Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle addresses the AAN Digital Conference (Photo Credit: AAN)
A clear theme emerged from the AAN Digital Conference in San Francisco last week: Alt-weeklies have an enormous advantage in their market thanks to their trusted brands and existing relationships within their communities, and technology has finally reached a sweet spot of sophistication/accessibility to help alt-weeklies capitalize on all of that hard-earned trust.
Over and over, attendees were reminded that their most valuable asset is their unique audience, which advertisers will pay a premium to reach.
"They want your inventory," said Proximic chief revenue officer Rodney Mayers during a session on ad trends. "It's written well. It's done well. You've got audiences that are worth something."
At a time when legacy media companies are trying to capitalize on local, they're stuck in a game of catch-up with the alts, which have already paid their dues to the community and have an established ground presence.
"What can we offer that the other guys can't? We have boots on the street," explained Bill Jensen, former director of digital for Voice Media.
And that local footprint doesn't just appeal to mom-and-pop stores, it's also attractive to larger national brands eager for an entry into local markets. "Sometimes we're too focused on local, and we miss the national brands," Jensen added. "Your 'Best of' party doesn't have to be just local businesses. National brands should be there as well."
In order to cash in on these existing strengths, alt-weeklies will have to deliver what companies large and small have come to expect from digital advertising: quality data on audience demographics and behavior, as well as video inventory to compliment a display campaign.
Representatives from the global data analytics company cXense explained how alts can use "Big Data" to develop a better understanding of who their readers are and what interests them.
"Building your own bank of data will create long-term value," said Rob Wescott, V.P. of business development for cXense. That data can then be used to position AAN publications to digital agencies worldwide for targeted ad campaigns.
Anton Gelman of Cont3nt discussed the AltWeeklies Content Exchange, which in addition to giving AAN members a platform to buy and sell breaking news coverage, also allows alts to tap into a realtime pipeline of video content — which can then be monetized.
"Think of it as eBay for breaking news," Gelman explained.
"Merchants don't 'get' the web," said LocalOn co-founder Shahbano Imran. "Too many people are trying to sell them technology services. But they 'get' publishers. There's familiarity and trust there."
Indeed, as Michael Depp of NetNewsCheck explains, the early success of the program is a direct result of East Bay Express publisher Jody Colley's strong ties with the local business community:
As with any such low-priced product, the key is selling in bulk, and that has been exactly Colley's approach. Rather than knock on individual merchants' doors, Colley went right to the chambers of commerce and merchant organizations with which she has had longstanding relationships and signed them up instead. She said those organizations were eager to offer the digital services to their members, and their comfort level with her helped seal the deal.
"As a publisher, once all those businesses join the ecosystem, they are now my contacts," Colley said, noting that she was hoping to send her sales staff seven to begin upselling into other advertising this year.
In Omaha, The Reader has partnered with Infogroup to offer a service which helps maintain the online presence of local businesses.
Editor/publisher John Heaston said freelancers are assigned to local businesses. They learn the business and then produce content such as blog posts, promotional videos, and social media posts.
"Online visibility and reputation management fits directly into [alt-weeklies'] suite of services," explained Infogroup's Scott Murtaugh.
Salt Lake City Weekly general manager Andy Sutcliffe echoed that sentiment, urging publishers to shift from selling "advertising" to providing "marketing" services.
And who is best positioned to offer those services?
At the AAN Digital Conference, the answer was loud and clear: With a strong and distinct voice that daily newspapers can't replicate, and years' worth of hard-earned community trust that the fly-by-night "hyperlocal" networks can't buy, the local alt-weekly has major advantages over its competitors in the battle for digital dollars.
More highlights from the 2013 AAN Digital Conference
MDLF Knowledge Bridge editor Kevin Anderson stressed the importance of independent journalism at a time when news outlets are competing for attention with everybody who puts up a webpage, tweets, or posts to Facebook. But in order to remain independent, media must be financially viable, which is why Anderson and MDLF promote the concept of "entrepreneurial sustainability" as a means to keep independent journalism alive. (Presentation Slides)
Journalism Accelerator founder/director Lisa Skube explored "The New News Frontier" in which news organizations collaborate to form strategic partnerships with each other to stand out from the competition. (Presentation Slides)
Automattic developer Daniel Bachhuber talked about using WordPress in the Newsroom, and made a keen observation: "This conference was the first time I've heard "dry humping" as a recommended way to show your appreciation to the organizers. Keep on rockin', alt-weeklies."