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

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.

  1. Eddie Tor
    April 25, 2013

    I would be very careful about putting too much stock in Mr. Tucker’s words. They are not worth the virtual paper upon which they are “printed.” And while the topic is quite narrow, it must be remembered that, to attract advertisers, onemust have a product with which the advertiser — be it VSB or SMB — wants to be associated. Mr. Tucker eviscerated his staff and left the idea of local journalism to bleed out in the hyper local gutters of Westchester and Fairfield counties, he lost much of the credibility he had gained through the hard work of his tremendously underpaid but dedicated staff. That reflects on all who advertise on the remaining sketchy sites.

    1. Randacious
      April 25, 2013

      A good point which is why you want to watch where your company is headed. Case and point, there has been a lot said recently about the site, Topix which claims to be a community newssite but is in truth nothing more than a glorified messageboard gossip site. The more word gets out about how dangerous that site is, advertisers will leave in droves.

  2. April 25, 2013

    @LocalVox: I sort of agree with you. I started offering these services at the request
    of my sales reps, at the request of our clients. It was a way to
    deliver services and prevent them from spending their entire budget on
    the next SEO guy who walked through their door. However, providing these services was a departure from our core competency: digital content. When it became unprofitable to continue offering them,
    we stopped. Now, if a client asks us about SEO for example, if we think
    they really need it, we have a referral partner. Here’s our mantra:
    the fastest and easiest way to get traffic to your website andmore business is to buy online advertising.

    1. April 25, 2013

      That’s a tough proposition given that you are more likely to survive a plane crash than click on a banner ad. The advertising business is proving over and again that with limited inventory on the local level it costs too much to create ads, traffic them, and because advertising is episodic (vs. marketing which is long term) the churn is simply too high.

      Patch which is charging $60+ effective CPMs is flailing. Local publishers need a a different way to engage readers on your sites and provide long term value.

      1. Randacious
        April 25, 2013

        That’s a good point. I never click on a banner ad unless by accident and sites that have tons of them, run me off quickly.

      2. April 25, 2013

        I should clarify. We sell advertising in the form of expanded directory listings and run of site banner ads. The listings are what gets the clicks, the banner ads, not so much, However, the ones on our targeted niches sites get good click through.

  3. April 25, 2013

    Answer to question asked in headline: NO. Nor did we need to become a daily-deal seller, which was the last fad, endless hand-wringing about “local sites must get into the deal business.”

  4. SomethingFishy
    April 25, 2013

    The latest “New News” about The Daily Voice shows that, Mr. Grubisich has again turned a blind eye to a lot of blatant untruthiness. Again, Grubisich doesn’t challenge Tucker’s whoppers, because Street Fight’s need for revenue from its own “Summits,” creates a very large conflict of interest.
    As for The Daily Voice sites, one look at their lifeless content will set the record straight about Tucker’s claim that advertisers phones are ringing from click-throughs. Nonsense.

  5. April 26, 2013

    ” 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.”

    Why would I do that? I would rather get paid than to give something away for free. It’s been my experience that once you give possible advertisers a free article they would rather have that free article than start paying for ads.

    And as Julie Brooks rightly pointed out and from what I’ve read of the article, you start moving away from being a community news website into something completely different that you didn’t want to end up being.

    1. TomGrubisich
      April 26, 2013

      Very good community websites do articles on especially interesting businesses. Sacramento Press did this piece yesterday (April 25) on Old Soul Co. boutique coffee roasters in midtown Sacramento —

      and The Alternative Press in Livingston, N.J., did this piece, also yesterday, on the new Philly Hot Pretzel Factory —

      Philly Hot

      1. April 27, 2013

        I know they do and that’s great for the business section as long as the story is written for the best interests of the readers and not the business owners.

        But I’ve known a few places where the theory of giving them a free story in the hopes of advertising down the road doesn’t always work out.

  6. April 29, 2013

    While local community sites don’t NEED to offer Digital Agency services, they certainly could benefit from providing VSB & SMB’s with the basic marketing services they really want and need.

    Banner ads and simple links are good start, but not enough. started out as pure hyper-local aggregator, but then added best of breed real estate & directory listing offerings. That’s where some really good money lies.

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