How getting Neighbourly saved Stuff from Facebook

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New Zealand-based publisher Stuff is connecting with online users at a new level following its full acquisition of social media platform Neighbourly.

The Fairfax Media unit upped its stake in Neighbourly from the initial 22.5 per cent it bought in what was then a young start-up in 2014, to 100 per cent late last year.

Chief executive Sinead Boucher says that just as news from all over the country helped grow Stuff, free neighbourhood social platform Neighbourly has put them into every single community like never before.

In an INMA post, she says owning the biggest national digital platform as well as the leading local social network gives Stuff two unique competitive advantages: "Adopting a social media platform into its portfolio allowed Stuff to connect with readers on a local level."

These days Stuff is not just the name of what has become New Zealand's largest website - with a unique monthly domestic audience of up to 2.2 million - but of the former Fairfax Media NZ business. "Only the international giants of Google, Facebook, YouTube and Microsoft command a larger digital audience here," says Boucher.
In addition to its digital sites, Stuff has more than 60 newspapers, and as it has grappled with the local impact of worldwide trends related to declining print audiences and advertising, "we've actively sought diversified revenue streams and new ways to help Kiwis connect.

"Neighbourly - which is similar to - is a prime example of this strategy."

Stuff and Neighbourly have become the "twin suns" in the portfolio: "Stuff's scale allows us to market and grow new businesses quickly and at a lower cost than any incumbents. In turn, the success of these businesses continues to feed the core of what we do - producing quality journalism and connecting with communities across New Zealand," she says.
Boucher says that Stuff decided that pursuing a content subscription business model was not its best option, and instead has focussed on leveraging off the mass scale and trust formed with New Zealanders to diversify into new businesses. "And with that, to grow off our own advertising assets."

The goal is to create a sustainable business that will continue to fund New Zealand journalism now and into the future as well as build value and growth in an increasingly digital business.
Neighbourly has grown from 62,000 members in 2014, to more than 560,000 members, and is the country's third most-used social media site, according to Nielsen Online Ratings (March 2018).

"We always knew our advertising products worked. Now we understand exactly how well they work and that we can use them to launch new businesses and drive new revenue streams," she says.

"While this may seem a risky move for a traditional publisher, acquiring a social network was a fundamental turning point on our path to becoming a confident and energetic digital business. It gave us the chance to experiment with a second space for local news but, most importantly, it boosted our strategy of acquiring registered members and enabled us to learn lessons from the agile, fail-fast start-up culture.
"Neighbourly has been profitable for a couple of years and continues to expand its scale and brand. Its undeniable success has shown us the value of developing new ways to support and fund the journalism that remains at the core of our business. It has given us the assurance and nerve to venture into other categories outside of our core. In fact, in the past 18 months we have launched four new businesses in electricity, fibre Internet, movie streaming, and health insurance.
"Editorially, Neighbourly and the Stuff news platform complement each other. Local stories can get lost among the national and international coverage on Stuff. On Neighbourly, they can arrive in the news feeds of interested residents and spark meaningful conversations. Broadly, we tell our reporters that Stuff is for content and Neighbourly is for community - it's a place to build a story, or build on a story."

She says that in recent months, "we've come to appreciate Neighbourly all over again, as publishers worldwide seek to disentangle themselves from the quagmire that is Facebook. Operating our own social network gives us a unique homegrown advantage."

She says Stuff didn't build its house on Zuckerberg's land - "we're lucky to have a large and loyal direct audience, and never pursued a full-blown content distribution strategy.

"But like all publishers, we've still witnessed a precipitous drop in referrals from Facebook in the last year.
"Neighbourly doesn't offer quite the same size audience as Facebook. However, we're seeing clear dividends from our investment in building communities where residents want to engage with our journalists. Stuff's newsrooms around New Zealand are now shifting much of their energy from Facebook and Twitter to focus on fostering engaged audiences on Neighbourly. That investment offers long-term payback in stark contrast to the agonising uncertainty of dancing as Facebook's marionettes.
"Neighbourly is also vital as we reevaluate how local print journalism fits into our business model. In February this year, we announced we'd be closing or selling 28 of our small, free, community or rural titles. While necessary, it's a challenging and sometimes painful process. While we are closing some print titles, we are retaining journalists to still cover these communities; Neighbourly will be instrumental in how we maintain community journalism."

But she says the recipe for journalism on Neighbourly is not yet settled: "We don't know of any other media companies in the world that have adopted a social network, which means our staff are breaking new ground as they work out how best to develop this platform to serve the needs of New Zealanders in their communities. Our reporters, editors, sales people, and developers all need to experiment to learn what users want in this arena and respond accordingly.
"Neighbourly is designed to connect neighbours on local issues. Journalists play a part by sharing news and asking members to contribute their thoughts. We can post as individuals or as brands, directly into residents' feeds in targeted suburbs and towns.

Our reporters are moving beyond simply posting relevant stories on the platform to using Neighbourly as a tool to involve readers in the news-gathering process - crowdsourcing, polling, and reflecting residents' concerns. On the flipside, Neighbourly has also been integrated into the larger Stuff home page, allowing us to serve up a very local news feed personalised to each user's location.

"Ultimately, this feeds back into Stuff's success as a national platform, allowing us to break more great stories that Kiwis care about. Together, the national and local platforms we call the twin suns in Stuff's solar system are helping us build a bright future as a digital company."

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