Yesterday, I met (okay, by phone) Richard Anderson, founder of the Village Soup sites. Village Soup currently consists of 4 community sites serving Knox County, Waldo County, Bar Harbor and Augusta along with two community newspapers (unusually, Richard built the sites first, the newspapers second).
Each “soup” consists of professional journalists, amateur content providers and advertisers sharing a common platform and creating a community site. Together.
Village Soup sites don’t have readers and advertisers - they have members. What’s really different is that the members pay to be a participating part of the community.
That’s right, anyone can read the content on the site, but only paying members may participate.
Sounds crazy? It’s not.
As Village Soup members, businesses and organizations get the enhanced listings pages, display ads and appearance in search results offered by most local sites. What’s different is that they can also publish blog posts and special offers to the site. (Before you dismiss the notion of advertisers providing content, check out a recent post by Eastern Tire and Auto Service on what to pack in a winter emergency.)
True, a lot of the posts are just ads in disguise, but some are quite interesting and they are in a widget that is easily identifiable as advertising content so users know what they’re getting. The special offers are even more valuable to users as the site is almost functioning as an electronic flyer for the community.
Advertisers pay around $20/week and organizations pay around $10/week for their memberships.
Readers pay about $4 to $9 per month. That’s the subscription rate for the newspaper, a reverse-published, printed version of the site to be delivered to their door once or twice a week. The catch is that users must be subscribers to participate on the paper’s affiliated website.
I’m not a fan of forcing readers to subscribe in order to participate in a site, but for Richard, doing so has solved a key issue. He says the quality of contributions from readers is increasing the quality of the site and reducing the need for moderation. It’s hard to argue with that, though this strategy will cost them younger readers and may not be sustainable in the long-run.
In addition to the amateur content, there’s lots of professional journalism, including articles about crime, education and government. The site’s “about” page lists an editorial staff of 20.
The formula seems to be working. The sites feel alive. The users and advertisers are fully participating. Blog posts and special offers are current, not stale. Of the 100 or so Dining Offers on the Knox site, all were updated in the past 3 days and 25 of them were updated today.
They have developed some significant traffic given the small size of the markets served (totaling 150,000 UV’s/month and 2.5 million PV’s/month) and 20% of the business’s revenue comes from online.
What I love about Village Soup is that Richard Anderson and his team are at least as committed to providing ROI to their advertisers as they are to providing great journalism to the communities they serve. I know from my own experience, and through talking with several other hyper-local sites and networks that true advertiser value and therefore loyalty is by far the largest determinant of a site’s ultimate success and the most difficult thing to create.
The model isn’t perfect. The fact that only print subscribers can participate will ultimately prevent them from becoming true centres for discussion and debate for their communities, and while the site structure is (mostly) fine, I think the design, even on the newer Augusta site could use a bit of an update.
That said, it’s very exciting to see a small publishing company doing so many things right. Don’t you think?