Borrell on Local News: Inform, but Help Businesses Thrive

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internetWe know what at least some community news publishers think about Gordon Borrell’s recent statement that the “good content that needs to be developed is basically advertising or consumer related.”

But did the CEO of Borrell Associates mean that community publishers should abandon any attempt to present a balanced picture of their community with their news? Was he saying that publishers instead should focus on content that will put them in a buying mood? I asked Borrell to clarify his provocative words:

Many users on commercial local-hyperlocal sites, like Yelp, Foursquare or Autotrader, may be near or inside a geo-fence and ready to whip out their credit card to for a purchase. But most news consumers probably don’t fit in those ready-to-buy circumstances. Isn’t that a difference that matters, especially for targeted ads?
Most certainly. Assume that just about everyone is going to buy something soon – whether it’s a gallon of milk on the way home from work, a new rattlesnake tattoo, or a BMW they’ve been dreaming of buying. The key is knowing certain things about the reader that makes that reader more valuable to the advertiser. Their cookies might tell you they just searched for “BMW” or “tattoo parlor” in the past day or two. In fact, those mildly interested consumers might just be more valuable to local merchants than the ones at the lower end of the funnel who may have already made up their minds.

Merchants in a typical community – say, a restaurant, personal-care service, florist – should know that market pretty well. Do they need deep demographic profiles of the local news website(s) to make decisions about buying ads?
Because a merchant knows a market pretty well doesn’t make that merchant a marketing genius. No, they don’t need deep demographic profiles, and they’re not likely to even understand the capabilities of digital media. So they’ll continue to make from-the-hip decisions about buying ads. And those decisions won’t kill them…but they won’t really help them all that much either.

It’s the smart hyperlocal site managers who will wean them off old advertising methods and bring them brilliant new opportunities.  If I were a florist and someone said, “Buy an ad on my site the week before Valentine’s Day,” I’d do it because it would make sense.  But if someone else said, “Your ad will appear throughout the year, but only certain readers and only two weeks before their spouse’s birthday or anniversary,” they’d have me.  I’d still advertise before Valentine’s Day and do OK like every other florist, but I’d probably increase orders on off-weeks throughout the year.

How do you get that information from readers?  There are loads of ways.  And then, of course, you need the ad-serving capability.  Overkill for a small market?  Maybe, but that capability would certainly put you head and shoulders above anyone else trying to sell advertising around general readership.

Most news publishers I talk with stress the importance of their editorial content in attracting, keeping and engaging an audience from the community. Isn’t it reasonable to assume that most people in this audience are making purchase decisions only part of their time? Don’t they spend at least 20 or 30 minutes a day wanting to find out what happened in their community? Don’t they have a civic life that news sites should try to connect with?
This is where I may not have been clear in some of my comments.  We can certainly view people who frequent hyperlocal news sites as “readers” who are there for the content. But once we begin to realize that they are likely to be buy something that day, tomorrow, or next week, then we begin understanding the real value of that audience. Put differently, the mere fact that they’re sitting in market reading a news story doesn’t make them very valuable.  It’s what they did before they got there, where they’re going next, and what they are likely to buy.  And you can’t just guess and say, “Uh, a local tattoo parlor ad would be good here, right next to an ad for a CPA.”

So even while the guy who owns the neighborhood pizza store doesn’t absolutely need deep behavioral analytics, maybe the local publisher should have that data and try to make the pizza restaurateur more aware of customers he may not be getting — is that what you’re saying?
Absolutely, and here’s why: There’s a book called, “It’s Not What You Sell, It’s What You Stand For,” that I give to every new employee.  I want them to understand our mission as a company – a mission that involves saving local media companies, which in turn are helping save local communities.

Every community newspaper, local TV station or hylerlocal site owner should have a similar mission – to help inform the community, and to help local businesses thrive. It’s a noble cause. It leads to stronger communities where more dollars remain in-market, creating higher-paying jobs.  But to fulfill that mission, a media company will have to become a marketing partner with local entrepreneurs. That means going to that pizza shop owner who’s cutting pepperoni, swirling dough, staffing the cash register, and sweeping floors and saying, “I’m going to help you grow your business,” instead of, “I think you should buy a banner ad on my website.”

You have newspapers and “pure plays” among your clients. What do they say about your prescription for the kind of content they should feature?
I don’t think we’ve ever advised clients on the type of content they should feature.  Our business is following the money that pays for all those content producers, ad sales people, and tech folks who support local operations. (You can see it at  The question isn’t what content you should offer.  The question is, how are you going to make money to support what type of content you want to deliver?  If you’ve got printer’s ink in your blood, it’s probably going to be local news.  In the end, what we advise people is to think of their audience – regardless of the content they’re accessing – as consumers.   It’s a lot easy for the pure-play companies to look at things that way because they tend to build content around the actual consumption process.  It’s a lot harder for traditional media people to grasp that concept because their audience isn’t quite as “wallet ready,” so a bit more work is needed to segment the audience.

So even though the commercial pure-play like Yelp can build its strategy around the consumer who’s on the verge of making (e.g., where to eat tonight), the local news publisher — legacy or pure-play — has to think harder about his/her audience as consumers because they’re going to buy things at some point — is that what you’re saying?
Yes, but I believe that a deeper level of thinking by media companies about their audiences can lead to a more powerful business. Sure, they can play at the bottom of the funnel, but it’s very crowded there and competition is likely to keep prices low.  The more a media company knows about the likely purchase path of someone at the top of that funnel – when they actually have a greater chance of being influenced – the greater value their audiences will be.

Tom GrubisichTom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) writes “The New News” column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of the in-development hyperlocal news network Local America that rates communities on their performance across a broad spectrum of livability — Local America Charleston launched last year.