Metromix, a sister site of chicagotribune.com, bills itself as Chicago's leading entertainment guide, with a searchable database that highlights more than 20,000 events and 15,000 destinations, including more than 9,000 restaurants, 3,000 bars and clubs, 300 galleries and 150 theaters.
Given the core staff of six full-time employees, that would be hard to pull off, but Metromix uses reviews and write-ups from the Chicago Tribune newsroom, as well as reader contributions (20,000 so far), to build out its site, which won the Newspaper Association of America's 2001 Digital Edge Award for best city guide and is a finalist again this year.
"I?d hate to be in the standalone city guide business right now," says David Hiller, president of Tribune Interactive. But tying a city guide like Metromix to the Tribune's mother ship makes eminent business sense. Because of its distinct identity and market positioning, Metromix attracts a raft of users who wouldn't normally visit an online newspaper.
"Metromix has demographics that any other medium would die for," Hiller says. "You're able to bring this great, new young audience and expose them to the Tribune family of products."
The site draws about 356,000 users a month, and its monthly page views have tripled in the past two years to about 7.4 million.
"Metromix has found a sweet spot in affluent, well-educated users in the 18- to 34-year-old demographic who don?t have kids and live in an urban area -- or want to go there -- and like to go out a lot," says Digby Solomon, general manager of Chicago Tribune Interactive.
Whenever possible, Metromix taps into the resources of the print newsroom. To supplement its listing of 9,000 restaurants, the site features 400 reviews by Chicago Tribune food critics. Event listings are a joint effort of Metromix's editors, stringers and the Trib's newsroom, resulting in a deeper offering than found on the Chicago pages of Citysearch or AOL Local, Solomon says.
"When people come to our site, they can tell that we know what we?re talking about. It?s not written by somebody based three states away," he says in a jab at the national city guides that maintain only a token local presence. The Metromix offices are located downtown in the Tribune Tower.
"Citysearch doesn't really have the flavor of Chicago, and AOL's Digital City has an increasingly generic feel," says Leigh Behrens, the site's editor. "We pay more attention to the editorial crafting of our stories. You have a sense of place on Metromix. We know Chicago best."
Original content is a big draw
Behrens says the site's most popular channels are nightlife -- most of the stories about bars and clubs are written directly for the site -- and restaurants, with thousands of reviews by readers who want to jump right into the conversation. A weekly e-mail newsletter on dining goes out to 25,000 subscribers.
Stage and movies get their share of diehard readers as well. "A review of 'Star Wars: Attack of the Clones' started a good conversation that sparked reader reviews from all over the world," she says.
Then there's "Metromix: the TV Show." A local cable channel (owned by Tribune Co., natch) runs segments of the Web site's reports on reader polls and other features. The show drives a fair amount of traffic to Metromix.com. Ah, synergy.
Big annual events swell the site's readership, too. In 1999 Metromix partnered with City Hall to sponsor Cows on Parade -- featuring huge fiberglass cow sculptures -- which drew local media attention and coverage on the "Today" show. It has sponsored an online charity auction in which readers bid on meals prepared by the city's top chefs.
Seasonal packages such as Valentine's Day, St. Patrick's Day and New Year's Eve remain big draws. The site's Interactive Dining Poll every fall draws thousands of entries. And occasionally a Tribune critic writes an exclusive for Metromix, such a film correspondent who wrote an online diary from Sundance.
The site partners with national niche players such as OpenTable for online dining reservations, Vindigo for making Metromix dining and nightlife information available on PDAs, and Moviefone for purchasing movie tickets.
Behrens says one of the most eye-opening aspects of working for a city guide has been the direct communication with the site's readers. "We get a lot of e-mail about what people like or don't like. There's been a real breakthrough with the awareness of our audience and the bond that's been created."
The site, launched in 1997 with a dozen staffers to fend off the threat from Sidewalk, has been pared back to an editor, dining producer, nightlife producer, a producer coordinating the movies and events channels, and two listings staffers.
Solomon says: "The cuts had less to do with Sidewalk than with a desire to make our interactive businesses have a more rational size. We don't need three to four designers to change the look of our site every day. Let's focus on what we do best online -- the utility and usability and the quality of our editorial offerings.
"People see that our strength is well-researched, opinionated content. Nobody pays us to list or highlight their businesses. In this space we?re unique in that regard, and that contributes to readers' trust in us."
The Tribune Co. doesn't break out separate financials for its city guide. Metromix revenues are included in the company's earning statements under its Interactive division. Tribune Interactive's first quarter revenues increased 31 percent to $18 million, up from $14 million a year before, and the division's quarterly losses narrowed to about $200,000, down from $7 million in the comparable period in 2001.
Although Solomon says that "the city guide is a really utilitarian tool in search of a successful business model," it's clear that the company likes the bang it's getting for its relatively modest buck.
"It's been a winner for us," Hiller says.
We couldn't resist taking out the city guides for a spin in a side-by-side road test. Last week we scouted out some options for a family outing on Father's Day.
Metromix fared the best, with a Father's Day page suggesting a music concert, a stroll through botanic gardens, a brew festival, a food and wine fest, a historical tour, a biker brunch spot, a choice of steakhouses, a museum -- and a place to get a straight-razor shave.
If only we lived in Chicago, we would have been set.
On to Citysearch...