The Strib Launches A Digital Marketing Service: Brilliant Or Desperate?

October 2, 2012

Star Tribune Radius logoCould the Star Tribune be on the verge of shaking up the local advertising and PR agency scene forever?

Maybe. Maybe not. Here’s the scoop:

The Strib recently announced it has launched a new service called Radius, which it says “is designed to help businesses increase and manage their presence on the Internet through a variety of means, including website development, search engine marketing, social and mobile media, and reputation management.”

Radius is geared toward small businesses, with fees for digital services ranging from $400 to $1,000 a month, with additional fees for customized services. According the Jeff Griffing, the Strib’s chief revenue officer, “If you want a press release, we’ll write a press release.”

What the Star Tribune didn’t tell us in the news story announcing Radius is that they’re not creating a marketing agency from scratch. It turns out the Star Tribune will be reselling a suite of services called LocalEdge from Hearst Media Services. The New York Daily News and The Dallas Morning News are among the media organizations that have signed on with Hearst.

Is this a good move for the Star Tribune? Bad move? A threat to freelancers or marketing agencies? We put the questions to some Ponies. Here’s a sample of their analysis:

Jen Kreilich
It certainly is not surprising that the Star Tribune is seeking other avenues of revenue outside of their print-based heritage and looking to further their presence in the digital space. But designing websites, executing SEO, mobile media planning? Not necessarily a natural progression, and will likely take some educating for their potential customers and some outside assistance to deliver.

Star Tribune logoWill it be successful? Sure, it could be. There are, as the article references, other companies in the market offering similar services to small businesses. Should agencies be worried? In this case, I don’t think so for the short term. We’re likely not competing for the same business. Their stated focus is on mom-and-pop shops, and while that may change as this thing scales, that’s how they’re coming out of the gate. Agencies should take note, however. As more and more Radius-like offerings pop-up, some with bigger sights set on bigger clients, we will need to continue to prove our value and set ourselves apart to the prospective clients faced with ever-increasing choices for where to put their dollars.

Bob Ingrassia
The Strib’s foray into digital marketing services is not a bad play. But the effort may be too little too late.

First the positives: You’ve got to hand it to the Star Tribune for righting the ship following its harrowing journey through bankruptcy a few years ago. The paper has solidified its place as Minnesota’s No. 1 news outlet, online and in print. Creating a marketing agency shows that the paper’s honchos are serious about finding ways to grow revenue outside traditional display advertising. Delivering eyeballs still pays the majority of the bills, but we all know that won’t last forever.

It makes sense for a media company to offering marketing services … and the Star Tribune is not the first to make the leap. If you look at advertising in the broad sense of “enabling commerce” (h/t to media thinker Terry Heaton), then helping brands reach the right people in the right place is not a stretch for a traditional advertising vehicle such as the Strib.

Now the not-so-positives: It’s awfully late in the game to launch a business that aims to help small businesses with digital marketing. The Strib’s Radius agency will offer web development, SEO and social media services. These are services that plenty of agencies — including Fast Horse — already are providing in the Twin Cities market and beyond. Plus, there are already any number of one-stop platforms that give small businesses digital marketing tools.

I’m reminded of the era when newspapers snoozed while Craigslist, Monster.com and other online commerce services snatched their print advertising customers. By the time the industry reacted, the gold rush was almost over. The Star Tribune’s digital marketing push might be a replay. Opening an agency to help small businesses succeed online was a great idea … in 2005.

Nate Brennan
I think it’s great and terrible all at once, but mostly great.

It’s a smart, necessary move to keep their institution alive and continue (begin?) to fund important people and pieces and attract higher-priced talent. Too long daily newspapers have held onto the crotchety thinking that their work and themselves stand upon this self-imagined pedestal of unbiased morality, which is about as narcissistic as it is bullshit.

It’s true that much of the work they do is important, but first and foremost they are a business who puts out a product for the public to buy. That’s why fluff pieces exist. That’s why special sections exist. People will only buy what they want to pay for. So by creating this new sector and product, they’re accepting the fact that they are just another business and not the Pinnacle Of Truthiness, and, in turn, can continue to expand and, more importantly, keep themselves from dying out entirely.

Star Tribune logoOn the other hand, the one that is my own narcissistic, self-important journalist hand, a newspaper making official relationships with businesses, even if they may be small, inevitably leads to biased reporting. Being 1% like Fox News is too much, and a newspaper shilling its own marketing product is kind of a Fox News move. I’d personally would have preferred for the Strib to announce it was starting a sub-business differently-named than the Strib that would be releasing and managing this marketing product in an entirely different building.

Overall, I think it’s a savvy move that will produce great results for their business, but going from a daily newspaper to a daily newspaper that also does marketing for businesses tarnishes the Strib brand a bit.

Mike Keliher
How is this any different than Yellow Pages or Google any other company that provides an advertising medium starting to provide some advertising services? For me, the bottom line is this: The flagship article that introduces this revolutionary (ahem) new service makes sure to point out, early on, the ever-so-important value proposition: “Businesses can preview, update and customize their products and will receive one-on-one customer support.”

I can customize my marketing?! Sign me up!

And note that they don’t talk about account services teams or creative teams. They talk about having “digital sales representatives.” For small businesses that are looking to grow but have no need for the professional services of an advertising or marketing agency, this is probably wonderful. But its usefulness will be limited. For a growing business, “turn-key solution” will quickly cease to be a benefit and become a hindrance.

Dave Fransen
It’s probably long overdue for the Strib to get into the digital marketing services business. Clearly they need to establish new revenue streams, and they have a strong, trusted brand that may appeal to smaller companies looking for something…anything…to get them online. Without knowing a lot about their specific offerings and capabilities, it appears this might be a throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks approach. Want a press release? We’ll write it. Want a banner ad? We’ve got you covered.

With a sales staff of 15, the Strib is poised to sell, sell, sell. But the product they’ll provide their clients is the big question mark for me. The monthly fees structure suggests a client may not be going to the Strib for outside-the-box creativity. My guess is they’ll do well with companies that don’t have big budgets and may not be the most sophisticated marketers, but we’ll see…

Jamie Millard
I think a potential disadvantage for them will be if businesses trust the Strib’s motives. Sure, if I want digital marketing on the Strib website, maybe I’ll go with them, but how could I really trust them to be fair and keep my best interests at the forefront beyond their publication. You go to the Strib when you want to advertise with them and maybe that’s not always in in the best interest of the client. If I were a small business owner, I might not trust the Star Tribune’s marketing agency to keep my best interests in mind, even if they claim to provide a full range of services.

Interesting to see they announced the launch without a website or a Twitter handle, etc. There’s not a lot of buzz about it on Twitter, which is not a good sign that they intrinsically understand and care about this work.

Natalie Marquez
This is a smart move for the Tribune but not one that should make agencies worried. If anything, it should worry internal sales people that are responsible for selling digital ads. The Tribune is making it easier for companies to buy digital ads, to update those ads for real-time offers, all the while making it easier for the Star Tribune to execute those ads. They will need less manpower internally – designers, sales – to obtain the same revenue, if not more. Along those lines by educating companies on digital advertising, the ads should get a better ROI and the Tribune just opened another line of revenue for themselves.

John Reinan
Steve Yaeger, the Star Tribune director of marketing, said many of the client targets for the new digital product will be small businesses whose advertising budgets at one time were spent on small ads in directories such as the Yellow Pages. “We’re talking about florists, bakeries, lawyers from small firms, contractors, pizza places,” Yaeger said.

LocalEdge LogoIf this is their target audience, they can probably have some success. There’s no harm – and potentially some benefits – in trying this. Newspapers need to experiment, so you have to give them credit. But agencies won’t be quaking in their boots just because the Strib is offering some web optimization advice to small businesses, along with inclusion in an online search directory. Most of their potential clients couldn’t afford to hire an agency anyway.

You’ll note that the article focuses on the revenue this could generate for the Star Tribune, not on the value they can bring to their clients. That suggests to me that their main interest is in churning a high-volume, low-cost menu of services to people who aren’t buying ads from them. It’s a revenue play, not a service play. They’ll be offering cookie-cutter solutions through a sales force, not creative and strategic solutions through a group of experienced professionals.

Allison Checco
For those with a very limited budget, this is an interesting concept, but I have to wonder if smaller businesses get a lot of value from digital advertising. I guess in some instances they may, but I think the real key to success is finding out what their customers and key audiences value and where they get their information in order to target them the right way. It doesn’t seem like Radius does that deep dive, but rather allows people to pick and choose template options from a dashboard.

Beyond the digital marketing services, I’m concerned a move like this devalues the third party validity of a newspaper. If an entity like the Star Tribune starts drafting press releases, and especially if they begin pitching their own created content, how does one trust that a true journalistic filter is being placed on the paper’s daily online/print versions? Granted, they already sell ads, but this just seems to blur the lines a little more.

So, Dear Peeper, what’s your view? Will Radius be successful for the Strib? Is this the future or a Hail Mary?