I thought it would be helpful to discuss some of what we learned from Backfence–and why I’m still very optimistic that a similar model can and will succeed. Over the past couple of years, we’ve seen the appearance of a large number of different variations and models for creating and operating user-generated, citizens’ media or hyperlocal sites. Like Backfence, all of these nascent efforts are fascinating laboratories—and also like Backfence, none has yet proven to be a successful, sustainable long-term business model. So it’s difficult at this juncture to say what’s “right” and what’s “wrong.” But based on the Backfence experience, here are are a few things I believe are essential for success of a user-generated hyperlocal site:
Engage the community. This may be the single most critical element. It’s not about technology, it’s not about journalism, it’s not about whizbang Web 2.0 features. It’s about bringing community members together to share what they know about what’s going on around town. A top-down, “if you build it, they will come” strategy absolutely does not work.
It’s not journalism—it’s a conversation.
Hyperlocal content is really mundane.
Trust the audience.
Focus on strong, well-defined communities… It’s possible to argue, in fact, that a hyperlocal site ideally should operate at the neighborhood level—that even a town is too big.
Leverage social networking.
There is most certainly a robust hyperlocal advertising business.
Keep costs down.
Partner with a media company or some other distribution source.
Hyperlocal is really hard.
The full piece is certainly worth a look. Almost all the points made here jibe with what we’ve seen with Front Porch Forum since our beta launch last fall, and since our initial flagship neighborhood forum got underway in 2000. Some additional points from Mark…
[Content] varied from community to community—McLean was heavy on youth sports; Reston had a lot of discussions about local politics. These reflected the interests in those towns.
Some of our best content was long, back-and-forth discussions about local issues, where the meat was in the discussions. We also had a number of stories from the community that were picked up a few days later by local media.
We had a lot of posting of announcements and press releases by local organizations, which generally didn’t foment much discussion, but often received a lot of page views as the community checked to see what was going on around town.
Least expected: The success of our user-generated event calendar, in all communities. It was deep, it was comprehensive, and it was entirely user-contributed.