We still don’t know the right scale for doing this sort of thing, and that scale may actually be shifting as more people sign up for cheap broadband and become comfortable with creating and not just consuming content. Backfence cofounder Mark Potts once speculated in a conversation that the right physical community size is under 50,000. We’ve had great debates about that where I work; one point of view says a local high school district can serve as a useful proxy for defining a natural community, but your mileage may vary.
People settle into community levels… think concentric circles. Maybe 150 friends in the inner circle. More like 2,000 in the neighborhood… the elementary school district. Maybe 50,000 is the next hop… the high school level. And so on. Capital wants to centralize and standardize across as many people as possible… think USAToday. People tend toward decentralization and diversity… think distinct neighborhoods or yore with their own corner stores, clubs, ethnic flavors, etc. Front Porch Forum is designed for the neighborhood level.
A successful community model and a successful business model are not the same thing. The tricky part is going to involve finding the intersection. Something like Front Porch Forum might have a great community model but never be able to make a significant profit, or vice versa. Or the right business model might involve delivery of a print component, something many Web-centric developers might overlook or avoid.
With 20% of our pilot city subscribing in our first half-year via word-of-mouth, I remain optimistic about FPF’s evolving business model. Time will tell!
Everybody underestimates how hard and how expensive it is to build a powerful brand at a geographic community level. If you went down the street in one of Backfence’s markets and knocked on doors, how many people would have a strong, clear, positive notion of what Backfence was all about and why they should use it? This is one place where incumbent, offline media may have a great advantage, although in many cases it can’t deliver the message to the targets of greatest opportunity (nonconsumers).