Newspaper executives gathered here for the Newspaper Association of America's annual marketing conference described several fledgling -- and pending -- social-networking efforts they said are adding value to their websites by increasing reader engagement.
"We love to point to [increasing readership], but one of the terrible problems with our business is retention," said Steve Yelvington, internet strategist at Morris Digital Works, which is now plotting a wider rollout of a networking experiment begun at its Bluffton Today title in South Carolina. "But [social-networking sites] have tremendous loyalty, passionate adoption of your brand and very heavy repeat usage."
Retention numbers up
The Bluffton network site doesn't quite have MySpace's grit -- a featured blog on its front page late yesterday touted a vote regarding pet photos -- but Mr. Yelvington said it has sent web-reader-retention numbers soaring.
An edgier social-networking site will be rolled out by the Roanoke Times over the next few weeks. "Big Lick University" is a MySpace-styled effort designed at delivering the college students in the southwest Virginia daily's coverage area -- and the estimated $180 million they spend annually -- to advertisers.
"Big Lick" is a faux campus. A "Dining Hall" section features student restaurant and bar recommendations. A "Residence Hall" lets students leave messages for one another on their room's "white board." Students have to register to use most of the site's features.
"The idea is Facebook meets Citysearch meets Craigslist meets campus paper," said Dan Wheeler, the Times' director of digital media. "It seems like a stretch for a newspaper to be doing this, but ... bringing people to advertisers ... is what we usually do."
The executives said that successful newspaper-based social networks required clever marketing -- and some investment. The Bakersfield Californian intended its "Bakotopia" site to be a youth-targeting classifieds site. But it morphed into a social hub shortly after the paper began posting fliers telling area bands they could post their own fliers online.
"We didn't go out to build a social network, but we ended up with something very much like MySpace," said Dan Pacheco, Bakersfield's senior manager of digital products.
Just one more thing
Mr. Pacheco said the newspaper has subsequently added features such as user blogs, profiles and forums to its core Bakersfield.com site, and "social use" now accounts for 15% to 20% of the traffic there.
Dan Strauss, general manager of MySpace parent Fox Interactive Media Labs, told attendees that he wasn't the least bit surprised by those results, given the 125 million people who use MySpace around the world. But, in doing so, he gave many of the newspaper executives in attendance something else to worry about.
"We're soon going to be releasing a new product that focuses on news discovery and blogs," he said, providing no other details.