Pretend you are a newspaper that has no classifieds section, facing a crowded playing field. The best way to strategize a classifieds program that will work for modern newspapers is to imagine what you’d do as a newbie to the market.
Well, I don’t have to imagine. That’s exactly where I found myself after taking over the Web site for BostonNOW, a free daily newspaper distributed largely on subways. And the idea that follows is what I developed after being asked to create a program.
Because I’ve pitched this idea to a few large newspapers already, I know the twist – the big innovation – must be saved for the end. Read through the premise and then you’ll have the “ah-ha moment” when it arrives.
FIRST, A NEW MINDSET
The outdated assumption built into most classified strategies is that your site should become the No. 1 Web source in a geographical area. I don’t care about that. Neither do users.
Consider the employment vertical.
As an employer with a limited budget for advertising my job opening, I’m looking for the best three or four places to post an ad. All that matters is whether your site is on the employer’s list, not whether you’re at the top of the list. The same is true for job seekers.
As someone who recently had no job, I can assure you the unemployed will check any site that seems worth our time. My livelihood is at stake, after all! You think I’m going to be lazy and check just one site?
Before planning your new classifieds strategy, first scrap this dumb mindset that the goal is to become the first site any job seeker checks or job poster visits. Just get on their list.
SEEKERS VS. POSTERS
Anxious ad sales people will insist they can’t sell a classified if there’s no audience. The Web people will say they can’t attract an audience if there are no ads.
That’s why so many sites have been attracted to aggregation services such as Oodle. It’s an tact I seriously considered because it creates an instant marketplace. But it’s 100 percent the wrong approach.
If a job poster can get their ad on your site by posting it elsewhere, then that’s what they’ll do. And if users realize (and they will) that your site offers nothing that can’t be found someplace else, then you’re banished from their list.
Generating an audience first requires attracting advertisers. It’s NOT a chicken and egg situation. Luring advertisers is more important than users.
To get on the advertiser’s list, posting an ad absolutely must be free. Otherwise, you’re asking the employer to take a risk and abandon one of their old standbys.
If it’s free to post an ad, then all you have to do next is convince the potential advertiser it’s worth their time to fill out an online form. Here’s a sure-fire way to persuade them.
Print the ad.
That’s right. After completing the online form, the reader’s ad will appear in the newspaper for free.
It’s really not as odd as it sounds. To protect their market share, newspapers around the country already give readers free ads for merchandise under a certain dollar amount. But I’m saying let all ads appear in print for free.
Everyone understands the value of having their ad printed in the newspaper. Here’s how I know that.
BostonNOW boasted hundreds of community members creating blogs and posting regular entries. Readers did this despite the admittedly crappy user-experience our blogs offered. In theory, these folks should have been using Blogger.com or something more professional. But they weren’t.
So we asked them: Why are you posting to BostonNOW.com, of all places? The overwhelming majority of respondents (about 80 percent) said they posted to BostonNOW.com because their post might appear in print. Part of the newspaper’s business model was to print entries from bloggers.
The same carrot will work for folks with a classified to post.
HOW TO MAKE MONEY
After those ads are printed for free in the newspaper and posted online for free, numerous people will obviously respond wanting to apply for the job or buy the merchandise.
When that happens, notify the job poster or car seller that someone has responded. If they’d like to view the response, they’ll have to pay a fee.
That’s right. Charge them to view responses.
To encourage usage, maybe give away the first response for free. Then charge per response after that.
Hopefully, you’ve just had your “ah-ha moment.”
LEAD-GENERATION IS THE FUTURE
In the new Web-based business models, advertisers pay only for what they use. What started with iTunes letting listeners pay only for the songs they wanted instead of a whole CD has spread to more traditional markets.
Google has based its entire business model not on traditional advertising but on lead-generation. That’s essentially the definition of cost-per-click.
Monster.com already lets advertisers buy leads instead of ads on its site. A small department is tasked with creating new ways to sell what it calls “lead generation” instead of classifieds. They charge advertisers for the number of applicants their site generates instead of per ad.
CRUNCHING THE NUMBERS
I always like to imagine wild success. What would you do if the newspaper was inundated with free ad posts? Is there a point where it’s no longer cost effective to print every ad for free?
There might be. So do what BostonNOW did with blogs.
Boston readers were never guaranteed their post would appear in print. Instead, we said their post had a good chance of being printed. When it was, it became like winning the lottery.
To launch your lead-generation classifieds, print everything you get. As the economics change, be more selective.
Remember this is a marketing gimmick. The goal is to get on employers’ and users’ lists. Trust me, you will. And you’ll do it in a way that CraigsList cannot match. Start putting that printing press to good use.