It does this by using vertical channels and a Meebo toolbar to connect local advertisers with readers. Any indie news publisher can use the Meebo tool bar, and any group of indie publishers could band together — perhaps in a co-op — to build critical mass and use this structure.
The Sacramento Bee’s approach comes from listening to its audience, who seek high quality information about the Sacramento area, and listening to its partners, who want to build their businesses. Results are delivered through a looser-than-usual partnership between the Sacrament Bee’s newsroom and indie news sites.
“Our focus has been on the network itself not on the website,” said Sean McMahon, Director of Digital Media for the Sacramento Bee. When he says the network, he means the people. “I don’t think the human connection can be emphasized enough,” McMahon said.
Sacramento Connect respects its partners by forming a loose relationship that doesn’t infringe on their independence. It respects its audience by offering a landing pad of vertical categories, affinity blogs grouped by city, news and interests — autos, cycling, books, pets, shopping, style. Through the targeted verticals, Sacramento Connect helps people find what they are looking for, whether it be a hobby, interest or news, although many people come in through the indie sites.
Most important for revenue, the vertical channels make sense not only to the readers, but also to local advertisers.
A Feb. 13 study released by the Pew Research Center Project for Excellence in Journalism looked at 22 news Web sites and more than 5,300 digital ads. The New York Times said in its report that many of the sites had not attracted the same advertisers online as they did on other platforms. The NYT article said:
“One of the great challenges that faces the financial future of journalism is, how can you begin to charge more for digital advertising?” said Tom Rosenstiel, the director of the center. “The gold dust of the Internet will be consumer information.”
Ads that are aimed at a user based on interests or Web browsing behavior are more valuable to advertisers because users are more likely to pay attention to them. “If targeting is a central feature of financial success online, a broad look at major news Web sites suggests that industry is not there,” Mr. Rosenstiel said.
Although many journalism networks have developed online verticals, the Meebo tool bar allows targeting that allows Sacramento Connect to aim its ads at “a user based on interests.”
Sacramento Connect averaged 11.4 million toolbar impressions per month in 2011. This is similar to, but lower than the average number of pageviews per month within the entire network, McMahon said. The network earned about $35,000 per month, according to a Sacramento Connect marketing power point delivered at the InlandPress. McMahon would neither deny nor confirm that revenue figure.
“We are making enough revenue that Sacramento Connect is one of our top priorities here at the Sacramento Bee. The revenue allowed us to hire a community manager when we were making cuts in other parts of the newsroom,” McMahon said.
This year, the Bee is increasing its focus on helping the partners make more money. Part of that plan is an ad network, but the details aren’t available yet.
“We want to be part of their revenue equation more directly,” McMahon says.
A main revenue driver for Sacramento Connect is the Meebo tool bar at the base of each page.
Meebo publishes the tool bar and sells the national advertising delivered by it. The Bee also sells ads, and its ads get priority on the toolbar. When space is available, a Meebo ad will run.
Meebo is unlike ad servers that force a reader to sit through and watch what is basically a traditional TV commercial. Instead, Meebo is stealth. It sits unobtrusively at the bottom of the page, offering a click-through to HD video as well as buttons for promotions and shares. The ads can be like the one featured in the jpeg — a mini cooking show sponsored by a product. In this case, the ad was targeted to men for Valentine’s Day and featured a recipe that looked simple and tasty. The whole thing is shareable on Facebook and other networks. The tool bar can be used for sharing coupons and other promotions as well.
The Meebo toolbar has been an asset from the day the network launched, McMahon said.
“We had incredible ads on our site from day one,” MacMahon said. “Advertisers liked it so much they were asking our sales reps, ‘Hey, I want to do that.”
A few other companies offer a service similar to Meebo’s. Wibiya is another one, but they are more focused on the technology [than the ads],” MacMahon said.
The cornerstone of Sacramento Connect’s success to date is having an open relationship where the newspaper works closely with the blogs to build their brands and their businesses.
Sacramento Connect doesn’t host the blogs on the Bee’s platform, like it’s done at many other newspaper networks. Instead, in a very loose coupling, the Bee links directly to the partner’s website.
“All they had to do was add a line of java script to their blogs.” McMahon says. “You cannot read a partners blog post on our website. “
This approach is central to Sacramento Connect’s philosophy. “We are not trying to steal an intermediate page view. We just want to get the reader to where they are trying to go,” McMahon said.
In addition to Meebo, Sacramento Connect works with partner Lingospot – a semantic engine that analyses the content and establishes relationships between posts.
“Basically that’s a function that says “If you are reading this article, then you should read this too.” And that happens across the network,” McMahon said.
Sacramento Connect also has commercial partnerships with Sacramento Magazine and Fox 40. With these partners, the direct click-through really pays off.
“Other more commercial partners would not be interested in us aggregating and essentially taking away page per views,” he said. “We aggregate in such a way that we think it serves the readers better and serves the partners better by directly clicking through.”
Sacramento Connect started with fewer than 20 partners, but it now has 190. The Bee has so many eyes on the street — some of its partners have 6 writers — that it’s become a real asset.
“Our community manager is monitoring that. Our online editor goes through every day and features content,” McMahon said. Some of that goes into the morning newsroom meeting every day.
“We’ll say we don’t need to write a story, so let’s put up a blurb on that and link to the story.”
He said every body — the newspaper, the journalists and the bloggers – is learning.
Sacramento Connect has benefited from support from the Knight Digital Media center. You can read about that here. Sally Duros is a social journalist working toward the next generation of successful, credible online newsrooms. Connect with her on Google+ and on twitter at saduros..