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Making local sponsored content: 10 good questions with Local News Now

Read any recent headlines on native advertising or sponsored content and you’ll likely see reference to national and other large publishers experimenting with the content form. BuzzFeed is perhaps the most associated with native ads, with New York Times, Washington Post and even platforms like Medium also innovating with storytelling from advertisers. The major push is easy to understand: banner ads bring in less cash than their print predecessors, and in an increasingly social web, the companies that used to want print ads also want advertising that shares well, too.

That impetus can also be felt at the local level. As local businesses try to reach community members, some local publishers are trying to figure out if sponsored or native products can fit into their offerings to advertisers. Local News Now LLC is one such organization looking to make sponsored content work at the most local of levels: the neighborhood.

Local News Now is a collection of three sites about D.C.-area suburbs. ARLNow is the oldest (at age 4) and covers Arlington, Virginia, drawing about 250,000 monthly unique visitors of people who mainly live, work or have ties to the large Northern Virginia city in the D.C. metro area. The newer BethesdaNow and RestonNow draw about 65,000 and 55,000 monthly unique visitors respectively, with similar audiences: people who are in the neighborhoods regularly. Local News Now is a small operation, but growing. For all sites, as of Sept. 1, there will be a staff of 7.

Scott Brodbeck

Scott Brodbeck

One building block of the growth is sponsored content. Local News’ founder Scott Brodbeck is targeting $350,000 to $400,000 in ad revenue in 2014 and he anticipates a third of the ad revenue (over $100,000) to come from sponsored content. The sponsored offerings, along with other ad types, are designed with the goals of local advertisers in mind, according to Brodbeck, and because of their success, they’re helping him expand his network of hyperlocal coverage.

We caught up with Brodbeck to talk about the three varieties of sponsored content Local News Now offers, why sponsored content can work well for the goals of local advertisers, and why local publishers may not need to take all their native advertising inspiration from BuzzFeed.

Many publishers are looking for new revenue sources. Some are looking at membership models or events. When you were looking at doing sponsored content as another source of revenue, what motivated you pick it over something else?

I believe that online local news should be free, and not behind a paywall, as a paywall would severely limit readership. Free content results in much greater exposure and impact.

I don’t believe in asking for donations, whether it’s a “membership” or otherwise. We are not a charity, we’re ultimately out to make a profit. Sponsored content is a way to give readers more interesting, locally written and relevant content while helping to fund our journalism.

Your sites offer a few “types” of sponsored content, including some written by advertisers themselves. Can you explain what you offer and why you decided to go that route?

A sponsored column on ARLnow.com is written by an Arlington-based real estate firm and offers home advice (top), a promoted post on ARLnow.com is written by a local sports league and announces summer registration (center), and a sponsored feature on ARLnow.com is written by editorial staff, with coverage underwritten by a real estate investment firm, and highlights an Arlington startup (bottom)

Local News Now’s sponsored offerings. A sponsored column is written by a local real estate firm and offers home advice (top), a promoted post is written by a local sports league and announces summer registration (center), and a sponsored feature is independently written by editorial staff, underwritten by a real estate investment firm, and highlights a local startup (bottom)

We have three varieties of sponsored content. One is a sponsored column, written by advertisers (who pay to have it published weekly). Another is a promoted post, written by either an advertiser or by someone on our sales side (or a freelancer). Another is a sponsored feature, which is editorial content that we produce independent of advertiser input but which is sponsored/underwritten by an advertiser.

The sponsored columns, which are written by advertisers, allow them to brand themselves as experts in their fields (law, real estate, etc.) for a local audience. They do so by producing content that’s relevant and interesting for readers, not self-promotional. It’s a unique opportunity for advertisers that requires effort and a bit of a leap of faith on their part but pays big dividends.

Of course, sponsored columns aren’t for everybody, and our sales team works to ensure that there’s a good match with clients who want to do it — that they will be producing content that readers will be interested in and that will give them the branding lift that they seek.

Regular columns work for some clients, one-off promoted posts achieve the advertising goals of others

How do you approach a potential advertiser with the idea of sponsored content, namely one who hasn’t previously done this form of advertising?

Sometimes we approach clients with the idea, if we think there’s a uniquely good fit, or other times clients will approach us. Again, we work closely with the client to set expectations and make sure it’s a good match.

If you scroll down your home page, there seems to be a large amount of content that is sponsored. Do you aim for a certain percentage of sponsored vs. in-house editorial?

We publish no more than 3 pieces of sponsored content per weekday. In Arlington we typically publish 8-10 posts per day, including sponsored.

Another hot topic in conversations around sponsored content is labeling. Many people feel some organizations aren’t as clear about the source of the content as they should be. How did you decide on the labeling process you have?

Most of our sponsored content is marked at the top and the bottom. Sponsored columns in particular have large graphic banners at the top.

We want readers to see who is sponsoring the articles — that is the point.

What do you charge?

The cost starts at $150 per article on some sites and tops out at $800 for promoted posts or videos produced by us.

What’s the difference between what you’re doing at Local News Now and what other organizations do? And how does that differ from larger organizations like BuzzFeed?

We haven’t set out to try to copy what anybody is doing. All of our business initiatives, from sponsored content to our ad options, were developed with the local readership and local advertisers in mind. What works here might not work in Iowa or California or anywhere else.

Without sponsored content, our ability to grow and improve our news coverage would be greatly hindered

I would point out that there are a wide variety of other local, independent online news publishers across the country who all do things differently, so blanket comparisons are hard. Also, when you’re trying to develop a new business model for local news, it also helps to go into it without any preconceived notions of what works and what doesn’t work.

As for BuzzFeed, they’re selling to national brands and we’re selling to small local advertisers — there’s a huge difference.

Is sponsored content essential to survival for a small news operation? Now that you’re aiming to bring in a third of your revenue from it, how is that changing your business?

Without a doubt sponsored content helps to fund our journalism — we’re covering more local news now than ever before. It’s also helping to expansion our slow and deliberate expansion to other D.C. area localities.

Without sponsored content, our ability to grow and improve our news coverage would be greatly hindered.

What’s one thing you’d tell local advertisers that are on the fence about sponsored content?

When done right, it’s an incredibly powerful tool for building a brand and growing your business.

What’s one thing you’d tell local publishers that are on the fence about sponsored content?

Advertorials have existed forever. If it’s okay for newspapers and magazines, it’s okay for the internet. This is a way to fund more journalism while giving your advertising clients another tool for reaching your readers online. It’s a win-win.

I know there are some who are squeamish about sponsored content, but it’s here and it’s not going away. Within a few years the moralizing will stop and it will be considered as normal as any other form of advertising.

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