Consumer Surveys for the Win

Mission Loc@l has many facets to it. Most of our community come to the site as a go-to source for news and information on the Mission District. And we love them for that.

Mission Loc@l is also an educational tool for journalism students from U.C. Berkeley and beyond.

Mission Loc@l is also a nonprofit that must experiment to find ways to sustain itself. This week we launched a new one.

Many sites including the Dallas Morning News and New York Times have implemented various versions of paywalls. Your access to content is limited unless you reach for your wallet. That is not the model we are exploring.

Instead we’ve decided to try an alternative to paywalls. For the next few weeks we will be experimenting with Google Consumer Surveys.

This means some content will be hidden to the reader until they take a survey, share the article you are reading or donate. The choice is yours and every choice helps Mission Loc@l stay strong so we can keep the community informed. The questionnaires are usually one or two questions. Pretty painless and then you are off on your way to keep reading the latest news from Mission Loc@l. Some of my personal thoughts on this experiment can be found here.

Check out this example (Note: Below is an image – you can’t actually take this survey. Try it live here.

This is a test for us. A way for our readers to help keep Mission Local strong with just two quick clicks of a button and your honest feedback.

Only a few days in it's early to rush to judgement but so far we are seeing a completion rate of just over 20%. That means another 80% are abandoning the content. It does suck that 80% of folks abandon the content. But the 20% that do go through with the surveys create an eCPM of around $15. I'd take that any day. Again, this is very preliminary data (literally three days into the experiment).

The next logical question then is a cost analysis of principles. Early signs show that financially this is a good decision but is it worth losing 80% of your readers? That's a question I can't really answer. Certainly not for a project like Mission Loc@l which is also an educational tool.

But I do think it's important to keep in mind that regular abandonment rates are pretty high (attention spans online are short). So of the 80% that do leave it's probably safe to assume half of them would have left anyways. It's also important to remember that in this experiment we aren't asking people to pay money. It's not a financial burden. Readers leave on their own accord or because they can't figure out what to do (the user-interface problem). If they leave on their own accord, they never would have donated anyways or become valuable Mission Local readers. Which is why I want to focus on the user-interface problem to try and keep the small percentage of folks who leave out of frustration to a minimum.

The experiment will continue and hopefully we will find some useful information about how hyperlocal sites can use Google Consumer Surveys or competitors (and there will be competitors) to make some extra money.

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A Hyperlocal Business Canvas

Our friends over at WeLocally have helped Mission Local create a Business Model Canvas. What is that? The video below can give an explanation.

A framing of business is important.
The green boxes represent opportunities.

Interestingly enough – Mission Local is going to be releasing a business directory of sorts soon. We’re going to start with “Clubs” or bars in the Mission – but if it works there is no reason we couldn’t expand from there into other types of businesses.

 

 

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The “Be Mission” Market – A Local Etsy

Today Mission Local is launching the “Be Mission Market” an experiment in creating a local version of Etsy.

For those that don’t know – Etsy is an online store (think eBay) for handcrafted goods, vintage items and more. We reached out to local artisans and crafters in the Mission and using TinyPayMe as a third party site we’ve created a local marketplace where folks can buy goods from local sellers. Mission Local will take a small percentage.

Each month we’ll also have a featured seller. To launch we’re highlighting The Mission Live Local card (which you can buy at the “Be Mission Market“). This is a card you can purchase for $20 and for a full year will give you discounts at 30 businesses around the Mission (and that number is growing). It’s a fantastic replacement of any buy 10 get 1 free card and encourages buying locally.

The imputes for the “Be Mission Market” was actually the Live Local card. When I saw the launch of the Live Local card it struck me as an excellent endeavor for a hyperlocal news site. We’re in the business of selling advertising in the hope that is brings customers. Why not sell coupon cards that encourage customers as well. This is different than the Groupon craze. The Live Local card encourages patronizing local businesses repeatedly over the course of a year.

Of course the tough part about starting a local card program is recruiting businesses. Luckily the Live Local card already got started in the Mission. After speaking with the founder, we struck a deal to let Mission Local sell the card online for a commission.

But why stop with just selling the Live Local card? There are a slew of local artists, crafters and entrepreneurs in the Mission looking to tap into a Mission audience. Why not create a marketplace for them? That’s just what we did.

Right now the “Be Mission Market” is small. We are selling eight items that range from the Live Local card, hand-crafted earings, a local energy elixir and more. We are also selling Mission Local T-shirts and a guidebook to the Mission.

But we also have an open call to join the Be Mission Market. Hopefully we can continue to grow and feature enterprising local products every month.

 

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Block by Block – A Trade Association is Born

“Our narrative has always been constructed by others, either academics or mainstream media and it has always been to the tone of ‘aren’t they quaint.’ Well we aren’t quaint anymore, we are the future and we can construct our own narrative.” – Ned Berke from Sheepshead Bites.

I had the privilege of attending Block by Block last year. It felt unlike any other conference I’ve been to. It was a consortium of small hyperlocal publishers from across the country. These were sites that, unfortunately, aren’t give their due-credit except for a few leaders of the pack such as Baristanet, The Batavian and West Seattle Blog. But it is a rich, diverse and growing community.

This gathering is funded by the Patterson Foundation.* Without their help these small publishers probably wouldn’t be able to gather and share their experiences. But Patterson can’t fund Block by Block forever and that’s why at this year’s Block by Block event (perhaps the second to last one funded by Patterson) a trade association was born among the independent publishers.

Photo credit: Howard Owens

Organizing principles for the group haven’t been drawn up. This was more of an agreement to collaborate than a constitution, but metaphors of the “Continental Congress” were used as a means of acknowledging that there are shared problems and through the freedom of association this group will try and tackle those problems together. This is very much an organic process where a critical mass of publishers whose needs are not being met by current associations (ONA, NNA, SPJ, AAN, INN, etc) are going to create their own.

A trade association (with no “official” name) would allow the group to negotiate all kinds of troubled waters. From the relationship of small community publishers with the FCC, ad-networks, group libel-insurance, health insurance, awards, and more. They could collaborate by sharing knowledge as well as back-end analytics as a means of learning how each other are doing in their respective markets.

The association at this moment has a lot to figure out. Exactly who are “they” and who isn’t. Looking at the group of attendees at Block by Block definitely provides insight but isn’t defining. I’m certain folks that didn’t attend BXB will be admitted to the association but under what rubric. I can imagine a situation where Spot.Us shouldn’t be a member, but I’d argue that Berkeley’s hyperlocal sites should under the guise of their respective professor/editors. For the moment Facebook is being used as a communication tool as some of the founding members define and refine what it is exactly that they are. And remember, the first Constitution didn’t work out – but it was fertile ground upon which to improve. There are lots of questions that I imagine will arise. Should their be regional clusters of this association or a central organization? (Think Federalists vs. Anti-Federalists)

One thing has been clear emphasis has been put on the words “independent” and “publishers” (notice the second word is not “journalist” – an important and wise distinction IMHO). My one editorial remark here: I’d encourage the group to define themselves by the problems they are trying to solve. The Texas Tribune is also an “independent publisher” but I think has a totally different set of problems they must solve.

At the very least the association is there to validate something that many folks have known for a long time. The space of independent local publishers is valid and growing. It truly is a “Street Fight” and sure enough there’s a site of that name covering this space from that angle. With the publishers now having had a chance to meet face-to-face there is a sense of self-worth that they are often declined by the larger media scene. Combined these sites have claws; both in their communities and as an association.

I am excited to see how this group develops and am honored I get to say “I was there.”

-
* I’m also privileged to have advised the Patterson Foundation before their public launch and two years later I’m happy to see the results.

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Social Advertising – Banner Ads Beware

One of my main goals for the Ford Hyperlocal sites is to experiment with various revenue models. I come from the philosophy that news organizations won’t find any NEW revenue streams but that the traditional models are ripe for experimentation. The main streams of money are advertising, direct sales and services.

I’ve had a myriad of thoughts and feelings about online advertising. Bottom line – they need to evolve. The traditional online banner ad is about as engaging as traditional print newspapers. That’s not to say it’s bad content, but it’s not suited or taking advantage of the interactivity of the web.

One of the first experiments I wanted to try was NowSpots. NowSpots is a system that takes an advertisers Facebook/Twitter feeds and converts it into an ad spot. Instead of selling the advertiser a static image that links somewhere, we sell space to promote their message, which they can update in real time, it links where they want AND they can gain Facebook/Twitter followers who will stay for them beyond their advertising campaign.

Still having trouble picturing it. Check the images below.

Some more background on NowSpots and then we’ll get into the meaty part “what we’ve learned.”

NowSpots is a Knight News Challenge winner which has gone on to get more outside funding. It’s run by Brad Flora and my hat is off to him and his team for creating a product which is incredibly simple to use. If you’ve ever embedded a YouTube video then you can run a NowSpot ad. They also have a great ethic towards customer service which includes providing you with some basic sales material.

The social advertising above has been our first test. We just wanted to get it up and running and show it to potential advertisers. Which is to say – we haven’t “sold” the a “Now Spot” yet. But we hope one of the advertisers we’ve given free spots to might be interested in trying it again soon when the time is right.

Observations

A few things are immediately obvious with NowSpots.

1. Advertisers get it.

This isn’t a difficult thing to explain. In fact, while the NowSpots have been up all I have to do is tell people to check out the top banner ad of our sites to understand what a NowSpot is. It’s relatively intuitive.

2. Advertisers get flexibility.

Got an event on Friday and a sale on Monday. One banner ad won’t do. But you can easily change the message in your NowSpot just by updating your Twitter/Facebook account they way you normally would. Advertisers understand that interface.

3. Sales are still hard

Where NowSpots may truly shine is with large metro/regional/national publications getting blue chip advertisers that want to prove they have an authentic voice. At the local level sales are tough. Small businesses only have so much ad money to spend and you have to prove your worth.

4. Ads are content and this is better content

Advertisements are not journalism but they are content. And good content is good for your site. The content of NowSpots looks great, updates and serves the community more than a traditional banner ad.

5. The return on investment is better

It’s still early to tell if our audience at the hyperlocals is “following” our advertisers. Our test cases haven’t even been up a week yet. But the potential ROI for an advertiser is huge. Instead of just communicating with our audience for a brief period of time, they can create an ongoing relationship. That puts the pressure on our news sites to continue to grow our audience – but that would be the case regardless.

NowSpots is just one way we can re-think the classic banner ad. This is a space that I believe is ripe for experimentation so we can begin to figure out how to turn “digital dimes” into quarters.

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Let’s Talk Ad-Servers

My time at UC Berkeley’s J-school poses many challenges and opportunities. I hope to try many small experiments and a few big ones. At the foundation for one of the larger potential experiments we need to find a flexible ad-server.

What’s an ad-server? It’s a technology and service that displays ads on websites. Think of it as a YouTube for advertising. Why does everyone upload video to YouTube or Vimeo? Because hosting video on your own server is complicated. So is hosting your own ads, especially if you need to manage those ads in a dynamic way, swapping ads in and out, creating competing bids for spots, remnant campaigns and more.

It’s a problem that every local publisher has to tackle at some point if they want to mature into a small business. The details of the potential larger experiment are a bit further off right now, so rather than get all three hyperlocal sites on the same ad-server we wanted to take some time to try two very popular ad-servers and compare the experience. Currently RichmondConfidential.com has ads hosted by Double Click for Publishers while Mission Loc@l and Oakland North are serving ads from Open X.

 Meet The Hosts

Double Click for Publishers (DFP) was created in 1995 and survived the dot com bubble to become a subsidiary of Google. As you might imagine with Google ownership comes high usage rates. As a result DFP has become an industry standard for organizations large and small. We are currently using the free version of DFP for small businesses. As organizations become larger and need more flexibility in their ad-serving a premium version is available.

Open X is an independent company which is often looked at as a strong alternative to DFP. It includes a free version (Open X Onramp) and a paid version (Open X Enterprise) for those organizations who need a more robust solution. In addition to this Open X has an open source version of its platform which is actually how the project originally started. It is now called OpenX Source. Anyone can download the software and create their own fully integrated ad-hosting solution if they have the technical know-how.

For most hyperlocal sites doing under 5-million pageviews a month the free version of both Open X and DFP suffice and that’s what we’ll be comparing in this post.

The Plus of Open X

While not a “small” company by any stretch Open X responds to queries and trouble-shooting requests both by staff and in their community support section. One of the initial appeals to try Open X as an alternative to DFP was the OpenX Market. By checking this option you agree to let Open X bid for an ad spot if it can beat the CPM of your choosing. If you have a campaign selling for $8 CPM you can tell the OpenX Market to sell any ad for that spot at a $9 CPM. If they can’t find a bidder, you fall back on your base ad. But if they can find a bidder (and it’s automatic once you opt in) you’ve just started making more money by letting advertisers dynamically compete for your space. In short through Open X a publisher can sell direct ads, sales to ad networks and option space for the Open X market all at the same time. Options are awesome.

The Plus of DFP

The biggest benefit to using Double Click for Publishers is its ease of use. If you have a Google Account you can be up and running in no time. It instantly syncs with your Google Adsense account and ensures that if you haven’t sold a custom ad then adsense will kick in as a permanent remnant campaign. The user interface and overall process of setting up campaigns on DFP is smoother than Open X which does require a little trial and error. If that’s a priority then using DFP can save a lot of headaches. In fact the Knight Digital Media Center has an excellent step-by-step tutorial on how you can set up Double Click for Publishers on your website. In terms of ease of user DFP is a hands down winner.

In the end – there is no clear winner between OpenX and DFP. If you are prepared to put in a little extra time to understand their system OpenX might be able to garner you some extra money here and there. But if time is more valuable, then the ease of DFP might be the way to go.

And in truth, our un-scientific A/B testing of these two ad-servers is only just getting started. Soon we hope to integrate ads from other networks like Local Yokel, NowSpots and more to see how they can be injected and hosted by each system.

As we push forward with larger experiments I hope to share insight into what we are trying and how it all fairs so that other hyperlocal projects can learn from our mistakes and success.

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MissionLocal partners with Stamen Design’s Dotspotting project

MissionLocal.org, a hyperlocal news site run by the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, has partnered with Stamen Design to display crime maps in the Mission District of San Francisco.

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Live coverage, still a tricky process

MissionLocal.org recently covered the Carnaval San Francisco parade that comes through the Mission District of San Francisco every year.

It’s a big event for this community, and deservedly it required lots of coverage. I met with the MissionLocal staff before the parade was to kick off to talk about options for live coverage. Several of the reporters had iPhones and they had some ideas about covering the parade with live video.

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MissionLocal launches Classified Ads page

MissionLocal.org launched a classified ads page this week which will feature merchandise and services targeted to viewers from the Mission District in San Francisco.

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JOB: Looking for someone who can save journalism

The UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism is seeking a product developer to implement a business model for three hyper-local online news sites the school has been operating for several years.

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