“We were making like $300,000 a year [in revenue] on the partnership, which back then was a lot of money online,” says Clark Gilbert, president and chief executive officer of Deseret Digital Media. But the station, an NBC affiliate, saw the change as a way to build traffic to the site. Its classifieds service would also be a way to showcase the moral standards of its owner, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Deseret Digital Media runs the online properties for the church’s TV station and its newspaper, the Deseret News, along with sites more obviously of the church, MormonTimes.com and DeseretBook.com.
Today, KSL.com is a powerhouse on the web. The site has more than 4 million unique users and generates an astounding 250 million page views a month, says Gilbert. (By contrast, KSL’s sister property, the Deseret News, has a more typical audience of about 2.5 million unique users and thirty million page views; the website of a competing newspaper, The Salt Lake Tribune, has roughly the same size audience.) In a recent study of web traffic data in major markets, a company called Internet Broadcasting found that KSL.com reaches 48.8 percent of its local market. That is more than any local media outlet in the survey but one, the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s site. And it is far beyond the web footprint of the top local TV stations, which average under 20 percent market share.
Still, all that traffic didn’t keep Deseret Digital Media from announcing layoffs last year at the Deseret News that, despite the sunny headline that announced the news (“Deseret News set to lead, innovate”), resulted in a cutback of 43 percent of the newspaper’s workforce and consolidation of some news-gathering operations with KSL-TV. (The Salt Lake Tribune announced the layoffs with some competitive schadenfreude: “Tribune to press ahead in face of News changes.”)
KSL.com’s strategy relies partly on its worldwide audience of church members, but it also offers useful lessons for news organizations seeking untraditional ways to build a digital audience.
The classifieds themselves are mostly free, though advertisers can pay up to $10 a day to get prominent placement. The classifieds pages also host other ads, and more importantly, they are responsible for about 70 percent of KSL.com’s total traffic, so they provide tremendous benefits to the rest of the site. The pages carry prominent links to news stories and videos on KSL.com, which helps to generate 70 million to 80 million page views a month for content that isn’t classified ads. “The main route to the site is still the news page,” Gilbert said. “We haven’t tried to make ‘KSL.com/classifieds’ our bookmark. That made the [KSL] news site bigger than any other news site in the market.”
Gilbert adds that there is another benefit: “Here’s something hard for old-media people to accept. Our news content gave a level of trust to the classifieds, and classifieds drove relevance back to the news.” Or, put another way, the fact that readers have come to rely on the classifieds under the KSL brand helped to build relevance and credibility in the news as well.
KSL.com had some important advantages. First, it started early, shortly before Craigslist came to Salt Lake City. And because it was a TV station’s website, it wasn’t perceived as competitive by its existing staff; there was no classified-ads manager to complain about giving away a lucrative revenue stream. “KSL didn’t have legacy products that were competing with this service,” says Chris Lee, general manager of DeseretNews.com. “If they wanted to do cars, there wasn’t someone saying, ‘But we’re already doing cars!’”
The site also demonstrated a keen sense of its audience—which shouldn’t be a surprise, given the church ownership. Managers tried to be especially vigilant about keeping the site clean (“no way were we going to allow prostitute or massage ads,” Gilbert says) and detecting fraud.
KSL.com also committed to “letting our users develop the product with us,” Gilbert said. For instance, in the spring of 2011, KSL.com asked its readers what kinds of firearms they thought the site should allow to be sold. It also asked them, “How often do you believe people are using the KSL Classifieds Firearms and Hunting section to circumvent firearm laws?” Users help police the site for bad actors. Anonymity isn’t allowed: “Sellers had to have an identity,” Gilbert said.
The classifieds give KSL.com an unusually high level of engagement. According to according to Mike Petroff, vice president of new media sales, the site gets around ten million page views from 250,000 users on an average weekday, for a stunning daily rate of forty page views per visitor. (The ads don’t appear on the newspaper’s site; the Deseret News shares business, but not newsgathering, operations with The Salt Lake Tribune, owned by MediaNews Group.)