The oil bust in West Texas has hit the San Angelo metro area hard. But the independent community news site San Angelo LIVE has been holding onto its revenues through energetic innovations in audience engagement, editorial content and client promotion. In this Q & A with “The New News,” founder Joe Hyde explains how his two-and-a-half-year-old site succeeds in economic hard times:
A half year ago, you were hitting $60,000 in ad revenue monthly. What are you doing now? The oil-price bust has been hard on many extractors in West Texas. Has that affected ads?
We are holding steady right now, requiring a ton of work. The oil bust is officially a here. It slowed our growth, forcing us to use different sales tactics, primarily to adapt to our clients’ defensive posture. It has forced us to get into a product development mode. We’re creating HTML5 ads, introduced video ads to compete with TV, hooking ad campaigns up to fancy analytics systems, etc. The mission is to constantly enhance our value to clients.
Oil can’t stay in the $30/barrel range forever. I’m optimistic that the economy takes off again towards the end of the year after the presidential elections. With all of the work we’ve done on improving our products and expense structure, we’re ready to rock and roll.
In unique visitors, San Angelo Live is behind GoSanAngelo.com, which is the site of the San Angelo Standard-Times (owned by Journal Media Group, which Gannett is seeking to buy). Last August you had 250,000 uniques and were ahead of GoSanAngelo.What happened?
We’re always ahead of GoSanAngelo.com in local audience by a lot. See these numbers. Our content strategy has shifted somewhat to more civic stories, issues, and etc. and away from crashes.
Regardless, the Gannett acquisition is over and they are ramping up to meet us, no doubt. I think throughout 2015, particularly the last half of 2015, the publisher had his hands tied awaiting the transfer of the asset to Gannett. They came on stronger in February and we’re adjusting.
One of your biggest initiatives on the revenue side has been helping a major downtown music venue and bar, Blaine’s Pub, do better business on weekdays as well as weekends. How did that deal start and how did it go?
Blaine’s Pub had a challenge. Its “Working Women’s Wednesday” promotion was about seven years old. As the Wednesday night crowd dwindled, Blaine’s still needed at least one crowded weeknight to supplement their sizable weekend crowds and sales in order to grow revenue.
We looked at the personality of the new owner who was passionate about Texas music as an art — more than a draw to sell more booze. There is also the storied reputation of the bar and its late founder, Blaine Martin. Martin was a kingmaker in the Texas music scene.
Our Thursday Night LIVE campaign was a successful effort to re-brand Blaine’s as a music venue first, and to promote the art of music that Blaine’s historically made famous, instead of just another honkytonk. We worked with area sponsors and restaurants to cater food, and Blaine’s booking agent and co-owner, Katie Bollinger, carefully selected good, up-and-coming music acts to perform, usually with appreciative audience interaction, and usually acoustic.
Four months in, Thursday Night LIVE created a profit center for Blaine’s on a weekday night, and propelled Blaine’s to become the top-grossing bar in San Angelo’s downtown district and always within the top 10 citywide in gross alcohol receipts.
When working these types of promotions, it is imperative that the client have the ability to provide excellent customer service and experience. “Partnership” is an overused word in ad sales. But this was a true partnership.
Blaine’s Pub had previously used radio for its promotion. Why wasn’t that a better fit?
The challenge for digital ad sales is to prove you can move the needle more than radio. There’s the lingering perception among local ad buyers that radio still has the reach it did in 1975. That’s not true. There are eight entertainment options other than the 15 local radio stations I can tune on my nav screen in my Ford F-150.
The only way to prove digital works in local is to show it by working hard on promotions like we did with Blaine’s. We used our reach with an engaging campaign design to do that — organizing the free food, sponsored content, our event calendar, and etc.
What has your promotion for Blaine’s Pub meant for San Angelo Live, including in terms of reader engagement?
Niche music plays like Texas country music are difficult to use to attract large swaths of audience when compared to reporting crime and crashes, or even civic epics, because even in a West Texas town there aren’t as many fans of one genre of music as there are people impacted by the more popular high-audience stories. You have to craft the stories into tales that interest more that just a Sean McConnell fan who lives the pulse of the music scene, for example. And those who are with the pulse of this particular music scene have a multitude of other media they can consume, primarily GalleyWinter.com or rawhideandvelvet.com. The content strategy gave us two things. First, it put revenue behind our work to write about the arts where we probably wouldn’t have and shows the diversity of our ability to cover things like this. Second, it showed other venues how we can move the needle for the arts by putting butts into seats.
And it has a cool factor. But I can’t measure that.
What has Thursday Night LIVE meant in ad revenue?
We actually were able to sell sponsorships to a number of shows. As the shows got more crowded, we pulled back on sponsorships because Blaine’s was making enough money to pay for the more expensive acts. But we actually seeded the music series with sponsors. Also, many area restaurants are still involved in providing catering to the events. The food trade was the most successful sponsorship tactic.
We use the Blaine’s story as a case study in our sales efforts, sure.
Is there a lesson here for community news websites in general?
Digital is very difficult to sell because there’s not 60 years’ worth of local ad sales history like there is with TV or radio. In order to draw attention to the impact of local digital, you have to demonstrate that it works. Don’t be afraid to take risks to grow your sales.
What’s the story behind MegaCars? Did you produce the YouTube videos with the local car dealer?
I lobbied the client to allow us to have some freedom to try lots of tactics to meet the mission requirements of generating clicks to the newly launched megacars.com. In particular, I wanted my team to have the freedom to experiment with HTML5 banner ads.
The videos you saw are from our first run. They were produced by myself and MegaCars.com GM Stefan Hambright. We collaborated.
We’ve found that shorter, 10-15-second videos are the most effective in driving traffic to megacars.com. Their agency, Delta Group, crafted some “Internet grainy” videos using a spokeswoman that we’re using now. Nothing is over-produced. We want to keep it real.
Abilene is still 94 miles away and Midland, 110 miles. Do those numbers rule out expansion?
Today, the publisher of the San Angelo Standard-Times is also the publisher of Abilene’s Reporter-News. He is struggling in Abilene too. He’s stretched out too thin. I’m still evaluating how to scale, which has been the challenge always with local since the beginning of time.
Tom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) writes “The New News” column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of hyperlocal news network Local America, and is also working on a book about the history, present, and future of Charleston, S.C.