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For years, Lise Hansen and Allan Gates heard a familiar refrain about Saint John's business community: "Ugh, there's nothing going on."
The thing is, plenty was going on, in their hometown and across New Brunswick. Not just megaprojects ordered by corporations with names such as Irving and McCain, but innovative ideas launched by smaller businesses. The real problem was that there wasn't a central place for people to hear about them.
So, last September, Ms. Hansen and Mr. Gates launched Huddle, a digital business-news journal focusing on New Brunswick and the broader Maritimes. Rather than engage in headline-baiting and sloganeering, Huddle seeks to show, not tell, the stories of entrepreneurs doing their part to boost the regional economy.
Ms. Hansen and Mr. Gates are no strangers to working with words. They're lifelong marketing professionals who, three years ago, joined forces to create Bonfire Communications, which draws clients from as far as Halifax. They run Huddle and Bonfire out of the same uptown Saint John office. Like many of the startups they work with, they take an entrepreneurial approach to their companies, Ms. Hansen says: "Get in, get to work, get it done."
There is certainly room in the market for business news, especially online. The provincial newspaper, the Telegraph-Journal, is limited to subscribers-only online, and its business section tends to be rife with non-local stories from newswires. Like many local newspapers, its newsroom has been shrinking for years.
Huddle also runs stories from wire services, but most of its best-performing pieces are hyperlocal and staff-written – such as, for example, one about the local restaurant Italian By Night growing so popular it needed a new location. Stories about real New Brunswickers, Mr. Gates says, "is kind of our secret sauce."
Now they just have to build a monetizable audience in a province with the population of Mississauga, in a region with slightly more people than Montreal. Seizing eyeballs in the Internet age, however, isn't easy. "It has to be good enough to compete on a global stage," Ms. Hansen says.
The Web, however, has also vastly increased opportunities for the very businesses they write about. Before, Mr. Gates says, "you had an economy that was built on big employers – you know who they are in Saint John – or government and seasonal industries. And now you see people taking control of their own destiny."
The businesses that have long sustained New Brunswick's economy won't be going away, but there's a story to be told about the new ones. Huddle wants to tell that story, but it needs readers, and a way to make money. After a cold launch last year, the site drew 100,000 unique page views in seven weeks and attracted advertisers keen on the paywall-free news site.
"If you want raw impressions, you could go on Kijiji," Mr. Gates says. "We're offering an audience."
THE CHALLENGE: How can Huddle build and monetize an audience and become sustainable?
THE EXPERTS WEIGH IN
What works in digital is niche journalism, not mass market. So my advice is they really figure out who their customers are, and figure out exactly how they're improving the lives of businesses, and then charge them for it. They should try to copy the AllNovaScotia.com model – no social media, hard paywall and serving the elites who control the money and power in the province.
If Huddle is really devoted to serving a business audience, then delivering content that's of value to that audience, and that people pay for, is a much better gamble than trying to assemble a general audience of size and value to advertisers in the New Brunswick market.
The advertising market in New Brunswick is quite different than in other provinces. There is a long history of Irving-owned media, which control almost all English-language media, being aggressive toward any newcomer who tries to infringe on the advertising market. But no one has tried to duplicate the AllNovaScotia model, and I don't see why that wouldn't work if they have the relationships to launch it.
Ken Doctor, media analyst and author of Newsonomics: Twelve New Trends That Will Shape the News You Get, Santa Cruz, Calif.
The strongest niche you can be in is people who care about business, because money changes hands, people are looking for information, for an edge. If you believe there's a market opening, that the news space is not covered well widely enough, deeply enough or immediately enough – those would be three qualities to bring to it, with the goal of being the authority on New Brunswick business.
The business models it would open up include digital subscription, with a premium on immediacy, knowing first, knowing more and analysis. With a metered paywall, you get the benefits of being open, but you're establishing a value, which could be one of their prime revenue sources.
And there could be a signature conference that they could charge people to come to, that they could get sponsors for. Then there's the advertising model – mainly B2B advertising. People who buy services from other businesses: insurance, real estate, those kinds of things.
Edward Skira, president and co-publisher, UrbanToronto.ca, an urban-development news website with 200,000-plus unique visits a month, Toronto
The best way to establish something compelling is to be different – in this case, hyperlocal. I would skip wire stories entirely and do original content only, even if it means only one story a day. Canadian dollar falling? Talk to someone whose business is hurting or thriving because of this. And make it personality driven. Your audience will be the very people you are interviewing, and they will become your brand ambassadors: "Hey, check out the interview I did with Huddle today."
Your audience can be small but must be desirable in some manner. Can you get most of New Brunswick's business people reading and interacting with your site? This will attract advertisers and other potential customers if you can say yes to this.
Banner ads work only if there is volume in terms of eyeballs. A site with this narrow a focus needs to find other things to sell. If you build a desirable readership – business people generally have higher incomes than average – then there should be other ways of monetizing, like events and sponsorships.
THREE THINGS THE COMPANY COULD DO NOW
Consider a subscription model
Sure, Huddle is not enthusiastic about paywalls, but it may have an opportunity to build value in a metered paywall with monthly story limits.
Ask the people featured in the articles to become brand ambassadors to spread Huddle's good word.
Bring the audience together
Throw events that bring New Brunswick's business community together under the Huddle brand.
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Interviews have been edited and condensed.