Monday, September 7, 2015

Lessons for the Arts from a Small For Profit Ohio Online News Effort

Good morning
"And the beat goes on………………"

I ran across an article about how a small Ohio town printer started a local online news service, and the approach his team used to succeed parallels the advice and counsel many in our field have been promoting for some time.   The business model developed by this local enterprise is one we emulate in our own efforts, and their experience is instructive for us.

While we are all familiar with the concepts of engagement, placemaking and creative marketing in the arts, I think sometimes it's helpful to see concrete examples of what this might look like on the ground - and in contexts other than the arts.  Specific stories can help us to better understand how these program approaches can work, and why they are important.  Human examples take the concepts beyond the talk and into the streets.  And I think this small online news outlet story illustrates perfectly how these concepts of ours can work for us.

The essence of what this tiny effort in Mansfield Ohio did (the name of the online news service is the "Richland Source" (named for the surrounding county in which Mansfield is situated) can be categorized as:

1)  They engaged their community.  Rather than making an up front decision about the content and format the online news service would take and imposing that decision - top-down - on the community, they started from the proposition (after going into the community to talk to people)  that what people wanted was a media ecosystem that told a more complete story about what was going on in the community (as one of the things needed to help foster more growth).   Basically, people were tired of the common news approach of blood and guts.  Or as the site's publisher put it:  "We didn't want to chase page views through crime, blood and drugs."  Thus engaging their community was basically an inherent part of their mission statement, or would have surely been, if they had had one.

What they did do was attract advertisers from day one by approaching the major businesses in the community that had a stake in the success of the community - not in its downfall.  So banks, hospitals and other institutional advertisers were successfully solicited.  They wanted a site that accentuated the positive rather than the negative, and they sought the community's help in doing that - and, lo and behold, the community responded.  They encouraged and facilitated the community's thoughtful, respectful commitment to their community in its relation to the news and the site, and this engagement of their audience helped to lure advertisers who might have gotten a cheaper and better CPM at some other news venue.

2)  They cultivated a cooperative, supportive relationship between their editorial and business sales teams, so that each one understood and valued the role the other played in the overall success of the enterprise.  This is analogous to the relationship between the creative and marketing / business sides of our own businesses.   They worked to eliminate conflict between these sometimes opposing forces within an organization to both sides mutual satisfaction.  

3)  They got creative in terms of their marketing / advertising strategies.  So instead of taking a local banner ad online somewhere,  they did things like reaching out to every high school in the county and offering to donate popcorn bags to their (football) concession stands for the entire school year.  Some 50,000 popcorn bags cost them $5000.  They put their ad on one side of the bags and (though it took awhile) sold ad space on the other side of the bag to others interested in reaching young people (a driving school, a local ophthalmologist, the National Guard) and in the second year they made a profit on the bags and reaped the ad benefit too.

4.  The focused on pride of place.  In another creative attempt, they realized that there probably wouldn't be much of a market for apparel (t-shirts, baseball hats and more) with their Richland Source name or logo, so instead they launched a limited line of "Made in the 419"apparel  (their area code), and took a risk to market it online.  It sold out.  And helped again brand the online news service - in part by solidifying their engagement of the community.

The whole effort is an example of integrating the lessons we've learned from placemaking, for a great deal of their efforts centered on the pride of place.

If you are still trying to make some sense out of the concepts of engagement, placemaking, and creative marketing in terms of how you might apply those concepts to your situation, I urge you to read the article.  It will, I think, help you to get a better picture in your mind of how all these concepts might work for you, and how they might be customized to individual situations and circumstances.

In describing their attempt to create some kind of 'member' program, their publisher said this:

"We’re going slowly on this. We want to be mindful. We want to get people to participate at a level where they really feel as if they’re getting more than they put in."

That's really good advice for all of us:  "Be mindful.  Get people to feel as if they're getting more than they put in"

Have a great week.

Look for the 2015 Top 50 Most Powerful and Influential Leaders in the Nonprofit Arts (USA) next week!

Don't Quit