The evolution of the branded blog – and why newspapers need them

Blog – an ugly word

Blog. It’s a horrible word. Bilabial, blunt and boring. Its genesis was in online self-publishing (weblogging) but it’s since become a commonplace term in the news media lexicon.

Almost every newspaper website now embraces blogging in one form or another, whether for their columnists or as adjuncts to an established section of the paper.

But what started as a begrudging nod to a nascent trend of amateur commentary – and the competition it brought to news establishment – has become something far more significant. With newspapers seeking ever more eyeballs in the race to online profitability, the flexibility and simplicity of the humble blog has become an invaluable tool.

So what was once as a bland webpage on which columnists were occasionally (and often grumpily) persuaded to do “something for the website” has now become an entire subset of news media publishing.

Forward-thinking newspapers have carefully branded their blogs to carve out a niche audience and compete with independents, such as the Guardian’s Datablog. Embracing the philosophy of “if can’t beat them, join them”, in 2007 The New York Times hired a 22-year-old media blogger to bring his talent in house.

And the Financial Times‘ award-winning Alphaville blog has become an entire “vertical” of its own, operating within the FT‘s boundaries but with its own unique voice, thrice-daily email briefings and exclusive Long Room section [full disclosure – I work for the FT]. 

This idea of an evolved, expanded blog operating as a vertical strand from the horizontal umbrella brand of the newspaper itself is nothing new. In fact, the concept is almost as old as newspapers themselves. We just used to call this kind of thing a supplement.

The most popular newspaper supplements, such as G2, have their own editor, their own designers and their own style. Some supplements were so successful that they became standalone publications, such as the Times Literary Supplement.

It is my belief that as newspapers continue to decline in popularity and eventually go out of print, many blogs will metamorphose into much wider, deeper site sections, catering to a carefully defined audience in the same way that supplements do. These sections will begin to feel more like independent websites than parts of the newspaper brand.

The New York Times ‘s Well blog is an example of this approach. In April it underwent a redesign that pushed the Well brand, including a new masthead and logo, whilst minimizing the NYT’s. The redesign also pushed comment and debate from the Well community above the fold in an effort to persuade readers to engage with the site.

Well blog, then and now (source: Niemen Journalism Lab)

A bespoke identity has several benefits. The blog doesn’t lose its association with the parent paper (light-touch brand reminders see to that), but its content and feel is a unique proposition that targets itself to specific readers. This makes it far more attractive to people who don’t read the parent paper or dislike many parts of it.

Readers who identify with the blog’s brand are more likely to become “sticky” users, comment on stories and contribute more page views. They are also more likely to register and thus become easier to target offers and advertising to, with the consequent uptick in revenue that this brings about.

This is all very well, but it does precipitate a pertinent question – if you move a blog away from the branding of the parent newspaper, how does this impact your revenue model? The answer depends on what your revenue model looks like:

  1. Free (ad-funded) model: You’re in the hunt for page-views and eyeballs on ads. Define your audience, work out the cost/benefit for blog content creation, product development and support versus potential revenue per user and deploy accordingly. Kill blogs that aren’t working or amalgamate them into bigger sections.
  2. Hard paywall model: Your strategy is exclusive in the first place and branded blogs should be carefully tailored to your target audience after market research, with the emphasis on retention of users through community activity and increased engagement.
  3. Soft paywall/registration model: You’re aiming to get users over their monthly/weekly article count and to lure new users into the site who will eventually discover all the other great stuff you offer. Branded blogs around specific verticals do a good job of this but you may have trouble converting users who aren’t interested in the other stuff you do. But one solution for this may be…
  4. Mix and match subscriptions: Users are able to purchase subscription “packages” that give access to custom combinations of sections. Branded blogs then become more like bundled satellite TV channels. However, this causes technical and editorial headaches, as do…
  5. Micro-payments: Micropayments have been very slow to take off and they present technical complications regarding access management. They also present an editorial dilemma in choosing which sections of the site a story should run in. If your news section is free, what happens when your paid-for media section breaks a massive story? That said, micro-payments, especially from mobile devices, could be a huge revenue source from casual/medium usage browsers if the technology that enables them becomes simple, ubiquitous and trusted.

Branded, expanded blogs offer more benefits that drawbacks, it’s simply a question of defining what’s right for your organisation. Don’t just set up branded blogs willy-nilly – do the research first. Sit down with your analytics and product development teams and ask the following questions:

  • Which niche sections of the site are popular but tired and undercatered for?
  • Which sections are small but have a particularly sticky, engaged audience?
  • How can you encourage users to keep coming back? Have you made space for community discussion or launched a daily email alert for your most popular blogs?
  • What works in print but doesn’t have a digital home? Is there a periodic report or column that could be expanded online at minimal cost?
  • What do your users want? Run some user experience testing on existing sections/blogs and some redesigned prototypes. Find out how and why users engage and what they want from that area of your publication

Branded blogs are a great way to carve out niche audiences online and go beyond both the overarching newspaper brand and the generic sections such as sport and business.

The best of these blogs should be nurtured with great content, unique features and their own identity in order to cater for and capitalise on the vast audiences that newspapers now reach online. With the right approach, they can become profitable ventures in their own right or support and feed into a larger newspaper brand.

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