Do Community News Sites Really Need to Become ‘Digital Agencies’?

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smalltownSo you’re the publisher of a two-year-old community news site, and business isn’t bad. The 40-some businesses who advertise on your site are paying the bills — and if you can grow that number to 50 or so by the end of the year, you’ll be able to hire your first-full-time reporter. But you keep hearing about how local and hyperlocal sites like yours have to become — in Borrell Associates’ phrasing — a “digital agency“ to survive, and the phrase scares you. You’ve put your whole life (and personal credit cards) into building the hard-to-assemble pieces of a community website, and now you’re told to morph into an “agency.”

Should you be apprehensive? Concerned, maybe, but not scared, my look around the industry tells me.

First, the average community news site that looks to be on the path of success (and wants to stay there) is very likely already a “digital agency” to a degree. If you collect user analytics that go deeper than traffic numbers and put them together in a monthly report for your advertisers — as many community sites are now doing — that’s acting like an agency. If you ask a business to tell the story about its unique service or product with a free article instead of an ad — as some sites smartly do — that’s acting like an agency. If you ask a business what it wants, instead of trying to give it what you want — as more sites are learning to do — that’s very definitely acting like an agency.

For answers, I went to Julie Brooks, CEO of, who went into and then out of, an ambitious program of agency-like marketing services; Mike Orren, president of the new marketing service firm Speakeasy, which he co-founded with the Dallas Morning News; and Carll Tucker, CEO of Daily Voice, who is considering expansion of marketing services it has offered to business clients since the regional community-based network was created in 2009 (as MainStreetConnect).

Brooks, whose products include the Cape Code Today news site, says the first thing a website publisher should do is define the business clients they now have, and those they want to reach. Are they VSBs (very small businesses, with up to about 15 employees) or SMBs (small and medium-sized, with up to 100 employees)? If they’re VSBs, Brooks says, they probably don’t need a suite of marketing services (e.g., search-engine optimization, blogging, social media presence and other branding-related tactics): “They want the phone to ring,” she says.

To keep the phone ringing, Brooks continues, a digital news publication should make sure all its advertisers have their own website — to create user click-throughs — and, if they don’t, help them build one. A basic site would include a couple of photos featuring the product or service the business offers, a testimonial or two and phone number and address.

Brooks pulled back from offering a suite of marketing services because they were expensive to develop and maintain and didn’t prove that necessary for her mostly-VSB clients. But eCape — her umbrella site — offers presentations to Chambers of Commerce and other business groups on “what they need to know” about Internet marketing. The 1 ½-2 ½-hour session covers social media, blogging, SEO, how to go mobile, premium services to enhance a website, analytics and what commerce sites like Groupon offer — all topics that a community publisher who stays current on the industry should be able to discuss.

If a client wants more than an overview, Brooks recommends specific third-party services that have a reliable track record. “I educate business in Internet marketing. I just don’t offer all the services,” she says.

Mike Orren, at Dallas-based Speakeasy, says marketing-service agencies like his are being propelled by what he calls “banner blindness” and ad network commoditization: “The good news for a community site is that you are likely to be far more nimble than larger competitors and can integrate services in these areas quickly and with low overhead,” he said. “It is also likely that your customers who want to market via social channels aren’t sophisticated or experienced and lack the time to learn how. They need your help, and you are a trusted partner.”

So should a community site that’s concerned about staying current with digital marketing trends jump into offering agency-type services?

“Community sites can get into that game at whatever level that they can support — but more importantly, what makes sense for your client base, “ Orren said. “We charge our clients from $2,000 to $15,000 a month. If that’s more than a community site’s SMB client base can chew, then a lower-service, lower-labor offering by a site might be a better fit.

“There are levels of marketing services and you have to tune that offering to your resources and your clients’ budgets,” he said. “My analogy is that [a lower-labor service] is more like buying the latest copy of TurboTax, while Speakeasy is like hiring an accounting firm.”

At Daily Voice, the regional network of 41 sites in suburban New York and Connecticut, CEO Carll Tucker told me “we are definitely moving in that direction,” toward offering more marketing services, both in-house and third-party. “We’re trying out various [third parties] to see if they move the needle in user response,” he said.

In March, Tucker reversed Daily Voice’s recent heady expansion by closing the 11 sites it had bought in Central Massachusetts. In further cost-cutting, he consolidated newsrooms and downsized the network’s expensive corporate leadership — a move that reinstalled him as CEO.

Tucker looks at marketing through a wider lens than Brooks, because Daily Voice’s business clients include both VSBs and SMBs. That means, he says, that Daily Voice has to offer services that not only keep business-client phones ringing (from click-throughs) but also build branding. “Take health care,” he says. “You don’t shop for a hip replacement. You choose a hospital based on its reputation branding.”

Daily Voice right now does that through both conventional banner ads and in-house, business-sponsored promotions of its “Local Hero” and “Go Team” feature articles.

“Everybody is looking for results,” says Tucker. “We go with a package of services that meets the needs of the client’s objectives. We design a program that suits them and then monitor the results.”

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.