Michigan-Based Site Boocoo.com Thinks It’s Found a Way to Compete with Craigslist and eBay…and Save Your Local Newspaper
Since Monday, if you’ve paid close attention, you might have noticed a goofy-sounding phrase in your Boston Herald or San Diego Union-Tribune: “Boocoo Auctions.” It comes from a Royal Oak, MI, based company called Ranger Data Technologies and is part of an ambitious plan to take lost advertising revenue back from Craigslist and eBay.
But, as President and COO Tony Marsella puts it, this is no cocktail-napkin dot-com idea. It comes from seasoned veterans of the newspaper industry. The CEO, George Willard Sr., has 41 years in the industry, from his days as a pressman in the early ’60s to his founding of the Mirror chain of Detroit suburban weeklies in the ’90s. His son, George Willard Jr., senior vice president of operations, has worked in newspapers for 14 years, and Marsella is a 30-year veteran of newspaper classified ad sales.
“So, this isn’t a website that was created by a bunch of software guys in a garage to try and then sell it to the newspaper business,” Marsella says.
“One of the reasons that we were able to amass this network of media companies is the fact that we all have a real solid understanding of what the newspaper business is, where it is, and what we thought, and continue to think, are solutions to help newspapers drive more revenue.”
The “network” so far is more than 280 newspapers or broadcast outlets that have licensed more than 6,000 Zip codes from Ranger Data, or about 20 percent of the nation’s nearly 30,000 Zip codes. The media sites buy the exclusive rights to Boocoo auction customers in those Zip codes. The auctions are promoted in the physical newspaper, but the transactions, themselves, happen online. Transactional revenue from every consumer in that Zip code who purchases an item or service is split between Ranger Data and the newspaper.
Boocoo.com had a soft launch on May 31 with just families, friends, and employees of participating newspapers. Only they could place items up for bid. The service launched nationwide on Monday. Among Boocoo’s partners are the Cox Newspaper chain—which includes the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Palm Beach Post, and a number of dailies in Ohio—the San Diego Union-Tribune, Boston Herald, Chicago Sun-Times, and others.
This long reach into local markets, for starters, is why Boocoo believes it has an edge over the established auction and classified ad sites. As Marsella says, it’s like having 280 branch offices right out of the gate. Despite perceptions to the contrary, Marsella says, newspapers are not dead. “They are still extremely powerful, especially in local markets,” he says. “The one thing that newspapers do, extremely well, better than anyone, is promote in local marketplaces. And that’s a key to the system that we’ve put together.”
In case you don’t know the history of the newspaper business, here it is in a few sentences. Newspapers, from their inception, have risen and fallen primarily according revenue generated by ads or circulation. Classified ad revenues hit their high-water mark in 2000 at $19 billion nationally, according to Marsella. By 2009, that number had shrunk to $6.2 billion, as classified ad buyers defected to free services like Craigslist or to targeted online ad services.
“So, rather than continue to try to revive classified advertising as such, we thought that it was high time that the newspaper industry put its muscle back into the business, and this time go after actual transactional revenue,” Marsella says.
The company’s reach into hyperlocal newspaper markets gives it an advantage over large online auction sites like eBay, he believes. Being promoted by the “longstanding, credible, trustworthy” local media, Marsella says, gives Boocoo easier access to local advertisers like service providers. “The folks that do housepainting, and carpetlaying, and landscaping, and carpentry work, and so forth,” he says, “those are the ones that always appear in the newspaper pages’ service directory.”
With a lot of people out of work these days, there are a great many independent contractors looking to sell their services. A homeowner, for example, can use Boocoo to put out a request for proposals on a house-painting job, so that contractors can bid on it. Marsella says that eBay just does not have the kind of local reach that Boocoo does.
But what about Craigslist? How do you compete with free?
For the answer to that one, Marsella suggests you Google “Craigslist complaints” and see what comes up.
“I like to put it this way: You could leave your 14-year-old daughter in a room on the newspaper website and the Boocoo website and leave for two hours and have nothing to be afraid of,” Marsella says. “Can you leave them in the room with Craigslist and have nothing to be afraid of?”
CEO Willard says that he’s realistic about the prospects of catching up with the big guys.
“If we do 1 percent of what eBay does this year, we’ll consider that a success,” Willard says.
He is quite optimistic, though, that Boocoo will succeed in bringing some revenue back to his old profession. “Newspapers,” Willard says, “are what I know.”