Content’s the thing problem with hyperlocal

local media's love affair with 'hyperlocal' sectionsEveryblock, the MSNBC hyperlocal venture, relaunched this week with a new design. Mashable quoted EveryBlock founder Adrian Holovaty as saying the mission is to increase interaction between neighbors. While I like the premise, the reality is that it’s likely a long way off (and do we really want to know our neighbors that way?).

“The web doesn’t yet offer an easy and effective way for people to post messages to their neighbors,” Holovaty explains. “Other social media tools are focused on people you already know ‐ professional colleagues, friends, family. But how many people become Facebook friends with their neighbors?” he asks, noting that EveryBlock is in a great position to do so because it “already has an audience of people who are using [the] service to follow news in very specific geographic areas.”

Everyblock offers hyperlocal news aggregated from sources “nearby” the users who provide their addresses or zipcodes as a way of joining the site. In addition to the neighborhood-specific news, business reviews, crime reports and real estate listings the site delivered previously, a slew of new features encourages users to share and discuss local news, meet one another and coordinate neighborhood activities, according to Mashable.

Everyblock

Holvatny, who’s been at this hyperlocal thing for quite awhile, told Mathew Ingram that he’s changed his mind about the concept over the years.

It may be kind of obtuse, but I have stopped believing that “You’re more informed” is an end. It’s a means to a different end, if that makes any sense. There’s probably a bigger lesson in here somewhere for journalism.

Adrian is a super smart guy, but my first question upon reading all this is do I really want to know my neighbors like that? I’m not so sure, although I might be interested in more gossipy stuff like bankruptcies, divorces, and other forms of public information. The problem here, like most “hyperlocal” plays, is that the intimacy of up-close relationships gets lost in the bigness of what’s being offered. I agree with Dave Winer that local character is what makes local (or hyperlocal) media work. There’s not much character in a one-size-fits-all aggregator community, regardless of its intentions to improve the ‘hood.

This is the major reason why I’m not a big proponent of this latest craze for local media companies — at least so far. I’m all for the energy and effort, because nobody really knows the future of content, myself included, and the truth is there may be a pretty cool market for it downstream. However, the efforts I’ve seen to date — with the possible exception of Seattle, where neighborhood news sites flourish — produce lots more sizzle than they do steak. And steak is the problem, because in most places, there’s precious little content to drive the business model. And rather that pursue it from the bottom up, companies in search of big dollars try to do it from the top down.

Hyperlocal carries a potentially compelling value proposition for advertisers. Think about it. If I want to reach potential customers in a specific zipcode, then content from that zipcode presumes an accompanying audience from that zipcode, so geographical targeting becomes possible. There are two factors that impact this, however. The first is a biggie: can you present content that is honestly relevant for people in that zipcode (that they can’t get elsewhere)? Secondly, technology easily allows the identification of individual users from that zipcode regardless of the content on the page, so why is it necessary to create “hyperlocal” content pages in the first place?

The answer is simple. Media companies like hyperlocal today for two reasons. One, they understand how to make money with content, and, two, it’s an incredibly easy sell today for legacy media account executives. Most sales people don’t understand the technology of targeting browsers, and they don’t feel a need to learn it, as long as they have something like this. You won’t hear many companies talking about the rich content experience that their hyperlocal efforts are bringing to the community, but you’ll hear lots about all the new advertisers they’re getting. In the end, that lack of content is what will ultimately determine the viability of hyperlocal, because the advertisers will figure it out.

So “hyperlocal” is more of an immediate revenue solution than it is a strategic solution for media disruption, and this is why I can’t fully get behind it. The pursuit of quarterly revenue goals is fine, as long as it doesn’t take energy and resources from the pursuit of media reinvention. That is a vastly more important goal. When local media companies wave hyperlocal in front of advertisers, they’re presenting an old model in new clothing. It may satisfy a need to see immediate financial results, but let’s not be fooled into thinking we’re really doing something that will help in the overall disruption of media.

Comments

  1. I like the line: “when local media companies wave hyperlocal in front of advertisers, they’re presenting an old model in new clothing” – that’s true – but how about if it’s a new company or start up presenting a new model? Not just to advertisers – but local business owners too.

    That’s what we’re doing at Media Street for the roads we run in London.

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