Ad strategy for small news site publisher: ‘Keep it simple’

Homepage for ARLnow.com, a start-up news site launched in 2010 covering Arlington County, VA

Scott Brodbeck is the publisher and editor of ARLnow.com, an independent community news site in Arlington County, VA, a suburb of Washington, DC.

Brodbeck launched ARLnow.com solo in 2010 and the site has a readership today of more than 85,000 unique visitors and 600,000 page views in a month, according to self-reported Google Analytics numbers. Here is his rate card.

Brodbeck says he is profitable, though admitted his local Patch.com editor is probably earning more take-home pay than he is, but he sells enough advertising to pay his overhead costs and have some money left over to reinvest in the business (Scott did not disclose profit margins or income). Brodbeck believes in offering a quality news and information product, which is a spending priority. Ad sales come next.

He said for a while after launch, site traffic doubled every month and e-mail subscriptions grew monthly.

For now, Brodbeck, who is untrained in advertising sales, has a formula that is working for him until he is ready to expand. He has seven advertisers, a number that has peaked at 12. He sticks to advertising schedules and rates of figures divisible by four. He also does not aggressively recruit advertisers — when a merchant calls, he offers a basic package they can understand.

What is your formula or advertising model as an indepdent, one-person community news operation?

The model is “Keep it simple, Stupid.” I have a very easy-to-understand, practical billing scheme. The more complicated it is the more is scares potential advertisers.

So I just keep to nice, round, even numbers. I keep a monthly rate that is divisible by four, so I can take that product as a weekly rate. It’s nominally more expensive, but that encourages advertisers keep it at round monthly numbers, which is a little bit easier, and it makes it so there is no opportunity to say, ‘Well this month is only 28 days, why am I paying for 30?’ I want it to be the most simple process that it can be so that it’s easy and an advertiser can call and say ‘Okay I want 3 months, or 3 months and a week.’

Ideally, I want advertisers to advertise by the month.

How long have you tested this formula? 

A couple months. I have noticed an increase in business during that time. I can’t prove causation there – in general, everything is growing. I would say that most of my advertisers come to me looking at my rate sheet and say I want to advertise. I don’t really sell to advertisers.

It’s a lot easier for them to look at the rate sheet and say ‘This is what I want. Rather than getting bogged down in mumbo jumbo.’ I used to have a whole matrix for banners, share of voice.

How did you come up with a base advertising price to start? 

I looked at what others were charging, but others were charging so much more and they weren’t relevant. I thought about the value I was providing, how many hits, and I charged what I thought was fair and affordable for local businesses.

One of my ad units is sold out almost to the end of the year. That’s how I knew demand for that is good. And if I’m selling out I might as well increase the price or decrease share of voice. But I might increase the price-point.

“I just try to take the temperature of where advertisers are at. It’s trial and error. My amateur psychologist comes out and I try to think what the advertiser needs are and how best to serve them.”

What’s your ad market competition (in Arlington, VA/Suburban DC)?

There’s a small group and very large group. The purely local Arlington guys, with the new Patch sites and two weekly newspapers focused on Arlington. Those are who I’m going up against in terms of local news competition.

The actual competition for local ad dollars, then you are talking Groupon and daily deal sites, all the regional media outlets, the TV stations, The Washington Post, who might want to capture the local dollars. You also have to think about the Chamber of Commerce that has its own solution for local businesses and they have a lot of clout. Even though I’m a member of the Chamber, they are some degree of competition. Yelp. And there’s any number of specialized print and online pubs that deal in verticals.

“There’s quite a bit of [advertising] competition really, and most of the competition has its own sales force. I just have myself at the moment. I rely on as putting out as compelling a news product as I can to get people reading, so that people thinking about advertising can’t ignore us and will come to us.”

I get people who want to advertise and they are cognizant of where the eyeballs are in the community. And the people I’m not getting are the people who don’t know they want to advertise with me. They are people who either want to advertise but don’t have time to do research on different options, or the people who don’t necessarily know they want to advertise but someone calls up and makes a good pitch.

If you are going to be a one man operation, your resources should be put into the best product you can so people respond to it. Your resources are best put in maintaining the content and taking orders rather than trying to sell ads.

There’s only so much time in the day. I know personally I spend enough time doing content where it’s a choice between the two. If I wanted to go out and make 10 sales calls, that’s one hour where content will not be getting up. I go the content route. I don’t know the best way to do it, maybe if I was better at sales that would be foolish, but right now it seems to be working.

If profits continue, do you plan any hiring?

I will probably hire a freelancer to work a day and use that day for doing business stuff, sales and record keeping. In my ideal world I’d have an extra day in the week.

I’m ready to hire someone immediately; I just need to find the right person. I think that’s important. I don’t just want to hire anybody. I’m willing to wait until I find that.

I do a five-day workweek. I think it is important to maintain some work-life balance. I try to relax on weekends but in reality I am spending that time newsgathering, preparing for the next week, and doing homework.

Does your site traffic correlate with the demographic area where you are based?

One of the things I did when started out was I underestimated the audience. I thought maybe 10 percent of the population would be interested in news about Arlington, but I really underestimated that because our unique visitors are about one-third of the county population (approximately 207,600 in 2010 according to the US Census).

Arlington County, VA, is high income, very well educated, families with children, and those statistics are all borne out when you look at Quantcast demographics.

With anywhere from seven to 14 advertisers on your client role, do you plan more homepage advertising space?

I cap the number of ads on the homepage to 12 so it doesn’t get too diluted. Eventually, rather than increase the rate of ads on the homepage I will increase the cap..

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