Cincinnati Enquirer headquarters building at 3...Image via Wikipedia

On Monday, I gave a sneak preview of my upcoming panel presentation at Blog World & New Media Expo to about 60 folks in attendance at Social Media Club Louisville. Part of the reason was to share some case studies and examples of how some traditional media members are using social media and what kind of strategic approach they are probably using to engage their audiences differently. The other reason I gave it was for people to shoot holes in it and help me identify gaps in thinking so it would be better for Las Vegas.

Terry Boyd, the advertising beat writer for Louisville’s weekly business journal, Business First , offered perhaps the most pointed criticism of the offering. He said I hadn’t offered a shred of empirical evidence that social media use by media members can prove itself in the bottom line enough to sustain the business of journalism. And his criticism was spot on. So, in an effort to fill that gap and supply him with that proof for a story he is working on about social media and the media for next Friday’s edition of the paper, I called on some of the folks I highlighted to answer his question. As we discuss them here, I’ll have much better material to give you proving that Boyd’s attendance Monday was invaluable to us all.

The first post in this ongoing series from August 11 highlighted the innovation and citizen journalism efforts going on at the Cincinnati Enquirer. James Jackson heads the online components of what they do and is a well-respected innovator in the online journalism space. When I called upon Jackson to offer Boyd some arguments for a provable business model based around citizen journalism, user-generated content and social media, he electrified my inbox (if that’s possible) with a response I have to share, almost verbatim:

I’d like to expound on this because I, like others here, are intensely passionate on this issue. Cincinnati.Com and other Enquirer Media properties are doing exceptionally well in terms of audience and market share, given the economy and current trends, and it’s only because of how committed our entire company is to the philosophy of meeting users’ needs (which, inherently, means empowering users to become publishers and to control their media experience).

User-generated content and social media go hand-in-hand. You can’t achieve the potential of UGC without social media tools to allow people to take control of the content they submit. And UGC is critical to the long-term survival of mainstream media, because:

  1. UGC works and is very attainable. The audience is willing to produce it, en masse, and not only to use it but also, in certain circumstances, even to pay for it.
  2. UGC allows a media or non-media organization to capture the local reality in ways that are simply impossible for a traditional newsgathering organization. Any hesitation that any traditional media operation has about UGC needs to be overcome if that organization is going to survive. Professional newsgatherers often poo-poo UGC as being lower quality, but the reality is that while quality is lower, it’s often good and sometimes higher – and, besides, users are smart and they can pick whose content they want to read.
  3. UGC enables new products that otherwise couldn’t be produced profitably.
  4. UGC drives Web traffic, increasing visits, views per visit and dwell times.

Here are some specific examples of social media/UGC initiatives that generated profit for us in 2007 and 2008. We’re not allowed to disclose revenue figures, so instead I cite other numbers:

Capture Cincinnati

Capture Cincinnati was a local photo-sharing Web site whose best photos were featured in a popular book we published, Capture Cincinnati, in the 2007 holiday season. The initiative was a huge success, with 1,020 local photographers uploading 11,891 photos. The community cast 333,211 votes to identify the best photos to be included in the book, generating 1,000,126 page views in a matter of weeks. We’ve sold about 5,500 copies of the coffee table photo book, which includes a DVD and has a retail price of $39.95.

CaptureCincinnati.Com is 2008 is already an even greater success. So far, 11,473 photographers have submitted 21,449 photos, and the community has cast 851,694 votes, generating 1,984,707 page views in the last 12 or 13 weeks. Based on all this, we’re sure the 2008 edition of the book will also be a good seller in local bookstores.

Another interesting point: Although the 2008 iteration of the Capture Cincinnati project is even stronger than last year’s, with usage and contributions way up, we’re not yet promoting it aggressively in print or online. This shows that you don’t need print to reach the digital native, young professional audience. What works best is viral marketing, word-of-mouth and promotion through social networking sites. Most of the users are becoming engaged through Flickr, Facebook and other viral means.

Michael Perry, who led CaptureCincinnati, also has done various other similar projects, such as two popular recipe books in which all recipes were submitted by CincyMoms.com users.

User-generated content in general

Enquirer Media, which publishes the Cincinnati.Com Network of Web sites, has had a very strong commitment to user-generated content for many years, and was an early pioneer in UGC, multimedia, reverse publishing and more.

Since we started counting UGC in 2006, Cincinnati.Com has published:

  • 1,017,031 total user-submitted items, which includes:
    • 82,837 photos
    • 63,622 stories and reviews
    • 795,057 forum posts
    • 75,496 blog posts, messages and other interactions
  • We’re aggressive about publishing UGC. User-submitted content appears within:
    • Web: 250+ online products
    • 233 online community sites (http://www.cincinnati.com/getlocal/)
    • 5 distinct Web sites
    • At least a dozen other specific Web products
    • Print: 38+ print products
    • Our two dailies: Cincinnati Enquirer and Kentucky Enquirer
    • 28 free weeklies
    • 6 twice-weekly editions of Your Hometown Enquirer
    • 2 monthly magazines
    • Various specialty publications

Here’s a key page people see when they submit content:

http://cincinnati.com/share/

The numbers above don’t even include a lot of things, such as letters, obituary guestbook comments, content submitted with various contests, etc., etc. If we took the number of photos, stories and reviews above – 146,459 – and tried to imagine having professional reporters and photographers generate that content for our Web and print products, clearly we would fail.

In this respect, UGC is not a ploy to get users to produce content so that we can cut expenses. Rather, it’s a strategy to acquire content unlike anything mainstream media have ever published in the past – the kind of highly localized content it’s traditionally impossible for anyone (including Google or Yahoo) to get.

To reiterate, the 288 products I cite above wouldn’t even be possible without UGC/SM.

Niche Web sites

We publish a variety of niche Web sites that meet the needs of very specific audiences, such as local moms, visitors from out of town, young professionals, the local theater community and volunteerism stakeholders.

The best example is cincyMOMS.com, and I think someone else plans to email you about that.

One example is nkyHELPS.org, a new local Web site that helps organizations to recruit volunteers and donations, and helps community members to become engaged with local volunteerism. The site, about six months old, serves 130 organization and has recruited and placed 483 volunteers for 191 Northern Kentucky volunteer opportunities. The site also drove 2,448 visits to participating organization’s donation forms as well as 6,977 visits to the Web sites of participating organizations. nkyHELPS.org is possible because 100% of its content – volunteer listings, events, organization profiles, etc. – are community-submitted using UGC and rudimentary SM tools.

Another example is a Young Professional section in CiNWeekly.com. Produced in partnership with the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber’s HYPE initiative (which is all about “harnessing young professional energy”), the site generates content from young professionals sharing photos, stories and events to promote their organizations.

UGC/SM make all of these niches possible.

Web traffic

For digital products, generating page views is key because it not only increases advertising inventory, but also page views inherently correlate with the size of a site’s audience and the extent to which the audience uses the site. We have found that UGC/SM are much in demand by the audience: In 2007, Web pages with UGC generated 28,550,263 views for the Cincinnati.Com Network (out of 454,339,743 total views). While that was only 6.3%, it was 6.3% we otherwise wouldn’t have had.

Some of our niche UGC areas also have impressive statistics that are very unlike the usage patterns of traditional mainstream news-oriented Web sites. For example, due to moms talking inside cincyMoms.com, we have a secondary evening primetime every night from 10 p.m. to midnight, a daypart that is commonly up 75% over last year as a result. Also, in various places within the Cincinnati.Com Network of Web sites, we notice that views-per-visit and reading times are much higher on UGC pages than on non-UGC pages.

So we have our first example and answer to the question, “Can social media, user-generated content and citizen journalism be used to sustain the media business?” It appears that it can if done correctly. We certainly thank Jackson for not only answering the question of Mr. Boyd with this in-depth response, but for allowing us to see it here as well.

What I’d like to know from you after reading all that is what more can we ask to prove it? We respect the fact these organizations don’t disclose their revenues. We can assume if they weren’t making money they wouldn’t be doing it, but are there more pieces of evidence we could glean to see a web-first focus sustaining a media entity in the evolutionary world in which we live? What else do you want to know? Ask in the comments.

NOTE: A slightly different version of this post is cross-posted on the Social Media Club Louisville blog at http://www.smclouisville.org.

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About Jason Falls

Jason Falls

Jason Falls is a leading thinker, speaker and strategist in the world of digital marketing and is co-author of two books, No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide To Social Media Marketing and The Rebel's Guide To Email Marketing. By day, he leads digital strategy for Elasticity, one of the world's most innovative digital marketing and public relations firms. Follow him on Twitter (@JasonFalls).

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Comments on Social Media Explorer are open to anyone. However, I will remove any comment that is disrespectful and not in the spirit of intelligent discourse. You are welcome to leave links to content relevant to the conversation, but I reserve the right to remove it if I don't see the relevancy. Be nice, have fun. Fair?

  • Erin McMahon

    Wow. What a great response from Jackson!

    I'm already a believer, but, when it comes to 'proving' something, well… That's a tall order. Saying (and I'm not putting these words in your mouth) that you've proved with certainty that social media can save the media biz is like saying that botox injections are 100% safe and healthy. Sure- tell me that in 20 years.

    Like most any data, the more you have of it, the more reliable your findings, so it would be nice to have similar responses from the other examples you cited to show that Cinci Enquirer isn't just an outlier. Also, seeing how these results fare over time will be interesting. Will Cinci's success continue? How/when might they have to adapt their model?

    I agree that this is supportive of your theory, but if you really wanna build the case, more will be better. :)

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Fair point and I'm working on not only rounding out the presentation with more proof to the puddings, but future blog posts in the series will include them as well, as much as I can gather from the media sources. Thanks for keeping me on my toes.

  • Erin McMahon

    Wow. What a great response from Jackson!

    I'm already a believer, but, when it comes to 'proving' something, well… That's a tall order. Saying (and I'm not putting these words in your mouth) that you've proved with certainty that social media can save the media biz is like saying that botox injections are 100% safe and healthy. Sure- tell me that in 20 years.

    Like most any data, the more you have of it, the more reliable your findings, so it would be nice to have similar responses from the other examples you cited to show that Cinci Enquirer isn't just an outlier. Also, seeing how these results fare over time will be interesting. Will Cinci's success continue? How/when might they have to adapt their model?

    I agree that this is supportive of your theory, but if you really wanna build the case, more will be better. :)

  • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

    Fair point and I'm working on not only rounding out the presentation with more proof to the puddings, but future blog posts in the series will include them as well, as much as I can gather from the media sources. Thanks for keeping me on my toes.

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