The business case for building Ducks Housing

Posted by Ryan Frank on February 5, 2013 at 10:25 a.m.

Our team in The Garage started brainstorming new projects about nine months ago.

The Emerald was in the middle of its Revolution from a traditional newspaper to a modern college media company.

When we announced our changes, we said we wanted to take on projects that combined technology and data to make college life better. Put another way, we wanted to build things that could help solve problems for students at the University of Oregon.

In evaluating projects, we prioritized ones that met all three parts of our mission: Training for students, service to our community and revenue to sustain our nonprofit company.

Like our professional peers, we also needed to create new ways to make money that support our newsgathering. In doing so, we needed to grow our digital revenue so we could reduce our dependence on print newspaper advertising. As countless reports have shown, newspapers in particular have had a difficult time gaining market share in digital advertising.

As we looked at our list of potential projects, one kept rising to the top: Housing.

Here’s why we started there:

It fit our mission

Training: Students in advertising, web design and marketing would team up to create a new product and see it through to its launch and operation. (The actual development was done by a professional, though, we're working on getting more students involved there, too.)

Service: It solved a problem for our community. (See below.)

Revenue: We figured the site would make money. Though, our initial ideas about how to do that got thrown out, and new ones created.

There’s a job to be done

Finding a place to live is a pain for college students. There are so many property managers, so many housing styles, so many neighborhoods. Students were eager for something more simple. And the problem applied to nearly every student on campus. We set out to do a job that students wanted accomplished, advice that Harvard business professor Clayton M. Christensen delivers in his study of the news business, “Breaking the News:”

“The basic idea is that people don’t go around looking for products to buy. Instead, they take life as it comes and when they encounter a problem, they look for a solution — and at that point, they’ll hire a product or service”

Ken Doctor has also written about this idea:

“What kinds of skills, knowledge and abilities do you have in your company, assets that can be used newly and differently? What kind of job needs to be one by someone who has the budget and has no go-to supplier…yet?”

It’s a big market

Other than tuition, housing is the biggest expense for the typical Oregon student. We did some quick math: Oregon has about 20,000 students who live off campus. If each of them paid $500 in rent per month for nine months, that meant the student housing market in Eugene is worth at least $90 million annually.

We had existing relationships

The Emerald already did business with dozens of property managers and real-estate related businesses through its five Housing Guide print publications each year. That helped us get meetings with property managers to learn how they would want the site to work.

It's a proven model

Our friends at the Arizona State Press, the North Carolina Daily Tar Heel and the UCLA Daily Bruin had already built successful paid housing search products.

Here's how we built it:

Office research

On Oct. 5, the day after we threw a big party on campus, we started our homework. We checked out competing services and our clients’ websites. We consulted with our peers at other college papers. We bounced ideas off students.

Field research

On Oct. 11, we started meeting with property managers. We typically showed them sites from other campuses and asked for their feedback. In most cases, the property managers were eager to be involved.

Site development

We wanted a site where students could do a simple search to find just what they wanted. The user experience had to be the first priority. I started off thinking we would build a basic site that offered profiles of apartment complexes. But the more meetings we had, the more complicated the concept became.

Through our client and student meetings in October and November, we learned we needed a much more dynamic site with listings by unit and a variety of search options. We also learned just how overwhelming the housing search is for students. So we expanded the housing guide section of the site and asked students to write it up.

From there, Ivar Vong, our professional developer, and Lauren Geschke, our web designer, did the difficult work of sorting and filtering the feedback into the site development. I'll let them share the details in some posts to come later this week.

Pricing

In November, we had enough information to start thinking about what to charge for the listings and work up sales fliers. We considered a lot of options and ended up with three packages (small, medium and large) based on the size of the property company. The companies got a discount for entering all their own data.

By Dec. 21, advertising director Brittney Reynolds and our student advertising reps met their goal to get the first round of contracts signed.

Launch

That left us about six weeks to get all the data entered, the site development finalized and the marketing materials polished.

Our advertising reps worked with their clients to get the listings entered. Ivar stepped in to sort through technical problems. Along the way, our clients called with questions or ideas for new features. In almost every case, they presented a new challenge that we hadn't anticipated. We went back to make more tweaks.

On Jan. 28, we started our print ad campaign and put up a marketing web page where people could enter an email address to reserve an account.

On Feb. 4, Ducks Housing went live.

Next steps

We'll spend the next few weeks keeping a careful watch on the site's operation and analytics. We'll make some tweaks and add features.

This summer, we'll explore taking the concept of Ducks Housing to other campuses through license agreements with other college newspapers.


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