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How Stuff harnessed a homegrown social network to reach local audiences

By Sinead Boucher


Wellington, New Zealand


News from every corner of the country helped Stuff grow into New Zealand’s biggest Web site. Now, with Neighbourly — a locally founded, private, and free neighbourhood social platform — we’re in every single community like never before.

As we pursue our mission of helping New Zealanders (or Kiwis, as we call ourselves in this corner of the world) connect and thrive in their communities, 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.
Adopting a social media platform into its portfolio allowed Stuff to connect with readers on a local level.

Stuff is not just New Zealand’s largest news site; it’s the largest New Zealand Web site, period. It has a unique monthly domestic audience of up to 2.2 million, according to Nielsen Online Ratings, September 2017. That is in a country of fewer than 5 million people. Only the international giants of Google, Facebook, YouTube, and Microsoft command a larger digital audience here.

Stuff (the company formerly known as Fairfax Media NZ and now renamed after our flagship digital news platform) has historically held a stable of national, metropolitan, provincial, and community mastheads spanning the length of New Zealand.

In addition to our digital sites, we have more than 60 newspapers. But as we’ve 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.

We refer to Stuff and Neighbourly as the twin suns in our portfolio, of which everything else orbits around. 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.

In a country as small as ours, with a cap on population and a lively, publicly funded, and private national media scene, we decided pursuing a content subscription business model was probably not our best option. Instead, we have pursued a strategy focused on leveraging off the mass scale and trust we have formed with New Zealanders to diversify into new businesses. And with that, we could 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 is the most mature business in our non-publishing portfolio. In late 2014, we bought a 22.5% stake in the young start-up and, as of late 2017, we had acquired 100% of the business. Neighbourly’s key point of difference from other social platforms is that all members have their addresses verified and use their real names. No need to worry about Russian bots invading your suburb on Neighbourly.

With 62,000 members in 2014, Neighbourly featured local services and events; buy, sell, and exchange listings; public notices; and healthy community conversation. Residents interacted with their neighbours as well as with local businesses, community groups, schools, and councils.

It has grown rapidly, overtaking Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn. It now sits behind Facebook and Pinterest as New Zealand’s third most-used social media site, according to Nielsen Online Ratings, March 2018. Now boasting more than 560,000 members, Neighbourly has been built on the same media assets we traditionally sell to our advertising clients.

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.

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 amongst 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.

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. Stuff didn’t build its house on Zuckerberg’s land — we’re lucky to have a large and loyal direct audience — and we 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 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.

About Sinead Boucher

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