What you should know about Iowa Ideas and how it has become profitable and a big brand play for one newspaper company

We recently caught up with Chris Edwards, President of Gazette Communications in Cedar Rapids, Iowa to talk about his views on digital subscriptions, digital marketing services and to learn more about their interesting initiative, Iowa Ideas.

Here’s our conversation:

Tell us a little about your background: It’s hard to believe I’ve been in the media industry nearly 10 years now.  Prior to that I was in technology sales and sales management for wireless and wireline data and communication services, with a short stint in the marketing analytics field prior to joining our company.

We understand you have been rolling out a membership model. Tell us about the model and how it’s gone so far?  Our version of a membership model is essentially monetizing all of our content while increasing the value to our audiences, with the ultimate goal of continual engagement both in readership and event attendance.  Our members accumulate points to be used for spending on private “can’t buy them” events, gift cards to local merchants and other merchandise.  If we are going to ask them to pay us for everything, we have to up our end of the value proposition.

Have digital subscriptions become a major focus of your business? If so, why are they so important right now for you?  When we owned a television station in the same market, putting a paywall around our newspaper didn’t make any sense as the same blended newsroom fed both sites.  We would simply have moved audiences around.  Now that we have sold our station (and now maintain the largest newsroom in our community) we have the ability to monetize our online content much more intelligently.  We started the digital subscription process in February following a total re-launch of our website to provide a much better (and cleaner) user experience.  We are right on our budget projections for revenue and subs thus far.

Your Iowa Ideas project is really fascinating. Can you tell us about how it came to be and what you see next for it?  Our news team wanted to expand our footprint and brand outside the bounds of our traditional circulation areas, and our revenue team needed a vehicle to go after dollars that were difficult to get through traditional advertising.  Our maiden voyage occurred in 2017 with a series of small, statewide symposia culminating in a large 3 day event in Cedar Rapids with over 200 speakers and panelists talking about a wide range of topics important to Iowans (based on what we learned at the symposia).  We learned a number of things to improve our 2018 effort:  Create more cost effective ways to spread the message statewide, narrow the focus of the large event and shorten it up and document everything along the way in a series of quarterly magazines to get the most out of the expense to deliver content as widely as possible.  We took it from a large loss to a modest profit in a year with an eye toward this being a long term and very profitable endeavor for us while helping to build a much larger brand in terms of geography.

For your agency, Fusion Farm, what’s the biggest opportunity you see in the next year?  Hands down, employer branding (with a special emphasis on employee recruiting and engagement) is our focus now.  This is an area of need and there are not a lot of players in this space because it is difficult to accomplish in a tight labor market.  So, our focus is branding and messaging first, and fulfillment second with heavy use of video, web development and digital marketing to support those messages.

What’s got you most excited about the future?  I would go with paid audience growth.  Programmatic was a nice bump a couple of years ago but has flattened.  We must get our audiences to value and be happy to pay us for our content.  That is the goal, not just to slap up a paywall and increase subscription rates.  We have to have people advocate for us and be excited about what we deliver – whether that is ad messaging, content or events.  I feel like we made huge strides on this front in 2018, but still have a long road ahead of us over the next three years to overcome what we know to be a continued challenge on the revenue front.