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Building on Brands

Many old-media companies that have launched citizen sites promote both kinds of media in advertising campaigns or use house ads to direct subscribers to their citizen site. Don Alexander, who manages both a daily paper and its citizen web site, Blount County Voice, said the site had “instant credibility” with readers because of the paper’s reputation. “Those who are working with well-respected, dominant newspapers need to use that in their marketing strategy and don’t try to hide the fact that this community journalism publication is part of the company,” he said.

Wicked Local chose the opposite strategy. “It doesn’t have our newspaper brand plastered all over it. We want street credibility and for citizens to have ownership,” said former editor Courtney Hollands.

Professional journalists who strike out on their own with new sites say they wish they knew how to promote. “I stink at marketing,” said Paul Bass, who runs New Haven Independent. “It’s true that after nine months a lot of people don’t know we exist.”

Of the 31 sites interviewed in depth, only nine had conducted any kind of marketing to drive traffic or contributors to their sites. While in the web survey, just over half (56%) of the 132 responding said their sites engaged in some marketing; 27% did none, and the rest didn’t know.

How to (and How not to) Build Interest

  • Bluffton Today has a combination reporter/editor who leads the online conversation and blogs heavily in search of responses (which are counted). She regularly blogs about stories the newspaper staff is reporting, and asks for input. She also recruits quasi-expert local bloggers who are paid small fees to converse and advise on subjects of passionate local interest, including gardening.
  • Wicked Local launched with a direct mail campaign, sending postcards to instruct Plymouth residents on how to get involved with the site.
  • The Daily Camera in Boulder tried citizen assignments. Before a popular balloon festival, the paper ran an ad asking readers to submit pictures, journals and diaries from the event to Not many sent journals, but pictures arrived by the hundreds, said managing editor Kevin Kaufman. The call for pictures was successful enough to expand to other events, including Mother’s Day.
  • The Forum in Deerfield, New Hampshire, hosted an open house to court volunteer editors and encourage more citizens to post what they see and hear in their neighborhoods. And one of its volunteers has started a creative writing class at the local library.
  • Chi-Town Daily News hosted a club showcase for local bands as both a fundraiser and a site promotion.
  • Baristanet created a float for the Montclair Fourth of July parade.
  • Backfence advertised an incentive plan; a community member who posted five items got a free coffee card. “People got angry and said, ‘This seems to commercialize the whole thing,’ ” co-founder Mark Potts said. “We just knocked it off the site because people were violently opposed to it.” Many sites post how-to-use tutorials. Lisa Williams of H2otown goes a step further and keeps an eye on the server log. She e-mails instructions to people who are “wandering around in circles.”
  • Madison Commons hosts “boot camp” journalism training sessions that trained 50 citizens of mostly minority neighborhoods its first year, but only a handful of grads have become regular posters.
  • Greensboro101‘s Roch Smith steers bloggers he knows to topics that might be worthy of investigation and citizen reporting. At Smith’s suggestion one blogger found interesting fodder in the campaign reports of a Congressional candidate. Smith blogs selectively so as not to big-foot the site and make it feel like his personal sounding board.
  • Your Hub partnered with professional sports teams the Broncos, the Avalanche and the Nuggets, setting up fan forums on the site, giving away tickets in contests, publishing special fan sections of the print edition and flashing the “Your Hub” name around the stadiums. It also made friends with Wal-Mart. “Wal-Mart wants to become community-oriented,” Travis Henry points out. Your Hub calendar items are now broadcast on Wal-Mart checkout aisle monitors. “Community events show up on screen with our brand name next to them.”

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