline side of things.
Digitally speaking, NextDoor is encroaching on a space that these local papers really should own. It’s basically a glorified forum that in my view would be every bit as successful, if not more so, if hosted by a truly local entity.
Mike: I hadn’t really thought about how they would or could create safe spaces for their residents online. Although I think that there Facebook may already own that space?
David: I’m sure there are certain areas and within certain groups, where Facebook has already interjected itself into locals’ daily lives. But it strikes me as a little bit of a forced entry…as we saw from last year’s election, Facebook is not particularly good at facilitating real conversations between anyone outside your own narrow silo of friends–which isn’t helpful for national community or local community.
Community events, both online and offline, will maintain brand awareness among consumers in the two-sided marketplace, but what should these guys be doing on behalf of their “advertisers” (the term I hear them use most frequently to describe their small business customers, which might already indicate a problem with their mindset).
Mike: From where I sit the smallest of them need to get out of ad sales as quickly as possible. And not be deluded that they can extract significant profit from selling Google or Facebook ads. It will get increasingly hard to make money in any advertising sales.
David: Sort of like the residents of third-world countries who skipped right past the desktop phase of the internet and directly into mobile.
Mike: Exactly. What happens when the small business figures out they can create an ad themselves in 5 minutes–less time than talking to the salesman? And get as good or better results for less money? I worry that some of these papers that are still relying on ad sales (successfully now) will slowly see their client base erode. These papers need to get out in front of that problem.
They need to repackage their storytelling skills into all forms of media; video, audio, web content, emails, etc and help their business customers understand that while advertising is valuable, marketing across more of the local marketing stack, will benefit both them and the businesses more.
David: Certainly Google and Facebook do not want to be in the business of content creation–they’d much prefer to aggregate and leach others’ efforts. So it’s a much more defensible market position for the local weekly paper than reselling ads for the enemy.
Mike: And it’s also probably the best thing they could do to help their “advertisers” rank!
They also to need to help their current advertising clients become better businesses and they need to help them leverage the relationships they with their existing customers (without those business having to buy back access to their customers from Facebook).
Obviously it’s going to require learning some new skill sets (email marketing, event planning, reputation development) to complement their storytelling and figure out new billing models.
David: Sure, some new training will be required. But generally it seems like a profitable way to repurpose the existing talent in their newsrooms rather than laying them off. It’s a lot easier to train someone on Mailchimp or GetFiveStars than it is to train them how to tell a story and take compelling photos.
I would argue these guys are much better positioned than are national Adwords resellers or SEO shops to adapt to the realities of the changing local SERP topography.
Mike: Well here’s hoping that they can figure it out. They are some of the most innovative and honest media in the country and they aren’t driven by deadlines and headlines. As John Heaston of The Reader in Omaha noted, they need to learn to listen to their “advertisers” and help them solve problems instead of just “selling” ads.
After more than a decade in local search, David Mihm now runs Tidings, an email newsletter platform for small businesses that leverages their everyday social media activity, and his own weekly newsletter, Minutive. In 2012, he sold his former company GetListed.org to Moz, helping over 3 million businesses get better visibility in Google and other search engines. Along with Mike, he’s a co-founder of Local University.