It doesn’t look like San Diego’s free classified strategy worked

I have yet to hear of a newspaper improving its revenue or audience growth by offering free classified ads.

The San Diego Union-Tribune tried it int 2005.

Now the U-T is further trimming staff.

“Not since the merger of the Union and Tribune over 15 years ago have we faced such wrenching changes,” he (CEO Gene Bell) wrote. “At the same time, never in our history have we faced revenue losses as dramatic as those of the last 12 months.”

Observation: The U-T offered free classifieds  and that did not stem the tide of revenue loses.

I’m not trying to draw a direct connection, just saying … it didn’t help.

The only time I’ve ever heard of an MSM newspaper offering free classifieds and using it to win market share was in Arkansas when Walter Hussman took the Democrat from second-tier player into only game in town.

There might be a very scary lesson about the inability of a market leader’s inability to use disruptive strategy to beat other disruptive players.

What worked for Hussman to beat a bigger paper, may not work for a market leader like the leading metro in town to beat Craigslist and other free-classified sites.

If that’s true, then sustaining innovations (which most newspapers have been pursuing in the recruitment ad space for a decade) may be the only way to go.

Just thinking out loud.

4 thoughts on “It doesn’t look like San Diego’s free classified strategy worked

  1. Maybe they shelved the classifieds off in an online silo somewhere, didn’t pursue hook-ins with other related information published on their site, and approached the classified data in a similar way to the way they approached the print classifieds.

    Myself, I’m enjoying my subscription to the Denver CraigsList RSS feed for motorcycles priced $500 – $1000 … it’s not as robust a search as I’d like, but it’s way more than what I can get from my local paper, and I don’t have to go to anybody else’s web site to read it.

  2. The premise of this post is wrong. Giving away classifieds is not intended to help the bottomline. The strategy isn’t about increasing revenue. It is about stopping the loss of market share. The organization that maintains market share of classifieds then gets a ticket to leverage that audience into other areas where revenue exists.

    It’s like being the market leader in news. No one is going to pay to subscribe to that news. But you get to use the audience in other ways.

    If San Diego succeeded at becoming the No. 1 market leader in classifieds (which I don’t know that they’ve done), then they haven’t successfully used that position to make money in new ways.

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