How news organizations can take back classifieds

The RevenueTwoPointZero event happened on Saturday in Washington. This is the report from the classified solutions team.

Classified advertising — which includes cars, jobs and homes — used to account for 25-50 percent of newspaper revenue. Most of that advertising has migrated from print to national aggregators online, such as CraigsList. If newspapers can recover even a portion of this lost revenue, it could be a game-changer. How’s how we propose to improve classifieds online:

Make it easy to use. In one respect, CraigsList is better than newspaper classifieds because it’s free. But more important, CraigsList is easier to use than any other newspaper classified site and that may be the bigger competitive advantage. Ironically, CraigsList isn’t particularly easy to use, but it’s easier than every other system. That’s why we made our solution easier still.

Make it easy to on the eyes. Classifieds need not look like HTML 1.0. Our solution provides easy-to-use templates so any user can create a beautiful, professional-looking ad. See the description page, below.

Make it free. If newspapers are going to compete with CraigsList, and every other free classified site, they need to meet or exceed every feature of every other site. So basic listings must be free.

Make it make money: There are plenty of ways to monetize free classifieds:

  • Sell context-sensitive, behaviorally targeted display ads adjacent to free listings, such as the display ads for Pohanka Honda, below.
  • Sell ads on to the category-specific search pages, to get the attention of buyers even before they begin their search. See the category-specific search page, below.
  • Provide “premium” listings above the free listings in search results, as Google does now.
  • Serve up links to “premium” listings at the bottom of any page that provides the details of a free listing. You can see examples beneath the heading “Check out complete listings” on the description page, below.

The examples described above are primarily for commercial customers. Here are some of the upsells for private-party advertisers:

  • More photos
  • More keywords
  • More prominent appearance and position in search results
  • Choice of visual “theme” for your description page
  • Block links from competing ads from appearing on your description page
  • Allow ad to appear active longer

Make it safe: Craigslists shouts “Let the buyer beware!” — which doesn’t give anyone a warm, fuzzy feeling. While newspapers should leverage their reputation as the most trusted medium, even they cannot vouch for ads posted online via their self-service tools. So newspapers must provide a “reputation engine” where users can post their experiences with sellers, both good and bad, as eBay does now. Providing sellers with a means to manage their reputations online is another source of revenue.

Make it the biggest and best marketplace. How? By aggregating CraigsList and every other local classified site, to provide one-stop shopping for every buyer.

THE USER INTERFACE: Reasons why it’s so important

The key to what we worked on yesterday was the UI. Let me show you four mock-ups of different pages and why we went this route.

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I want — I have

If you’re going to a classified site you either want to purchase something or sell something. We wanted to center our user experience around that concept. Here is our classified homepage:

It’s that simple. We don’t want to overwhelm people by overloading the page with frivolous content. We also see no need for ads on this page. If a user hasn’t told us anything, we don’t want to annoy them with ads. Targeted, contextual ads are a value add for consumers. Random ads simply annoy.

If someone doesn’t want to search, they can select a category at the bottom of the page. We only wanted to put the most popular categories on this page. There is no need to overwhelm users with 50 different categories.

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Let’s find that car

Our search user interface is built around filters. Do an initial search of say, “Red 2000-2005 Honda Accord Northern Virginia” and this is the result that would show up:

It’s important to have a search engine that yields relevant results for users. Maybe, however, you realized that you also want to filter by price and mileage. We’re not going to make you go back and redo your search. Simply click the price filter, enter a price range and then the site will dynamically find you new search results. No reloading, no going back to previous pages to adjust search criteria. You can then do the same for mileage and the search results would again dynamically adjust.

Notice that ad on the right. It’s contextual and targeted. It’s a local car dealer has red Honda Accords in stock, and they’d like you to check out their inventory. That ad catches your eye because it’s exactly what you’re searching for. You’re not searching for Nexium, Fords or even for car dealerships. You are searching for red Honda Accords.

The listings at the top are premium. One up-sell that we offer is the ability to have higher placement. All the paid, up-sell listings go before the free ones. Also, premium ads get a more dynamic look with a photo and different mouse over effect. We want to offer value for paying customers. We believe with the right tools, we can make people more money on their items they list with us.

Any Ebay users will tell you that the premium features are a must if you want top dollar for your sale. Spend a little bit of money and make a lot more. Those are the kinds of up-sell features we want to have.

Filters and tags. We have filters for all the main criteria for a car: make, model, color, year, etc, etc, etc. We also have tags for all the other features a car might have: sunroof, Infinity head unit, spoiler, XM radio, etc.

Filters delimit a search. They control the results, while tags are a way of highlighting more specific features of a listing. The tags will not delimit a search either. Rather tags that a person selects will appear bold the search results.

People who list a product are free to choose their own tags and make up ones like “rocking sound system.” There is a limit, however, to how many tags/keywords a free listing will have. Later on, I’ll discuss how getting more tags/keywords for a listing will cost extra.

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Category pages are like search pages

We didn’t want to break the UI paradigms that we already set up. So instead, we decided to make the category pages just like the filter pages, except none of the filters have been selected yet. Users can simply begin selecting make, model, year, color, etc and see their results dynamically change as they begin filtering results more and more.

The top ads in the middle column are paid classified listings from dealers. This is a good place for dealers to put deals that they want to move. The ad on the right would be more generic than this (we didn’t have time to make a second ad). It would probably be an ad for a local dealership or used-car lot. As the search results were narrowed down, the ad would become contextually more relevant.

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Kick-ass free listings

Our free listings had to be leagues better than Craigslist’s and also feel like a paid listing.

Yeah, that’s a free listing. If we are going to fight back against all the online classified options, we will have to be categorically better than them.

One thing I want to point out really quickly is that it’s important to have to that “Find more cars just like this” link on the left. If someone enters this page sideways because they found it on Google or because someone linked them to it or it was shared socially (we’ll be adding these options), they may want to look at similar cars. The “Find more cars just like this” takes users back to the search page with the same exact filter criteria as the listing they are on.

What premium, up-sell features do we have?

  • No ads on your listing page — At the bottom of the free listing, you’ll notice three ads. Those are contextually relevant ads by other listing members — paid members to be exact. If people pay for premium listings on our site, not only will their pages not have ads on them, but their listings will show up on the bottom of free listing pages. Win-win.
  • More photos — We are limiting the amount of photos that free listings can have. We’ll offer up-sells that allow users to purchase more photos. A micro-payment, if you will.
  • Higher placement — All premium listings appear before free listings on search results.
  • Bolder search results — Premium listings are bigger and have a photo when they appear on search results. Not only are they at the top, but they visually pop a lot more.
  • More keywords — Every listing will be allowed a certain number of tags/keywords that they can use for their listing. Each additional tag/keyword will cost $1. More keywords will make it easier for people to find your product.
  • More themes — We wanted to create a really good standard theme, but we’ll also offer different themes for $1-2. These themes will make listings stand out, but we felt that our standard theme had to be really good.
  • Longer shelf life — Free listings, much like Craigslist, will have a limited run. We’ll allow, however, premium listings to stay up longer. For certain items, like a car, this is a big feature for users.

Most people approach the free vs. premium features equation backwards. Most people think of what the premium version should look like and what kind of features it should have. Then they think of ways to cripple it to make a free version. In the end, these free versions are just that — crippled.

We thought of it in the reverse. We set up to make a great free version. A free version that would get a person’s item sold. Then we set out to think of ways to make our listings better with premium features. We wanted to figure out how we could offer people even more value. With classifieds, every premium feature should directly translate to a benefit for the user — selling an item for more money, faster, both, etc.

This is what six people accomplished in one day — Chris Amico, Kris Viesselman, Kathleen Sullivan, Ernie Smith, John Kondis and myself, Patrick Thornton. Classifieds can be reinvented.