The appeal of a start-up company with the backing of an established credible organisation has proven to be a successful recipe so far for The Press Democrat in Santa Rosa, California.

In late 2011, the Northern California media company launched a new in-house agency devoted to digital services and marketing. We intended to offer a comprehensive suite of offerings apart from traditional print and digital media solutions.

This included custom Web and mobile site development, search engine optimisation, pay-per-click campaigns, social media, reputation management, and e-mail marketing.

The newspaper had long been a leader in digital advertising, both when it was a member of newspaper chains owned by The New York Times Company and as a member of the Halifax Media Group. In November 2012, local investors bought the Santa Rosa newspaper along with two “nearly weekly” newspapers and all affiliated Web sites.

The sale came exactly one year after the launch of PD Media Lab, an innovative approach to digital services. 

Just one hour north of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, Santa Rosa is a hotbed for tech companies, digital start-ups, and creative brainpower. Against this backdrop, The Press Democrat’s leadership created a stand-alone digital agency. This called for an investment in staff resources, new skills, and ambitious goals.

Several critical strategic decisions helped the new venture get off to a strong start, with nearly 70 local businesses — ranging from grocery store chains and banks to restaurants and medical offices — signing on in the first year. We have found success for several reasons, I think:

1. The new lab took over a part of the newspaper’s office building in a dramatic way. Building out a unique, showroom-like physical space appealed to clients and represented a focus on innovation, technology, and hands-on work.

2. Lab employees, who are experts in various tech fields, were hired to do all work locally.  In the services arena, there is a reliance on outsourcing, Internet-based solutions, and other ways to get work done cheaper to preserve profit margins. 

The PD Media Lab approach is to employ qualified local talent and do as much of the creative and technical work within the agency as possible. Clients can be confident that they have easy access to on-site local support.

3. The lab’s goal is to integrate its services with marketing. Too often, the Web sites of businesses don’t reflect their updated promotions, specials, and sales. They are static Web pages, almost brochure-like, that don’t change with seasons, with businesses, or with trends. 

As our media lab clients advertise and go about their ongoing marketing campaigns, the lab staff makes sure that their Web and mobile sites are in sync with the rest of the businesses’ collateral and marketing.

4. Pricing truly covers both human and technical costs and ensures that clients are serious about their investment. There are plenty of low-cost options for creating Web sites and providing digital services. Many of these are, indeed, less expensive, but they don’t offer quality service, accountability or ongoing innovation and improvement. 

The media lab’s pricing model, built around long-term contracts rather than one-time spends, proves the value of customer service and newspaper-advertiser relationships.

5. The media lab is a data-centric operation. Everything is tracked, which allows lab staff and sales representatives to study client conversion opportunities and use analytics as a lever for client improvements. Ongoing tracking of what works (and what doesn’t) provides key incentives to add more digital services, fine-tune existing offerings, and target increased advertising that will complement the purchased digital services.

As the media lab continues into its second year, even more businesses are signing up, both to increase their level of digital services and to add to their traditional advertising plans to better promote those services. PD Media Lab, a significant investment by the newspaper’s owners, has proven an essential resource for local businesses as well.