Every time you turn around, it seems, the pundits at BIA/Kelsey raise their forecast for “local” digital marketing by another half-trillion dollars or so. The folks at AOL’s community news division, Patch, aren't getting the memo.
The inside skinny says AOL (which we are supposed to spell as “Aol.” but c’mon) lost around $100 million on Patch last year. Troubling, when you consider it operates upward of 850 community news sites. It would take an extra $2000 a week in ad sales for each site for Patch to be at breakeven.
Can it be done?
Patch often gets thrown under the "content farm" bus, perhaps a bit unfairly. This isn’t really a “scrape” operation, and it has a well-regarded management team and editorial board to boot.
In addition, the Patch sites try hard to solicit reader input – blogs, pics, event listings. There is decent effort given to support of local charities. Its heart is in the right place.
But go to your local Patch site now and take in the look and feel of the site. Try out the navigation. And note the advertising layout. This has About.com written all over it.
We’d point the designers at Patch to the Evian site we wrote about last week – "The Source" – for some inspiration. And the navigation needs a complete rethink (example – do small-town folk really need a separate “Commute” tab?).
Site design suggestions don’t directly drive revenue. They would, though, drive higher readership, which makes a better sales proposition to local advertisers.
Where Patch can boost revenue directly is in an area underappreciated across all content sites – the comments section. If there is one thing locals have, it’s an opinion. And they are not afraid to share it on Patch. The littlest issue can set off dozens of comments.
Where there are no ads.
Someday, after all the research about smartphones is exhausted, someone smart will publish a quantitative study on the amount of time spent, page views, etc., in the comments sections of news sites.
And then, someone will invent a Disqus-like tool for advertising alongside comments. They will become fat, rich and happy.