Thursday, August 2, 2007

Recovering Journalist: Backfence: Lessons Learned

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Recovering Journalist: Backfence: Lessons Learned

Lessons from the failure of a user-generated hyperlocal network, thanks to its founder, Mark Potts. His advice:
  • "Engage the community. This may be the single most critical element. It's not about technology ... it's not about whizbang Web 2.0 features. It's about bringing community members together to share what they know..."
  • A top-down, "if you build it, they will come" strategy absolutely does not work, and that's not what Backfence did... Backfence employed a group of talented journalists and community representatives who sought out and interacted constantly with members of each of our communities to encourage them to participate. Over time, in our more mature communities, this really bore fruit. You have to get a critical mass of community participation and eyeballs coming to the site. You have to get the community involved. There’s no substitute for that.
  • Hyperlocal content is really mundane. We heard this criticism all the time. You bet it is—if you're an outsider looking in. To members of the community who actually live with these local issues, it's vitally important. It's precisely that mundane content, and the conversations around it, that brings life to hyperlocal sites.
  • Trust the audience. We were asked all the we avoided having Backfence become a nasty free-for-all. There were many answers... But most of all, we trusted the audience to do the right thing—and invariably it did. All of that is why we can boast that we very, very rarely had to police Backfence by deleting content. ... The audience took responsibility for what went on at each local Backfence site ...
  • Leverage social networking. The rise of MySpace, Flickr, YouTube and the commercial version of Facebook—virtually all of which have happened since Backfence launched more than two years ago—demonstrates the power of social media. Local communities are social beehives anyway. Why not take advantage of existing local connections and the virality and marketing reach of social tools such as member profiles, "friending" tools, widgets and the ability of members to exchange messages with each other? This was an element we unfortunately were unable to get off the drawing board at Backfence, because of business issues and other priorities.
  • There is most certainly a robust hyperlocal advertising business. Indeed, local advertisers are eager for new online advertising vehicles. I've seen it suggested repeatedly that Backfence failed because it couldn't sell advertising to local merchants. Not true. In fact, we sold ads to more than 400 advertisers, more than any other similarly sized hyperlocal effort that I'm aware of. It was clear that we had staked out an affordable and lucrative corner of the local ad market. Ads in local newspapers—even community weeklies—are too expensive for many small local businesses. Alternatives like the Yellow Pages, Val-Pak-style coupon flyers and local radio are similarly pricey. And most small businesses don't know from AdSense. That presents a ripe target for a talented, hard-working ad sales team concentrating on offering low-cost ads to local businesses who want to reach members of their communities through hyperlocal sites. It's a rich, untapped marketplace.
  • If there's anything I've learned from Backfence, it's that the power and potential of local communities still is waiting to be tapped.
Thanks, Mark!

Thursday August 2, 2007 - 01:25pm (EDT)