We are proud to be sponsoring the LION Conference for the third consecutive year, and so impressed with the growth of the organization as well as the publishers that lead them. Last year, we published a post about the Top 10 things we learned from our first LION conference. This year, we wanted to profile one of the hardest working publishers we know – Denise Lockwood from Racine County Eye. Denise was one of the first group of publishers to work with us after our first LION in 2015 and is still going strong.
Q: So, tell me a little bit about your background. You’re part of the ex-Patch brigade that makes up a nice chunk of the LION publishers, right?
A: Yes! I have 18+ years of experience in publishing, all with traditional publishers until my stint with Patch. I started Racine County Eye in January, 2014, after Patch shut us down. Patch was a great experience, regardless of the outcome. I learned so much, so when I started the Eye, it was important that it be an extension of the experiences I had at Patch. It was a lot different writing for a paper vs. a technology company that wanted to report on the news.
Q: Tim Armstrong was recently interviewed about what went wrong at Patch. I’d love to hear what you thought Patch did well and not so well.
A: As I mentioned, Patch was first and foremost a tech company. So, they looked at publishing from that perspective. Some of the positives from that included understanding and leveraging analytics – make decisions based on data not gut. Also, the value of community and getting your audience engaged. Lastly, they made us realize that we were the brand. People resonated with us personally, which helped with engagement. That never happened in legacy publishing unless you won a Pulitzer (and even then, pretty rarely!)
Of course, the frustrations were pretty high as well. Patch was way too click-baity; we decided our revenue driver was going to be display ads, so the focus was on huge page views, which made us do all the silly things that people like John Oliver make fun of. From the business side, there were very few boots on the ground doing sales. So, here we were, a hyperlocal site, with no hyperlocal sales presence. Huge mistake.
Q: Ok, so you left Patch and created your own site focused on local conversations and engagement. How does that work, and how do you “sell” that to local businesses?
A: The traditional newspaper mindset is so much different than how I think news needs to be told today. We are focused on building a community around the news, instead of us being solely the newsmaker. I don’t view myself as a newsmaker. I’m in the business of creating a news and marketing news conversations.
Q: A community around the news. That’s a pretty unique approach. What makes you think that works?
A: I know it works because my analytics tell me what my community is interested in and we pride ourselves on getting feedback from our businesses. This is different than how other news agencies approach things. When I was at the Milwaukee Business Journal, we couldn’t even turn on comments to our stories during the elections. There was literally no feedback from readers. It was one-sided. We made all the rules and decisions. That’s not the way the Internet works. If you don’t enable a two-way conversation, you aren’t going to last long online.
It’s all about Engagement. The point is getting people to talk about what we’re creating – whether it be a story, an ad, or something else. If I believe my job is to get the community to engage, then I have to provide engaging content. And one of the important things I’ve learned is that I don’t have to create all that content myself.
For example, I know a lot of colleagues at other sites are upset that local police departments are now publishing their police blotters online. That is a huge area of engagement for me – people love to read about this stuff. But instead of getting upset that somebody else is creating a lot of this original content, I realized they were doing me a huge favor. Now I can aggregate and add value to the content they are publishing, and dig deeper into the stories that folks are most interested in. With this approach, people are still coming to our site first for police blotter info, because they can get everything that the police department offers as well as our in-depth analysis on the crimes that matter to them. And they get to engage on our site which they can’t do on the police’s site.
Q: Another example would be your Foxconn “channel” that focuses on all the news around Foxconn opening a plant in your area that could employ tens of thousands of people.
A: If anybody wants to know about Foxconn moving to our area, we’ve got it all. And we’re focused on what them moving to the area means to local residents. This has also generated new revenue opportunities for us.
Q: How so?
A: We use Storify, Sponsored Ads and the Meet the Merchant feature from Bizyhood to monetize these stories. A local tech college writes sponsored content in our channel. We subtly introduce businesses into our stories when they sign up as a Marketing partner. And we get tons of user engagement – they ask us questions, yell at us, make suggestions. It makes our reporting more thorough and answers the questions that our community has.
Compare this to Patch, where we wrote articles to attract large advertisers like Ford. While I’d love to get a huge contract from Ford, we need to realize that local stories are attractive to local businesses – and we need to go where are our readers are focused right now, not where potential advertisers would like to take them. Viral stories don’t matter nearly as much to a local audience.
Q: Funny you should say that. I recently heard Rainn Wilson from SoulPancake say that he thinks content should be more virus than viral. The concept being that a virus spreads slowly and gains steam over time, where viral gets huge immediately and then drops off quickly. What do you think of that idea?
A: In local, it makes a lot of sense. Patch used to call it “flicking the nerve.” You can wear out an audience when you try to go viral or create viral stories. You have to bring other people into the story, not be the entire story. I honestly don’t know that I want to describe my site as a virus though!
This is another reason we’re bullish on what you’re doing at Bizyhood. Your platform is a great building block that allows me to easily bring other businesses or groups into many of the conversations I’m creating. It’s a conversational approach rather than a big bang approach.
Q: Are you a matchmaker then?
A: Absolutely. That’s a huge part of my job. Back to Foxconn, for example – everybody is writing about them possibly moving to our area and the impact of the State incentives. But we’re taking it a step further. A local technical college is helping folks get their GED and technical certificates, and that story also needs to be told. But it’s not just a story – it’s actually connecting the college to people who need that level of education. So, we get to be very “intentional” about how we’re connecting people.
Q: Ok, time to discuss revenue! You’ve touched on it a bit, but let’s get specific. We did an (unofficial) poll earlier this year where an overwhelming number of small businesses ranked word of mouth as their #1 marketing tool, by a wide margin. They rated advertising pretty poorly. Are you seeing this as well? If so, how are you addressing these challenges?
A: Yes, we see it big time. It’s so frustrating to go to a small business with all our numbers that indicate great engagement, simply to have them tell us “we don’t think it’s working.” It’s just a gut feel, they aren’t using data to support it. That’s a tough objection to address.
Like most folks, we try to diversify without stretching ourselves too thin. We do a little bit with subscriptions, which we just started. We’re psyched to have subscribers who love and support our news, but we know that’s a super tough sustainable revenue stream, so it’s not our #1 priority.
We’re primarily focused on business sponsorships, calls to action. Find the people who value the content you’re producing the most and let them be a part of it (for a price!). Based on our conversations, we put together “marketing bundles” that include traditional advertising, but aren’t specific to advertising. This seems to hit a broader base of folks.
We’re also really excited about what Bizyhood is working on in terms of lead generation. Once we can definitively show how many leads we are bringing to local businesses, that will help a lot. They don’t care about page views, they want results. For them, results mean leads, it means a broader word of mouth than they can do themselves.
I stopped trying to sell content long ago, it’s not the right product. I don’t want to be “hawking” my content. I want to “hawk” the engagement and conversation that occurs because of my content.
Q: It’s never been just about the story. Even in the old days, journalists had a whole team of sales folks that were generating the revenue to allow them to write. It’s never been true that the story sells itself.
A: Amen. That’s why I am really so happy to have Trudy – our sales rep. She gets our vision and understands the need to create a conversation – so she’s also focusing on how we can assist a business vs. simply trying to sell.
Q: What about product placement – kind of like the movies – do you put quotes from relevant businesses or simply mention them in articles? Is that a valuable tool that you can monetize?
A: Sure – I mean, we wouldn’t be intentional about charging for it. We don’t have a “placement” line item on our price sheet. But we do offer our marketing programs, on a monthly basis, and part of that is our discretion to give them exposure in places where we think it helps the conversation. Which by default helps the business too. So, everybody wins, without being obviously promotional, which is my worst fear.
Q: Do you charge for news?
Q: Would you?
A: Absolutely not. I’ll never add a paywall. All it does it muffle the conversation. I want more people involved in the conversation, and a paywall blocks too many of them.
Q: You talk about starting a conversation and building engagement. Other than writing great content that starts the conversation, what else are you doing?
A: First, we have weekly newsletters. They are Opt-in. A slow and steady way to build our audience. We have newsletters for different areas of interest. For our first one (Beer:30), we created a wristband that only subscribers can get, and that gives them additional discounts at participating local bars/restaurants. This has been a great way to marry offline and online and to offer exclusivity to members.
As part of the Bizyhood platform, businesses can add events and promotions themselves (or have us enter them for a small monthly fee). So we take this business-generated content and cross post that on Facebook. Those posts send folks back to our site and to our customers content and conversation. And these links are highly engaging – people stay on our site longer and visit more pages!
Search is so relevant and an area I didn’t know we could do until Bizyhood came around. Who doesn’t want to get in the heads of people when they are actively searching to buy something? Since I’m not charging for my news, I need to make the information I have super easy to find. Bizyhood’s search is helping us do that. We know you’re working on a lot of stuff in this area, it’s super important.
We also do some tactical things based on the time of year. For example, right now we have a Google Form that has five questions that we think are most relevant for the Mayor’s race. We shared this with readers, who gave us additional questions and ranked what was most important for them to know. Then we go ask the candidates and report on the results. We’re crowdsourcing what people want to hear before we do the reporting.
Q: You seem willing to take risks/chances on how you monetize your site. Many publishers we see analyze but don’t execute. What’s holding them back? What’s been the pros and cons of moving fast?
A: I’m not afraid of screwing things up. There is no backup plan. This is what I want to be, and I want to be a good business owner in addition to a great publisher. So, that means I have to make good business decisions in addition to good journalistic decisions. And I’ve decided that small businesses need to succeed based on what we’re doing, or else we aren’t doing our job. So that means trying new things to help them. And if you don’t get any feedback at all, you’re probably not doing it right!
Q: What would you tell other publishers who are afraid of trying new things beyond advertising?
A: Hire a Business Coach. You can’t just be a journalist, you have to be a business owner. Otherwise, you’re screwed. So get good at that, it’s a must have.
Funny enough, when I speak with local businesses, I don’t view it as trying to sell them something. I see it as trying to help them grow. That helps me mentally, because I can be super passionate about how and why I’ll help them grow. But I can’t get too excited about selling them something – so I don’t sell!
Q: Where does technology fit in for you? What tools help you with the intersection of creating news as well as conversation?
A: In terms of my tech “stack”, we use WordPress as our CMS. Mailchimp for email marketing. Broadstreet is our ad server and HubSpot is our CRM. And, of course, Bizyhood is our conversation and engagement platform.
The different platforms we put our news on is the basis of our technology – Facebook, our own website, for example. But we need to listen as well and let people communicate with us on both these platforms in addition to others.
People assume that Facebook is where the best shareability happens online, and it’s almost the opposite. But publishers have to be in the game and not hand all this engagement to social media. We have to show how much a business owner is getting content shared and conversation started on our site – which then leads to more calls, emails and walk-ins. And we have to be purposeful about how we’re impacting those things.
I ask questions on Facebook of people – those answers help me decide what things to cover and share. I got this from my time at Patch.
Q: How much time do you spend selling vs. writing?
A: It was 50/50 at first. Now I probably write 75% of the time with Trudy here. We also have a freelance writer and 4-5 bloggers in addition to me so I’m not the only one creating content.
Q: Denise, thanks so much for your time. Last question – if you could sum up your current ethos in a tweet, what would it be?
A: The audience doesn’t matter. It’s the connection to your audience that matters.