10/31/2012 05:50 pm ET Updated Dec 31, 2012

Local Publisher Engages and Monetizes Across Platforms

A regional newspaper publisher in the UK is using reader photo contests to engage its audience and attract local sponsors across its print and digital outputs.

The region of Suffolk in England is a beautiful place. Its striking golden wheat fields, idyllic coastal scenes, towering cathedrals, and rolling seas of purple heather are the stuff of desktop wallpapers that transport you away from the daily grind.

So when two Archant newspapers in Suffolk invited readers to share their shots of its beauty, unsurprisingly, it made for an easy case of audience engagement. What's more, the early involvement of the publisher's marketing team ensured a thoroughly clickable online gallery was also a revenue generator, by partnering with public services agency Amey to sponsor this engagement in the form of a contest. This a great case of editorial and commercial units collaborating to make reader participation pay.

Natalie Hoodless (@noodles13), Archant Suffolk's Digital Publisher, shared some lessons from this initiative and her experience heading up reader engagement for the past 6 months on Archant Suffolk's iWitness24 platform. iWitness24 is a community site devoted to the readers of Archant papers across the UK, where they are invited to share their photos, videos, and stories with their local papers and other readers. Hoodless told me that of late, the East Anglian Daily Times and the Ipswich Star (Archant's Suffolk papers) have been publishing two to three reader photo spreads per week in print and online from iWitness24 contributors. (full disclosure: Archant is part of a group of European news outlets using Citizenside's community-news platform, the Reporter Kit. I do business development at Citizenside.)

To appreciate the engagement and monetization Archant has acheived, it helps to understand that this initiative, and a subsequent sponsored contest called Star Pets, both function across multiple platforms.
(disclaimer: if you click that pets link, you're likely to lose a good half hour of your day)

The anatomy of a cross-platform photo contest

Teasers in the newspapers announcing the contest entice the traditional print audiences to participate for prizes.

Next, emails are sent to registered members of the papers' community site, with strong calls to action and links directly to the upload page.

Social Media
Once a few contributions come in, a social media campaign reaches out to the connected online readers. Hoodless has found that using reader entries in tweets to ask for similar content was an effective way to build out the contest, as it lead readers to think "I can do a better picture than that!".

iWitness24 (online and mobile)
The social links all point to a contest page on iWitness24, which combines a gallery of all entries, rules of the contest, and of course a big upload button to encourage more participation. Android and iPhone apps for iWitness24 also allowed for reader participation on the go in the form of votes, comments, and uploads.

Main Site
Selections of top entries are then gathered on the main newspaper websites to broaden participation even further, and encourage readers to vote for their favorite photos using a premium SMS service that costs an extra £0.50 per vote (on top of network charges).

Print, again
For the Star Pets contest Archant planned for a final tie-in with print: "All submitted photographs will be printed in a special supplement to be published by the Star later in the year."

Who benefits?

As with any photo contest, there will be a winner or winners who feel the biggest benefit from participating. But due to the open and cross-platform nature of these contest, every participant benefits from a chance to share their pride about their town or their pet. The photos submitted don't hide in an editor's email inbox, they are displayed in SEO-friendly glory alongside other similar photos, and give interested readers a chance to discover, appreciate, and discuss in a community space.

In fact, when I asked Hoodless if anything surprised her about the experience so far, she mentioned the comments. "They're really supportive comments," she said, "where users talk about technique and lighting and lenses. It's a real community."

When Hoodless first began working with iWitness24, she was hoping it would be primarily useful for spot news coming in from users of the mobile app. What she realised was that as the 3G coverage was dire in the area, much more content was coming in in the form of scenic and wildlife photography.

So, when the marketing department began discussing a sponsored contest, Hoodless saw the clear fit with the iWitness24 platform. It was already designed for photo sharing with an established member community, and instead of dealing with a mess of emails, editors could save time as "the captions online go straight to the paper".

When it comes to sponsors, Hoodless was candid about the advantages of a platform like iWitness24.

The beauty of iWitness24 is it's idiot proof [for advertisers]. It's a great platform to advertise on because we get so many views and it's a great way to target an audience of animal lovers and photography.

If you look at the above anatomy list, sponsors for these contests are getting branding in print teasers and supplements, contest pages and online galleries, and via email and social media campaigns. That's considerable reach to a wide range of readers.

Not editorially relevant, right?

When considering audience engagement for news organizations, it is not uncommon for those of an editorial persuasion to speak dismissively of pet photos and sunset shots. It it true that this content is perhaps not as valuable from a news point of view as the Hudson plane crash photos, or eyewitness snaps from the London Riots. However, in order to quickly receive, vet, and distribute that breaking news content sent from readers, news organizations need to have the correct infrastructure and processes in place. Photo contests require very similar processes and technology.

Running photo contests is like practice for that unforeseeable event for readers too. By getting the audience used to participating with an easy contest topic, readers will be better prepared when news does unfold in front of them, with the instinct and the know-how to quickly upload straight to the newsroom. It's a way of hooking readers for lasting, valuable engagement.