SALT LAKE CITY — As president and CEO of Deseret Digital Media, Chris Lee often fields questions about KSL.com.
“Whenever people find out we did 350 million page views (in a) month, they want to know how in the world that is possible,” said Lee, seated in his fifth-floor Triad Center office. “The original concept of KSL.com was not to just repurpose TV or radio news and put it on a website, but to build a community platform.”
In most markets, Craigslist draws the most Internet traffic for classified advertisements. One exception is Salt Lake City, where KSL.com is king.
Lee has been asked if that fact can be attributed to KSL’s owner, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“I say no," Lee said. "This community is not just Mormons. It serves people of all religious backgrounds. What we did is build a community platform that reflects the values of the community it serves.”
Since its launch in the late 1990s, KSL.com has worked to create a safe online community marketplace, keeping its thrift deals and job listings free of scammers and personal ads. It started with a modest $900 investment and, despite some skepticism, has grown into a multimillion-dollar business. In recent years, KSL.com has invested significant resources and partnered with law enforcement to ensure each transaction is secure.
“It’s important in a situation like this that we are providing a safe environment where people feel like we are protecting community standards and values," Lee said.
Russell Banz, Deseret Digital Media’s vice president of commerce, summarized the history of KSL Classifieds with a quote from Mahatma Gandhi: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win."
“Nobody really fought us, per se, but there is a lot of truth in the ‘ignoring’ and ‘laughing,’" Banz said. "It’s the nature of any type of innovation. I don’t know how serious anybody took us from the get-go.”
Banz joined KSL in 1996 and assisted in developing and launching KSL.com a few years later. Banz, along with web developers Andrew Bunker, Devin Bunker, Steve Bergen and others, knew the website would feature news but thought it needed something more. They developed a vision, based on trends and research, for creating a resource and destination for a large online community. Before anyone had even heard of Craigslist, the KSL.com team wanted free classified advertising to play a key role.
“How can we really serve our community? This was the idea that came to mind, a free version of classifieds,” Banz said. “It was a new concept.”
To create KSL Classifieds, the team needed $900 for software. The sum was eventually scraped together despite concerns from management about a return on investment. Some suggested charging amounts as low as $3, but Banz and others fought it off.
According to Banz, one executive asked, “How are you ever going to make money on something that’s free?"
“There were some who said, ‘We’ll never get our money back on this,’ but they were kind enough to support us anyway," Banz said. "We believed that if we could amass or aggregate an audience, there would be ample monetization opportunities down the road.”
Drawing upon KSL’s on-air broadcasting talent and reputation as a trusted news source, KSL.com was launched in early 2000. As the ads rolled in, the biggest concern was making the site safe and scam-free.
Devin Bunker created tools to help monitor, review and ensure the legitimacy of ads. Eventually, developers created their own software to accommodate the site. The team made it a priority to post tips and information to warn visitors of scams.
“We wanted to honor the KSL radio and TV brand in the process of creating a trusted marketplace. We needed to reflect the principles, values and standards of our ownership, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” Banz said. “Trust was something that I would say was very important from the beginning. If this is the community’s website, it has to be trusted.”
In a community where people take pride in getting a good deal, KSL Classifieds was a hit and public support soared. Banz, who as a child had a habit of reading a full newspaper — classifieds included — every morning, chuckled as the team recalled seeing people post everything from goats to used cars and tractor parts.
Internal support grew as well. While not everyone may have grasped the vision at first, Banz and others were grateful for the trust and support that allowed them to take that $900 investment and transform it into a multimillion-dollar business with 350 million page views a month.
“I don’t think anybody knew it would become the future of our company,” Banz said. “We didn’t doubt for one second. We could see this turning into what it has become.”
There are approximately 250,000 ads on KSL Classifieds at any one time, including job listings, cars, homes, furniture, animals and other interesting items.
Last February, one woman’s effort to sell her diamond wedding ring through KSL Classifieds resulted in law enforcement uncovering an international PayPal scam.
The cybertheft ring was discovered through KSL.com’s four pillars of family consumer safety, said Eric Bright, vice president of e-commerce for Deseret Digital Media.
“Fraud management is a big key for us here,” he said.
Fraud software programmed to flag scams is the first pillar of defense.
“We have spent a significant amount of time and money trying to create a safe environment,” Bright said. “We have fraud management tools to identify individuals who are coming on to the site or working through the site."
Second, KSL Classifieds employs two fraud analysts to cover the website around the clock, monitoring each post, the location of the post, a user’s frequency and the pattern in pricing, Bright said.
“It allows us to quickly flag anything that looks suspicious,” Bright said.
Third, KSL.com is one of only a few classified marketplaces that works with law enforcement on a regular basis.
“We have a relationship with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and all local authorities,” Bright said. “They know that all they have to do is subpoena us for an information request, and we will send them information about any ad or account they ask about.”
Community is the fourth pillar. When customers get cheated or discover a scam, they can report it on KSL.com.
The next challenge is protecting people once they have given out a phone number or email address, Bright said.
“Once it’s out of KSL’s hands, we can’t protect them," Bright said. "We are working on solutions to create a safe messaging environment so people can communicate back and forth with legitimate buyers and sellers. That’s on our radar.
“Our mission is different than most other classified or market sites. For sure, we want to make money, but our goal is to create a trusted marketplace for the state that aligns well with all the other missions within the organization. But you can’t create a trusted marketplace if your primary goal is profit motive. There has to be a balance. We were fortunate to build a great audience here in Utah over the past 15 years. Now we just need to make sure we keep that thriving marketplace safe.”
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