15 criteria for picking a content management system for an ad-driven hyperlocal news website

One of the biggest early decisions a hyperlocal site entrepreneur makes is what Content Management System [CMS] they will use. One can think about this similar to picking a spouse. You are going to live with the decision day and night for a long, long time. Also, similar to choosing a spouse, each person has different criteria. I will share the criteria I used for my hyperlocal site (www.sunvalleyonline.com) so that you can consider them and prioritize them based upon your needs. Think through these criteria or your “spousal” choice may leave you feeling like Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner in The War of the Roses.

Before I get into that, I will share my experience and scenario which gives you some perspective on my situation. I’m a tech industry veteran (~25 years) though my hands-on coding experience is ancient (~20 years ago) but as a non-technical person goes, I’m reasonably technical though I’ve been on the business and editorial side of Web properties the last 15 years.

Part of my background includes being part of the early team of Microsoft Sidewalk starting in 1995 where I ran a team that supported the cities, as well as about half the cities reported through me, so I’ve been working with CMSs in the local arena for nearly 15 years. SunValleyOnline (SVO) has been around for about 5 years and was built on a proprietary platform that hasn’t changed in years. We are in the final stages of the transition from the old to the new site. SVO has been self-sustaining for a couple years with a small team of three people. We rely on a mix of community and staff contributions. I have personally blogged for several years and have used blogs built on Blogger and mostly WordPress.

To jump ahead, there’s lots of merit in WordPress and the ecosystem built around it, however I felt it came up short on the criteria I established to make the decision.

Listed below are the criteria I used with a brief explanation. While everyone will have somewhat different criteria, I listed the items in priority order from most to least important based upon my experience and priorities.

  1. No developer required: In my opinion, it is no longer necessary for 98 percent of sites to have a Web developer on staff. Fortunately, there are many off-the-shelf solutions that don’t require an in-house technologist. There may be occasional needs where a developer can be contracted to do specific work but at the early stages of a site’s development, I think a site should be focused on other items rather than doing custom development. As long as your CMS has the ability to extend it later, you can defer bringing on a technologist and save yourself money. Of course, there are hyperlocal sites founded by people with technology skills, and they can certainly take advantage of that, but it’s not a requirement to get off the ground.
  2. Easy to monetize: This relates to the next point (“Open”). Most sites are limited to generating revenue using standard display ads. While that is the right place to start, this is a highly dynamic sector and thus it should be easy to extend your site with various other capabilities whether it is turning standard display ads into video ads or incorporating high-quality ad networks, it should be as easy as “copy and paste” to add these capabilities to your site.
  3. Open: It should be very easy to add and delete modules to a page or an entire site, such as social media features, inbound RSS feeds (i.e., pulling in a news feed from another site), and widgets of all types from weather to flickr slideshows to polls to various monetizable elements from any number of third parties.
  4. Community Generated Content: It should be very easy for members of your community to contribute articles, pictures, video, classifieds, reviews, etc. The CMS should give you the ability to determine whether a specific user is able to post directly to the site or whether the contribution should go into a publication queue for review/approval. It should also allow your community to send in articles via an e-mail interface. Among other things, this can allow them to e-mail pictures and video from their smartphones, which can be critical when there are breaking news events in your community. The CMS we picked has nailed this part. It gives someone who might be witnessing a breaking story the opportunity to submit stories to the site, including pictures (and mapping those pics). What’s more, once the article is posted, you can update it via e-mail replies from the e-mail confirmation the CMS sends when the article posts. This may be the coolest single feature the platform we chose provides.
  5. Off the shelf cross-promotion: It must be easy to add features that help internal site promotion. Having features sprinkled through as site such as Most Viewed Pages, Recent Comments, Highly Rated articles and so on are very helpful at increasing the time people spend exploring your site.
  6. Outbound RSS: Mentioned earlier was inbound RSS. Just as you can and should pull in RSS feeds from complementary sites, you should make various RSS feeds available so that others can pull in your content to their pages. A CMS should automatically create a range of RSS feeds (e.g., Top Headlines, department and author specific feeds, etc.).
  7. Design templates and flexibility: CMSs usually come with pre-built templates, as well as the ability to customize the look and feel. If you don’t like the pre-built templates you can preview, ensure that the process to change the site design is straightforward. [Side note: I have, unfortunately, heard of designers charging sites $5,000 for a WordPress template when a few hundred dollars should get you a solid design.]
  8. Pictures and video: Not only should it be easy to embed code that pulls in photos and video from sites such as flickr and YouTube, the platform should allow you and your community contributors to upload directly to your site. Having users be able to rate photos and videos is another way to increase engagement with your community, which is vital for your success.
  9. Integration with Social Media: Your CMS should enable you to easily integrate with Facebook (and Facebook Connect) as well as Twitter. This includes enabling you to automatically post items to your accounts on the Social Networks including shortening URLs (e.g., using a tool such as bit.ly). Also throughout your site, it should be easy for users to send your articles, photos, etc. to the major social tools (Digg, StumbleUpon). Don’t forget e-mail – still the most popular way to share an article. “Send to a Friend” should be baked into the system.
  10. Analytics: Not only should it be easy to add third-party tracking tools such as Google Analytics and Quantcast to a site, there should also be the ability to measure success and reward contributors based upon how well read one’s contributions are.
  11. Events: A community-powered Events Calendar is a great way to connect with the community. Not only should a CMS have this capability, it should allow your community to easily submit events. The system should allow for plotting of the events on a map and have the basics of an Events Calendar such as support for recurring (i.e., multi-day) events.
  12. Classifieds: While Craigslist has made it to many communities, it doesn’t work well today for hyperlocal. If you are only interested in garage sales in your immediate neighborhood, for instance, Craigslist can be unwieldy. Thus, there is an opportunity to fill a niche where the big boys aren’t servicing your community very well. Naturally, having features you expect in articles (maps, photos, etc.) is important for classifieds as well.
  13. Maps: The importance of maps/location continues to increase with the popularity of smartphones. A smart CMS will be able to recognize a photo or Tweet having a GPS coordinate appended to it. This gives your community another way to navigate your content (i.e., location) and becomes more important as mobile consumption increases.
  14. Mobile: Another item that I expect to rapidly grow in importance is mobile. A CMS that allows for your site to be easily consumed on various mobile platforms will be a big asset. At the moment, mobile requires a lot of custom development but this should change in the relatively near future.
  15. Search Engine Dashboard: Not a common feature yet but one we expect to become more common. Sites such as the Huffington Post are very sophisticated in analyzing search trends to drive headline selection, tagging and how visibility of articles is raised or lowered based upon search term frequency.

At the risk of this sounding like a sales pitch for the platform we chose, I was very impressed with the flexibility and extensibility of the Neighborlogs platform we chose. It met nearly all the criteria listed above. Progressively, I’m learning the platform more and more and finding more slick things it can do. If I had to summarize why it’s a great fit, it is the fact it is purpose-built for the hyperlocal space whereas WordPress, Drupal, Django and other options I consider are great general-purpose systems but not geared towards hyperlocal specifically. Like WordPress and the others, you can’t beat the price (free). They currently only charge a revenue share on the self-serve ads that are purchased through that tool (no split on the ads you bring to the table).

To provide a bit of balance, let me share some areas of constructive criticism for Neighborlogs. The platform developers are running their own hyperlocal site and local network and are very busy. They aren’t always quick to respond, though it’s certainly better than WordPress where you just have a developer community and no dedicated team to support you unless you hire your own team. There are a few items that are not perfect in how they pull in RSS feeds and the accompanying social media features. Their ad system isn’t as robust as some of the ad servers out there, but the shortcomings weren’t deal breakers for us. Being a relatively new company and platform, there’s always the risk that they don’t survive, but, as good of a job as they have done, I think others will discover the benefits themselves.

Overall, I’d encourage people to clearly define their own criteria. My criteria aren’t applicable to everyone. Establishing your own will greatly increase the chances you’ll be happy long term. I encourage others to share their experiences, good or bad, with various CMSs they have used. I also welcome feedback on our new site. What works for you and what doesn’t?

Time for newspapers choose between the DEC or IBM model

It is painful to watch the steady decline of newspapers. For some, I expect we’re about to see the dead cat bounce as the economy turns around. This will only delay the inevitable. The challenge they face at this late date is immense but surmountable.

Their near death experience is similar to what Digital Equipment Corp (DEC) and IBM faced. Only IBM remains a blue chip market leader. However, IBM completely reinvented itself from a “big iron” mainframe and minicomputer driven company to the market leader in I.T. related services. There were some valuable assets that they were able to leverage but it took an outsider like Lou Gerstner to make that wholesale change happen.

Meanwhile, the vanguard company of the minicomputer era (DEC) wasn’t able to make that shift and sold at a deep discount to Compaq (who in turn was bought by HP). It’s important to recognize that IBM and DEC were in highly competitive markets. DEC along with countless other mainframe and minicomputer companies were unable to transform themselves and are mere footnotes of history. In contrast, the newspapers have largely operated in non-competitive markets by comparison. It will take a true newspaper leader and visionary to make this happen as opposed to someone just milking the cash cow until it withers and dies.

The “good news” for newspapers is their stocks are so far in the tank that there’s relatively little risk (easy for me to say!) in them taking some calculated risks. I didn’t work for IBM but my impression is they allowed the services group to have true independence from the legacy businesses IBM had. I was closer to a couple similar situations — how Microsoft handled Xbox and Expedia — so I will expand on those examples. I would argue that Microsoft’s only had two real new, stand-alone successes in the last 10 years – Xbox and Expedia.

While Microsoft has yet to fully recoup its investment, few would argue that Xbox hasn’t been a commercial success. In the meantime, it is generating a year by year profit and more importantly from Microsoft’s vantage point is having a coveted spot in millions of consumers’ living rooms.

In roughly a parallel timeframe, Expedia was incubated inside Microsoft but was running into some issues being inside of Microsoft. Rich Barton was trying to run Expedia as a company 100% focused on achieving success within the travel sector, however periodically would run into stumbling blocks. For example, organizations like United Airlines, Hilton Hotels, and countless other travel companies didn’t like what Expedia was doing to the travel market. The problem for Microsoft was that these companies were big customers of Microsoft’s software and it created internal conflict. Eventually, Rich made a compelling case why Expedia should spin out of the company and they did so. Microsoft made a nice return by selling its stock in Expedia in the public market. Unfortunately, there have been virtually no Rich Bartons in the newspaper industry.

How did they do it and what can newspaper companies learn from this?

Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer were smart enough to accede to the request of the leaders of Xbox and Expedia to have separation from the main company. That had three main dimensions:

  • Physical separation. Both the Xbox and Expedia teams were located several miles from Microsoft’s main campus.
  • Brand separation. Other than very light branding (e.g., in the footer of their website in a subtle gray font), you see little or no mention of Microsoft in Xbox. Expedia became a fully independent brand.
  • Technology separation. A pivotal early decision was to not tie Xbox to the Windows platform which is a general purpose operating system rather than something that is focused purely on gaming. I wasn’t privy to Expedia’s development details but I don’t think the technology platform was a big factor one way or another.

Smartly, both organizations did leverage at least three things from the parent.

  • They hired in great talent in to their teams. Just as important, they weren’t forced to bring people on to their teams.
  • They utilized the company’s capital to build big new businesses.
  • They leveraged the distribution capability of the parent. In Xbox’s case, they didn’t have to establish all new channels of distribution. In Expedia’s case, they had a carriage agreement with MSN that gave them a huge infusion of traffic to build their business.

Is it too late for newspapers? No more than it was for IBM in the early 90’s when many wrote them off. Will their leadership and investors have the guts to do it? I’m hearing rumblings from a few. Most are half-hearted attempts. Fortunately, there are some capital efficient ways of doing this. For example, with as many as 20,000 hyperlocal sites having formed in the last few years, a smart partnering strategy, limited capital and a distribution partnership would be a way to start.

Thought Leadership drives local media revenue

In an earlier piece “Local media survival depends on Low Cost Sales Models,” I detailed the favorable economics of pursuing a broader base of advertisers if you employed a sales model appropriate to the size of ad budget. McKinsey had done some analysis that echoed the experience we have had setting up low-cost customer acquisition models using telesales-based approaches. A critical facet of developing this lower cost model is having very cost effective lead generation.

Today, most of what I have observed with local media is they are using phone-based sales methods akin to the uninvited and irritating telemarketing methods that can interrupt our evenings. Not surprisingly, these “script readers” have had very low yield. Script readers can be fine for simple things like setting appointments but that’s a far cry from closing meaningful business. The successful alternative is to become invited and to establish a relationship with prospective customers through high quality lead generation.

There are many different tactics for lead generation but the one I’ve seen perform the best has been the organizations that establish thought leadership in their field of expertise. In the earlier piece, I highlighted the thought leadership opportunity available to local publishers.

The disruption caused by what Jeff Jarvis has called The Great Restructuring has created demand on the part of local businesses to accelerate their understanding of Internet-based marketing. Local publishers have an opportunity to fill that void by establishing themselves as thought leaders in digital marketing.

With my publication (www.sunvalleyonline.com), we have combined a series of seminars and a how-to guide to digital marketing to stimulate demand for online marketing that my site fulfills. The seminars and how-to resource are being used both for customer acquisition and retention purposes.

Increasingly, local publishers have found value in inviting in 3rd parties such as Greg Swanson and Mel Taylor to present to current and prospective customers. I have done many of these as a veteran marketer myself. Ironically, I get a stronger response when I’m an “out of town expert” than when I present in my own home market. We also draw better when bringing in a 3rd party. When we had Greg present, it was our best-attended seminar.

These are terrific opportunities to position a publication as the source of great insights regarding digital marketing. While some business is driven immediately, there is a longer-term benefit we are starting to realize. Today, when a customer thinks they need to do some Internet-based marketing, we are top-of-mind. As sellers of media know, this is where you want to be.

I have created a dozen or so different presentations from Search Marketing to Website Conversion to Email Marketing. While they all help establish thought leadership, there is one that is particularly well suited for publishers that they take for granted. That is, what does it take to be a successful online publisher. Businesses of many shapes and sizes should think of themselves as mini-publishers around their field of expertise. A lightweight version of what we do as publishers is germane to them whether it is how to come up with an editorial plan (e.g., they may send out weekly/monthly e-newsletters) to how we use tools like Twitter and Facebook to how we look at analytics to measure our success. One publisher had me keynote a paid-for seminar that allowed them to defray the costs of putting on the event. They used their own customer lists, house ads and a few other tactics to drive attendance. This all keeps down the costs of acquiring new customers.

How-to resource on small business digital marketing
We continue to expand upon this resource we have used with our publication but have begun to make this available to 3rd party publications. The following is a description of the resource that provides the rationale why a publisher would want to offer something like this:

The ways to reach prospective and current customers have radically changed in the last 15 years. Most small businesses have done little to change their ways beyond having a website. They are often overwhelmed at the broad array of tactics available to them. This how-to resource is designed to demystify the digital marketing tools as well as address how their offline efforts can support their increasingly digital marketing endeavors. Each section will provide an overview of the marketing area along with steps, tips, templates, best practices and pointers to additional resources.

One of the ways this resource will be used is by publishers and technology companies targeting this audience as a lead generation tool early in the sales cycle (e.g., requiring registration to get a free chapter). Later in the customer lifecycle, it can be used as a retention vehicle. For example, the publisher may pay for the advertiser’s subscription for as long as the advertiser is an active account. If the advertiser no longer uses the publisher’s marketing tools, they would also lose access to this valuable resource.

I like to say that establishing and maintaining thought leadership is a journey, not a destination. In other words, if you want the accompanying lead generation to be a renewable resource, it takes ongoing effort. The following is how to look at it from a daily, weekly and monthly basis to ensure success if you are a publisher:

  • Daily: Having a library of how-to resources available on demand to customers enables them to draw on your expertise without taking an inordinate amount of your staff time.
  • Weekly: Some publications generate weekly tips and tricks emails that draw from the know-how captured in the how-to resource as well as topic things going on in your community of interest to advertisers (e.g., some community event might lend itself well to a particular marketing tool you offer).
  • Monthly: Regular seminars or webinars can go into more depth on a particular topic and offer face-to-face contact with customers normally dealt with over email or phone. Recording these can make them available upon demand.

Challenging economies are a great time to recalibrate a business. There’s no more impactful area to affect the bottomline than your customer acquisition and retention practices. Is your organization taking advantage of this opportunity?