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In the early 2010s, Mark Nienhueser was the sales director for Service Noodle, an online platform that made it easy for small, local service businesses to develop a website and gain a digital footprint. When he moved to the Missouri Press Association, in 2013, he realized there were a lot of untapped digital opportunities for newspapers.

“Newspapers had a bad reputation for not getting into the digital side of things — and for the most part, that was true,” Nienhueser says.

About 40 members of the press association at that time were daily newspapers, Nienhueser remembers. They did OK with digital ad sales. Then there were 175 members that were weeklies. “Those were the ones that were struggling.”

Nienhueser was looking for a way to boost revenue at the association, and he thought he had found his way to do it: Build an easy-to-use, online platform that papers could use to sell digital solutions to their advertisers — building them Facebook pages, websites and selling digital ads.

He worked up some brochures on the idea, one of which came across the desk of Roger Gafke, the retired program development director for the Reynolds Journalism Institute. Gafke loved the idea, and suggested that it might make a great RJI Fellows project.

Nienhueser tossed his hat into the ring and in 2015 he became an RJI Fellow.

As he started to work on the project, he realized most of the digital ad world was geared toward large clients, not smaller local businesses. But the idea took off when he connected with the St. Louis ad agency Amplified Digital.

For $1,400, an advertiser could buy 2.5 million views. The platform drove higher volumes to the member papers, and the association took a percentage off the top. Nienhueser soon took that program on the road, pitching other press associations, and got a few on board, including the associations in Arkansas, Alabama, Kansas and Mississippi.

“They totally got where I was coming from — they understood the small packages and that there was [profit] margin there.”

But first Nienhueser had to get press association members on board. Using money from his fellowship, Nienhueser hired a salesman and went out to member papers and talked to them about the value of this new digital opportunity. Then he’d go with them on sales calls to their clients.

Instead of just asking the local business owners if they wanted to buy a print ad, Nienhueser would say, “I noticed you don’t have a website; would you be interested in that? And what about Facebook ads?”

Often, Nienhueser says, clients who were reluctant to buy a print ad would purchase one as part of a comprehensive print-and-digital advertising strategy.

So the local sales representatives would sell the product, and Amplify Digital would do the back-end work. Profits on the digital sales were therefore split three ways, between the local paper, the press association and Amplify. The margins were small, but they made up for that in volume. The association had 200 members.

Nienhueser also developed a proprietary online ad service that allows advertisers to purchase digital ads in every member paper of the Missouri Press Association.

For $1,400, an advertiser could buy 2.5 million views. The platform drove higher volumes to the member papers, and the association took a percentage off the top. Nienhueser soon took that program on the road, pitching other press associations, and got a few on board, including the associations in Arkansas, Alabama, Kansas and Mississippi.

The program wasn’t a panacea — it still relied on understaffed local papers training their sales staff on how to sell the new product — but it was proof that, with the right support, small papers could compete in the digital space.

“It’s been a highlight of my working career, doing that fellowship,” Nienhueser says.

Erik Potter  
   
Guest blogger



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