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2011 – a year of digital innovation for regional media

The past twelve months has seen a raft of digital innovations across the regional press, writes Chris Bunyan, managing director of Localstars.

By Chris Bunyan

In the face of declining print circulations and falling advertising revenues, many commentators have written off the UK regional publishing sector, seeing it as on an inevitable slide into extinction. But, in the face of these challenges, we have witnessed a huge amount of innovation happening across the sector in 2011 as publishers look to digital initiatives to revive their fortunes.

Growing online audiences

ABC figures released at the start of the year revealed that while print circulations have been shrinking, the online audience for regional papers actually increased - up 23.5% in the year to February 2011. For many publishers, the revenues they earned from digital channels was also up – but this is only part of the picture.

Clearly, achieving success relies on digital innovation that allows regional publishers to harness their assets. These include focused, local content and close relationships with readers and businesses. New services that build on these are key to digital success and publishers are now experimenting with a raft of new ideas to attract and retain consumers and advertisers and drive revenues.

Digital across the sector

Offering localised offers and deals is a growth opportunity that many are looking to exploit, tapping into the phenomenal success of Groupon. Existing relationships with local businesses mean that regional publishers can offer really hyperlocal deals and promotions which are more likely to be taken up by consumers. Northcliffe Digital has had strong success with its Wowcher brand while Archant Media bought half of Tickles, a Norwich-based group buying site and is rolling it out across East Anglia. Other publishers have launched their own deals initiatives to capitalise on their local strengths.

The close relationship with local people also lends itself to encouraging user generated content (UGC). For example, Johnston Press has embraced UGC, launching its FindIt digital directory within its regional media sites in partnership with Qype. This provides user-powered reviews and databases of local events to site visitors, increasing traffic and length of visits. Essentially it helps make the site a magnet for local information – the starting point for anyone looking for events, reviews or listings.

In the same way that national newspapers have wrestled with the concept of erecting paywalls, so have their regional counterparts. Britain’s best-selling regional daily, the Express & Star, based in Wolverhampton, introduced a bundling deal involving paywall-protected content aimed at boosting print circulations. Newsquest’s Herald has also introduced a charging model for its website. Rather than a blanket paywall, this allows casual browsers to access up to 10 stories per month for free, charging regular readers to access the site.

Driven by faster broadband and the rise of smartphones, video has become an established online advertising channel. Visually stimulating and engaging, video ads typically achieve click through rates averaging three times higher than traditional banner ads as well as. other positive effects, such as increased brand awareness and greater brand recall. Working with partners, the majority of regional publishers now provide the ability to quickly create a video or rich media advert, based on library footage that has been personalised to individual businesses and then delivered to target audience through their local websites. In many cases there is no separate production costs as these are bundled into ad placement costs and often publishers provide a complete advertising package involving video, online banner and print in an integrated campaign.

The rise of tablets such as the iPad, also provides a new channel for regional publishers. Selling a downloadable app, either on a one-off basis or a subscription model adds a new revenue stream. Alternatively many publishers have launched compelling free apps to boost traffic and ad revenues. Metro saw 155,000 downloads in the first 11 days when it launched its new Apple Newsstand app and 800,000-1 million daily page views.

For the majority of these ideas, publishers are turning to best of breed digital partners to implement them, rather than building them internally. This openness allows publishers to benefit from emerging digital innovation and gives new media companies the chance to showcase their innovation on a larger platform.

The services described here are just a snapshot of the wide range of digital innovation we have seen across the sector this year. Regional media continues to reinvent itself, leveraging its local audience and customer relationships, demonstrating that, contrary to the naysayers, publishers are embracing new ideas to secure their futures.