Imagine having more than 20 competitors spring up into your market over the course of the last two years. Now picture these competitors being backed by one of the largest digital media institutions on the continent. Welcome to the new city and regional magazine market.
AOL’s collection of hyper-local news sites known as Patch have been popping up around the country at an incredibly quick rate, with more than 908 sites across 22 states which garner a total of more than 14 million monthly unique visitors. Patch sites cover all things local, plus comprehensive listings of businesses, events and more.
The idea of starting a potential turf war with hyper-local sites over coveted digital ad dollars isn’t a reality—not yet at least—but city and regional publishers are still preparing themselves for the digital marketplace, and Patch is making an equally aggressive push.
“I think it’s good that Patch has come to our county and we haven’t really seen any direct impact from them,” says Ralph Martinelli, publisher of New York-based Westchester Magazine. “However, it is a small sandbox we play in in Westchester County because there are only so many dollars out there. We’ve become very aggressive and just hired a few digital-only sales reps—more and more of our customers are asking us for packages that include print, digital and events.”
Westchester covers an area of 450 square miles and has a population of about 1 million, according to the 2010 Census. In the past few years, Patch.com has introduced more than 20 sites that cover the same communities as Westchester Magazine.
“It’s not an either/or situation,” says Warren Webster, co-founder of Patch Media. “We like to look at Patch as an indispensable tool for realtime updates on news, events and as a place for conversation. We’re not trying to replicate traditional media, but in each market we’re trying to do something new and timely that you can’t live without on a day-to-day basis. To the extent we compete for advertising dollars, sure—small and medium sized businesses have ad budgets and we’re sharing some of the same clients.”
Webster says local businesses usually segment their budgets to some degree, choosing to put dollars into both print media and hyper-local sites. Yet, new media has changed the attitude of the 55,000-circ Westchester.
“Digital is top of mind,” says Martinelli. “Our goal is to grow our search so that when someone is searching for restaurants in a specific town, Westchester comes up. We’re investing dollars there because we see this as the growth area in our industry moving forward. We just changed the name of our parent company to Today Media because we see ourselves becoming more of a media company than a print publication.”
WestchesterMagazine.com generates about 100,000 uniques per month and more than 1 million page views. Martinelli estimates that the title has doubled its digital revenue over the last few years, though print is still its most profitable area.
“More and more of our clients want digital programs, but a lot of them don’t understand how to do it,” says Martinelli. “I think they trust the brand of Westchester and we’ve seen tremendous growth in our digital revenue over the past few years, so it’s certainly a growing area for us.”
As the publisher says, many small-to-medium sized local businesses are unsure of how to begin a digital ad campaign. Though the magazine now has a dedicated digital ad rep, Patch is taking support levels one step further.
“We want to be helpful in terms of guiding small or medium sized businesses through this new world of digital advertising,” says Webster. “We have a program called Patch Partners—as a Patch advertiser you get access to valuable information and tips from some of the most successful entrepreneurs in the world, which is a real perk for being a Patch advertiser. We’re trying to help small businesses grow and we’ve hosted over 2,000 local marketing events and over 50 seminars called Main Street University. We walk people through not just Patch, but how to navigate everything from a social media presence to advertising online. A lot of small business owners know they want to have a digital presence, but they’re not sure how and it can be a little bit daunting.”
The majority of Patch advertisers are local and regional businesses and the strategy is complimented with some national partners as well, as long as they have a local message. Local and regional ad reps come mainly from Patch, but parent company AOL provides support in reaching national clients. Webster says the largest percentage of its digital advertising business comes in the form of display.
Webster says e-letters have been successful for reaching both readers and ad clients. Similarly, Westchester reaches about 40,000 per month through e-letters, which also incorporate digital ads.
“Most city and regional magazines are struggling to grow digital divisions because we’ve been print publications all along,” says Martinelli. “We’re expanding our digital division into a separate entity—one of our main goals is to do a tremendous amount of daily digital-only content that does not appear in print, and we’ve brought in digital-only editors. From a sales point of view, our digital-only reps partner with the print ad reps to present complete packages that includes print, digital and events.”
Though Webster views city and regional magazines as a separate market, city and regional publishers that aren’t feeling the heat from hyper-local sites are increasing their Web presences. In Sacramento, CA there is no Patch.com site that covers the city, but there are eight other sites within the county.
“I don’t see hyper-local sites as competition,” says Mike O’Brien, president and co-publisher of Sacramento Magazines Corp., publisher of Sacramento Magazine. “We’ve made a serious digital push for several years. We’ve populated SacMag.com and it’s grown pretty nicely. We have editors and freelancers providing content for that and we do a couple of e-letters every week. We continue to grow, though the broader problem for any and all sites is monetization.”
O’Brien says that the brand hasn’t made a very aggressive push into digital ad revenue quite yet because print is still the breadwinner.
“However, we know we need to be in the space so we continue to be active and invest there and wait for monetization capabilities to grow,” he says. “We do package it in and we have one team that sells print and digital. We’re seeing more and more clients asking for it and we are growing revenue there.”
Sacramento’s circ is about 30,000; the website attracts 75,000 monthly unique visitors and captures 200,000 monthly page views. While the brand isn’t making a strong push in digital monetization, O’Brien does see opportunities.
“Readers want quality in terms of what they’re reading and viewing,” he says. “I think that’s where city and regional magazines have the trust of the marketplace. As we stay in the game, I think we’ll get better and better at monetizing that.”