If your news website ads aren't selling themselves, you're not ready to sell ads

If you’re interested in how to make a hyperlocal news website work, please take a few moments to read the transcript of the chat I did with several other news entrepreneurs for the ASNE yesterday. ASNE put together a panel of half a dozen journalists who are running hyperlocal or start-up websites and asked us how we make these things work.

Here’s an important point I’d like to give a bit more time than we had in the chat:

If ads aren’t selling themselves, you’re not ready to sell

The question: “Can a journalist learn to sell advertising?” My response? Ultimately, you don’t need to. Not the way that most journalists (in my experience) envision what “selling advertising” to mean.

Our first advertisers on my family’s websites came to us. They were members of the community, loved what we were doing and wanted to make sure that we had the commitment and the resources to keep the site going. Other journalist entrepreneurs I’ve met have had the same experience. If you build a large enough community of readers, who are engaged in the topic or neighborhood you’re covering, advertisers will come to you looking to get access to those readers.

Believe or not, some businesses really do take the long view. They understand that anything that helps promote the health and prosperity of their community helps their business in the long run. Businesses do better when they’re surrounded by other successful businesses – not isolated in some uninhabited backwater. So if you’ve built a resource that’s helping to engage and strengthen the local community, these businesses will want to help you to succeed, as well.

Many advertisers are also desperate to find effective successors to the local newspaper ads that they (or their predecessors) used to place to connect with engaged local consumers. If they see you as reaching the potential customers they need to reach, they’ll come looking for you, checkbook open, trying to place an ad campaign.

If that’s not happening? Well, that’s often a sign that local businesses don’t yet see you as a valuable community resource, or attracting a significant number of consumers they want to reach. So instead of spending time on the uncomfortable task of pitching skeptical local advertisers, work instead on building your readership community. When your site gets to the point that money’s coming to look for you, that’s when you’ll know you’re ready to turn your site into a business.

This is why it’s important to either start your site before you need it as an income source, or to put away enough cash to live on for a year before quitting your job to start a site. Twelve months seems to be the consensus – among the chat participants and other others I’ve met – on how long it takes to build a commercially viable readership community around a start-up local news website.

If you’re worried about how much to charge those first potential advertisers, why not take some time to look into what other websites covering your community (or comparable nearby communities) are charging? Consider yourself a potential advertiser on their sites, then call and ask for a quote. You’re not being dishonest – heck, if someone can make you a deal, maybe it’s worth the investment to promote your new site. And your research moight help you to decide what would be a fair and competitive rate for local Web advertising in your community.

Another question: “How did you learn to close the deal?”

My answer? I just had to learn how to shut up. Hey, these businesses wanted to support our site. They wanted to order a campaign. Instead of saying, “Thank you! I’ll send the invoice today!” I was engaging them like I would a news source, probing them to see if they really meant what they were trying to say.

Nice technique for a reporter. Stupid, stupid, stupid technique for a publisher. Just shut up and book the deal.

Now and then someone will come to you who’s not a good fit for your site. Perhaps they sell something you know your community won’t accept. Or perhaps you suspect that their margin’s too thin to be able to afford your ads, given the response you think they’ll get. Different advertisers have different needs, which is why I think it’s important for news publishers to diversify their ad products. On our violin site, we created a (relatively) low cost directory listing for shops and smaller businesses who couldn’t always afford our display banner ad rates, but who still wanted contact with our community. And I have suggested to some potential advertisers that they might find other communities that are a better fit for their products. (I always phrase it that way, rather than saying “No.” Perhaps my aversion to the word “no” is my Disney training talking.)

Ultimately, you’ll need to engage advertisers and potential advertisers – to learn their pains and talk frankly about the ways you can, or can’t, help them build their businesses. But when you’re starting, and booking your first few customers, just shut up (save a “thank you”) and let them help you help your community.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at http://www.sensibletalk.com.


  1. says:

    Couldn’t agree more. If you have to actively pursue every sale — if the business owners in the community don’t read your site and don’t know of anybody else who reads your site — then you need to focus on building an audience, not selling ads. If business owners are under the impression that everybody they know in the community is reading your site, your ads will sell themselves.

    Furthermore, if you see achieving that kind of market penetration as impossible, then you need to narrow down the market you’re targeting.

    Scott Brodbeck
    Owner, ARLnow.com

  2. I agree as well. You have to know your readers/customers/viewers. Its all about building trust and relationships. Once you become a trusted valuable source to a large enough group is when your you will be selling.

  3. says:

    This is all well and good, but it does sort of set a bit of a ceiling for someone to start such a site, doesn’t it? You need to have the money saved up to survive without revenue for a bit. And, as we probably know, capital’s not such an easy thing to accumulate for a journalist.