Growing a local audience one photo at a time: Case study of MyVeronaNJ

Virginia Citrano founded community news site MyVeronaNJ in Verona, New Jersey, in December 2009. Citrano has been steadily building her site for sustainability and last year she and contributing photographer Fred Goode ran a weekly photo contest “Where in Verona?” for 52 weeks that proved successful for the site. The contest, which included a series of close-up photos – totaling 260 images –  of different buildings or places in Verona that changed each week, challenged readers to guess the location. Winners received a MyVeronaNJ ball cap while the contest helped grow Citrano’s audience.  

According to Citrano, the contest added 32,276 pageviews overall to her site, with some photos viewed hundreds of times. She said some contest weeks pulled in up to 60 reader comments, and drew new regular readers. Citrano sells advertising on each photo gallery page. For the photo gallery, she uses the free nextGEN plug-in for WordPress. Citrano and Goode will be launching a new contest “Who in Verona?” where readers have to guess the person in baby-through-adult photos of community members. Bonus points will go to readers that can identify who the person in the photo is related to.

Where did the concept of the contest come from?    CITRANO: The minute Fred suggested the idea, I knew that it was a perfect opportunity for a site like ours because everyone assumes that they know Verona. Many of our readers grew up in town, their parents grew up in town, and in some cases their parents grew up in town. And if you ask them, they will say ‘I know Verona cold.’ And yet what Fred did, he was taking a picture of a brick on a building (not the whole facade of a building); there were some weeks were people were absolutely ranting, ‘How could he do this to us?’ The comments are hysterical.

We had one week where Fred took a picture of the power box at the turf field in town. I remember having this discussion and saying, ‘This contest is going to run all week. We have really got ‘em this week.’ The first person who came on to guess said it was the power box on Lynn Drive. How could anyone have known that? The woman who guessed this had grown up in town, played soccer on the field, and had the keys to the power box.

On every measure – page views, time on site, comments, offline buzz – the contest was a winner on every front. –Citrano

How did you see the contest as an engagement tool?    When I started MyVeronaNJ, I made sure we had a comments policy that would promote constructive dialogue. There were other sites around us at the time. One belonging to the local regional daily, where they were open free-for-alls that were just libel, slander, innuendo, nothing I ever wanted to have on my site anytime. Our comments policy says if you comment, you have to comment like you are talking to your neighbor. We had people commenting on stories, but they weren’t talking back to us in the way we thought was possible. We saw much more dialogue about our stories on our Facebook site and we wanted to bring our readers to our site. We were bringing their dialogue on the site and capturing them as readers.

What I thought would happen is we would get a two-way dialogue. As the contest went on, it became a circular discussion, a crowd discussion. We’d then have teams of readers coming together to solve the picture. There were weeks when we were 40-60 comments on a contest. For a community site like ours, it was quite substantial.  –Citrano

We have three distinct audiences: people who live here now, people who want to live here, and people who used to live here – we had people guessing in the contest who I know have not lived in town in decades. You couldn’t do that in a print product.

It really provided a great lead-in to a variety of stories.

“Where in Verona” lasted 52 weeks from July 2010 to July 2011. Do you have plans to bring back the contest?    Fred said what about ‘Who in Verona’? We are still gathering photos, but we will pick a person every week. We will show a baby, childhood, high school, and adult picture. We will start running them in that order and people will have to guess. We thought, being a little bit snarky, if could guess who that person is related to, you will also win a prize.

It’s really been a huge driver of traffic to the site. And it really put us on the map as a daily destination. It put us on the map as a destination for photography around the town. Because Fred saw the town in a very different way and he showed it to people in a different way.

It’s not only the photo quality, but the fact that he would stop and look at these locations and say it’s that detail, not that one. It’s this thing that’s going to send them crazy.

It opened the site up for a whole different kind of photography, and that is of the locations around town. And also the sports photography – Fred does the bulk of the sports photos on the site, now people are really looking for him at the games.

How many MyVeronaNJ hat prizes have you given away?    More than 52, because in some weeks, we had people hitting almost at the same moment with the correct guess. Some weeks a group got together and contributed.

I noticed advertising is featured on each page of the photo gallery. Was that planned?     My last big media job was at, I ran site there. Forbes was very big on photo slide shows. The way they were able to set them up was an ad was banked against each photo in the slide show – it was its own sales environment. WordPress plug in designers haven’t really caught up to that. What we were able to do is embed the slideshow in our story and the photos are hosted on our site as opposed to sending the people out to Flickr. It’s on a story page so it’s surrounded by ads.

We have a banner ad that runs on the bottom of the story on the story page. That ad environment popped up immediately because it was beneath the photos. It’s become a prime piece of real estate on the site. If you are going to take the time to do this and make money to help people helping me on the site, I have to monetize it in some way and you have to think, how does this happen? Finding ways to sell ads against it makes a lot of sense. But the contest location was never an ad play – we don’t mix advertising and editorial.

How did you measure feedback and engagement?    Without a doubt, I saw a spike on Mondays. You can see in Google Analytics, get it to the time of day and you could see where traffic hit. It really helped our traffic to pop. And the longer the contest went on, the more the page views went up, the more the comments went up.

What is your traffic like today?     We get between 40,000 to 50,000 views per month, 60 to 65 percent is daily repeat traffic. While our readers miss the contest, they are coming back to us and they are talking to us about stories.

Even though we have gone off the contest on a weekly basis, we haven’t lost the eyeballs. –Citrano

What did it cost to create and maintain this contest?    The WordPress plug-in is free; the only other thing that we paid for was the baseball caps with our logo. We had to buy 270, which cost about $500. The benefit was people began to be walking around town with our logo on. And people saying ‘I need one of those hats, how can I get it?’ and we’d say ‘You’d have to win the contest.’.

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