Can Local Media Find New Opportunities by Catering to Brands?

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jtm-logoS-133x150Journalism is Dead, Long Live Journalism” is the theme of a conference I’ll be attending this week in Denver. And the name isn’t a surprising one — there’s been a lot of angst lately about the emerging business models for digital journalism.

Banner ads? According to the Atlantic, you’re more likely to survive a plane crash than click a banner ad. Native advertising, (in which marketing content masquerades as an article)? Ben Kunz, writing on Digiday, says native is bad news because it “confuses the source of the message, despite disclosure, and in human communications, understanding the source of anything is critically important for us to judge value.” Paywalls? Pando Daily’s Sarah Lacy declares media has literally thrown in the towel for the sake of subsidizing fifth estate newsrooms. “They’re sick of trying and hoping for alternatives,” and paywalls are “a band-aid and an augmenter to revenues at best — even for those who have had the most success at it like the New York Times.” Futility brings sea change, and Lacy senses it with her final thought: “When everyone seems to have given up … real leaders are born.”

With all this in mind, here are a few of the ideas I’ll be discussing with folks at the conference:

Hyperlocal media ideally should be an opened up to community writers and behave like bulletin boards.
The traditional media model is set up as an editorial gateway where content is vetted to provide readership value, and the audience it attracts is sold to advertisers. In this concept, the wall between the newsroom and the advertiser base assures journalistic integrity. For national media, this credibility is important as evidenced by The Atlantic’s disastrous foray into publishing a native advertising article lauding the Church of Scientology. On the local level, as reporting ranks are slowly replaced by citizen journalists, this wall separating writers from advertising clients is eroding because small businesses have discovered various soft-sell ways to market themselves locally (blogging, Yelp reviews, Instagram, etc.), all under the rubric “content marketing.” Publishers must reorient themselves to welcome content created by local SMBs that provide community value but don’t spam their readers. And, yes, readers aren’t stupid; they will evaluate the content in context with the understanding that the authors are more like bloggers than like journalists.

Local media curation is more than just curating the news, it is curating the content the community creates.
At the local level, curation can become very granular. Local news can range from parades and chamber policy meetings, to little league championships to highway construction notices. Although the information is diverse and may be relevant only to a handful of people, the best local media should allow its readers to discover these minutiae. The key is to “pull” these data into publication by using RSS or social media feed display systems (like Rebelmouse or Flipboard). Once pulled, the news source is taxonomically organized so the parades appear in the Local Events page and Little League in Local Sports. After set up, these curated content publish automatically 24/7, and far more efficiently than the manual editor submission model.

Local publishers still don’t recognize that brands are better at describing and marketing their offering in a timely manner using Twitter, Facebook status updates, YouTube, and Instagram photos than any reporter. It’s more efficient to automatically pull New York Philharmonic’s social media feeds and display them on a page with far more visual appeal than to create the standard text blurb for every event. Meanwhile, politicians are brands too, and aggregating the tweets broadcast from the Mayor and city council can be compelling breaking news when reproduced on a webpage devoted to local politics. Simply put, local publishers need to see social media as granular sources of content and pull the most interesting and influential feeds into publication.

The big profits for local media presence are not going to come from local mom-and-pops, but from national brands.
Yes, there are many examples of hyperlocal publications that succeed in their markets primarily due to having stakes in their communities, and they should continue with their formula. However, building journalistic hyperlocal networks across cities (like Patch or Daily Voice), hasn’t proven scalable because an employee in the city #9 doesn’t have the same drive as an enterpreneurial publisher focusing on one city. The margins hitting up SMBs for ads are too thin so local media needs to go where the money is.

Why brands? Word-of-mouth is the most influential brand marketing and that mostly happens locally. According to a Keller Fay study, 59% of word of mouth marketing occurs from the home, either online or offline. Up to now, brands have marketed from one website irrespective of where their customer lives.  Brands now must consider positioning themselves as local, social products catering to intimate communities of customers. That means extending their presence not only across hundreds of local focused websites, but also across the social media, by locality. And it is being done, Whole Foods and Walmart have rolled out websites and Facebook pages respectively store by store.

Building social local strategies is the next big thing for brands (and this is where local media can find opportunities).
Word-of-mouth marketing can be nurtured by developing brand advocate networks, which are essentially clubs of acquaintances united in their love of and willingness to promote a brand. Every network will have their influencers, and brands will need to devise new social strategies to court them. Even a high-schooler can be an influencer with as little as a Facebook message like: “it’s Friday night, let’s all meet up at the Landmark Square Pizza Hut at 6:00 so we can make the 8:30 showing of Argo at the AMC.” You’ll have AMC and the local restaurants all vying for the attention of influencers who can dictate where the party is at. This is the future of how local businesses can acquire and keep customers, simply by developing relationships with them.

Where’s the revenue model? Local media have the ability to discover and access influencers and help brands build advocate networks. Going back to movies, a hyperlocal media network (like, say, Patch) can provide visibility to local movie reviewers by staging reviewer contests, culling their content from Twitter and Facebook feeds, and publishing them. In aggregate, the network can build a national database of movie reviewers that would form that backbone for a highly targeted movie advocate network that can be sold to studios. Building advocate networks is not limited to movies, it can be applied to hundreds of topics – home and garden, education, boating – and sliced and diced into niche arenas like teenage gymnastics. Brands are accustomed to national scale campaigns so this idea really only works with national networks.

Patrick Kitano is a founding principal of Brand into Media, a strategy group for social brand management solutions, and administrator of the Breaking News Network, a national hyperlocal network devoted to community service. He is reachable via Twitter (@pkitano) and email ([email protected]).