Why Local Online Publishers Should Also Be Designing Merchants’ Sites

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fingersDigital First Media‘s editor-in-chief Jim Brady said it best when he keynoted at Street Fight Summit in January: “Since print dollars have turned into digital dimes, all you can do is start stacking dimes.”

To that end, I think one of the most sustainable sources of income for local digital publishers ought to be web design and hosting for their local small business customers. This revenue stream has been more than a “dime” for my business — in fact, web design and hosting has accounted for 20% of my company‘s total annual revenue over the past five years. It’s a natural fit for publishers in so many ways, and yet I see very few who offer it — they’re missing out big time.

Web design service like this is a sustainable revenue stream on its own, and it ultimately benefits the online publication that offers it because it leads to higher advertising renewal rates.

1.  By being a web design and hosting provider, publishers have more control over the creative fulfillment process.
At least 50% of the VSB’s (very small businesses) my company works with either don’t have a website at all, or have one that is outdated or just plain bad. Sure, I’ll sell them just advertising if they want it, but so what? A sustainable business depends on renewals, not first-time business. The chances for the advertising they are paying for to work are greatly increased if they have a decent website with a call-to-action to drive conversions.

2.  Publishers are communication professionals, and many web designers for VSBs are not.
We know whether or not a website is communicating well. Publisher must be able to look at a client website and realize that it won’t convert because there is no phone number on it and the homepage image is three megabytes and takes one minute to load. Also, publishers already have staff with writing and photo editing skills.

3. If  publishers rely on VSBs to have decent websites to convert customers and renew their advertising, they are playing a losing game.
Here’s a typical example: The niece of the owner of Joe’s Pizzeria is studying web design at community college, and has been working on his website for eight months. Of course, he’s not paying her,  and she’s working two other part-time jobs but she’ll get it done “soon.” Or, take Jane’s Salon and Spa’s website — its site isn’t bad, but it’s two years out of date. Her web developer is a nice guy, but he’s surfing in Australia for 6 months and she can’t get ahold of him.

So a publisher can sell nothing to Joe except maybe exposures of a banner ad and no clicks, because he has no website. And Jane isn’t going to get the calls she’s hoped for. Neither is going to renew their advertising contracts. And that’s no way to run a business.

4.  It’s a great, sustainable revenue stream and lead generator.
Many VSBs now view their website as indispensable. They want to work with a quality developer and create a good website — not try to build it themselves (and fail).  They will pay good money to get a website built, and will pay their hosting fees on time, year after year. Why shouldn’t you be the one to provide this service?  When they have a website they’re proud of, they need to promote it.  What’s the easiest way to get traffic? (Notice I said easiest, not cheapest.)  Advertising on a local website like yours!

5.  If you don’t do it, someone else will, and take your client’s entire marketing budget.
I see web design and online advertising as two sides of the same coin. No matter how much traffic you drive to a client’s website, it won’t translate into their cash register ringing if their website is bad. And no matter how great a client’s website is, it’s nothing without traffic.

So why is it that so many local publishers do not offer web design services for their advertisers?  I suspect because It’s outside their comfort zone, and they think it will be too difficult.

It’s true that building even a small website is at least 10 times more complicated and labor-intensive than producing a full-page print ad. But you don’t need to know much about web design to sell it.  My company has sold and produced over 500 websites in the last 15 years, and neither myself nor my account reps know the first thing about HTML.

Can you imagine a newspaper not being able to produce ads for its clients? Well, a website is nothing more than an elaborate ad.

Of all the advertisers on my network of local content sites, my company has designed and currently hosts one-third of them. One-third have sites designed elsewhere which are good, and one-third have not-so-great sites built elsewhere which we hope to rebuild in-house one day.

A publisher that wants to start offering web design and hosting services has four choices:

1.  Do it all in-house. Find a part- or full-time web developer and do the billing for design and hosting through your company.

2.  Outsource it to a reliable developer, and handle the billing and client interaction yourself.

3.  Refer it to an outside developer, let them handle the billing and interaction and pay you a referral fee.

4.  Outsource and white-label it, handling the billing yourself. The agency handles the client interaction on your behalf. There aren’t too many companies that offer this service, but a well-known one is Beyond Private Label, based in Wisconsin.

One way to streamline the process is to only sell simple websites with no e-commerce or custom functionality. Or to only offer WordPress sites. Don’t forget to throw in a mobile site or mobile optimization as an add-on.

One strategy I have had much success with on this front is to bundle advertising on one of my content sites in a website design package. The package includes advertising and hosting for one year. We build the site and whether or not they want the advertising or even understand what it is, we give it to them. We track their ad views and clicks. And at the end of the first year, when they renew their hosting, about 2/3 end up renewing the advertising, too.

I’d love to know what other local online publishers have experienced with this.

julie_profilepicJulie Brooks (@juliebrooks) is the CEO of eCape, which is based in Massachusetts’ Cape Cod and publishes the community news site CapeCodToday.com and other local niche sites.  Her blog is Julie Brooks | Small Fortune and focuses on local online publishing in small markets.