Media 2.0 101: We’re all hyperlocal media

We're all hyperlocal mediaThere’s been a lot of noise in the past 18 months about the concept of big local media companies creating neighborhood or “community” sites or sections in order to offer ad inventory that is geographically-targeted. In some cases, the content comes from aggregating existing sources, while in others it comes from volunteers or paid people who write about news in their areas. The results have been, at best, hit or miss, and it really depends on your view of what determines “success.”

I have never fully recommended this concept, because I think to chase this path is to distract our attention from pursuing what really matters. It certainly works in some places (especially Fisher’s Seattle concept at komonews.com or Media General’s Tampa community), but the term “hyperlocal” is being tossed around today like some simple plug-and-play application. It’s not, but that hasn’t stopped more and more local news executives from thinking it’s the Holy Grail — not because it really is, but because their competitors are doing it, and that’s what makes it right.

To be sure, hyperlocal news is a new reality. It is, however, in its infancy and many, many people are currently writing the book on how to be a neighborhood news organization. The rules are very different, because, well, it’s hyperlocal. You can’t pretend to be the New York Times when writing about your neighbors. I love, for example, what the Flathead Beacon in Kalispell, Montana does with its police blotter. It nails what interests people at the neighborhood level without embarrassing anybody — gossipy kinds of one-liners delivered with a factual tone that often comes off as downright humorous.

Flathead County Sheriff’s and Kalispell Police Reports

Family Problems

Monday 6/13

8:58 a.m. An Evergreen woman has a theory involving her ex-boyfriend and her missing dirt bike.

10:44 a.m. A resident on Highway 35 in Kalispell complained that their drunken neighbor “flipped out” on a dump truck driver and stole his keys.

11:09 a.m. A drunken Kalispell man called in and claimed he was naked and diabetic. He said his fiancé, also intoxicated, was refusing to give him insulin.

12:25 p.m. A man called from Arizona to report that the caretaker of his condo in Bigfork has been letting family members live at the residence.

12:39 p.m. Someone on First Avenue West reported receiving a box containing thousands of dollars in fraudulent checks.

1:22 p.m. The driver of a maroon truck was seen driving northbound in the southbound lane of Highway 93 North.

2:00 p.m. A woman on Cynthia Road complained that people were messing around with the tent she has set up in her yard.

2:13 p.m. A Columbia Falls woman reported that her family won’t stop calling her.

3:59 p.m. A storage shed on Killdeer Lane was broken into. Stolen items included tire chains for a tractor and tools.

7:06 p.m. Someone was suspicious that the driver of a pickup doing donuts in the “mud lot” near the mall was intoxicated.

8:24 p.m. A Kalispell woman complained that she has been getting “text bombed” for the past few months.

8:58 p.m. The owner of a business in Hungry Horse reported that cardboard figures had been torn off his building, flowers were damaged and beer cans were strewn about the property.

10:39 p.m. A man claiming to be a patient attempted to have a lewd conversation with a nurse.

2:24 a.m. Many drunken men fought over a sign at a bar near Columbia Falls.

The point is that the idea is being innovated today, from the bottom-up. Media companies are top-down driven, and we’re a long way away from quality hyperlocal content throughout the media world. However, that hasn’t stopped media companies from jumping aboard today.

Why would anybody pursue this? Because it’s an easy sell for media account executives. Live by the CPM, die by the CPM. It’s a reach/frequency play, which is what media companies know and understand. Never mind that with the right software, you can target geographically by individual browsers. Is that too sophisticated for us? No, we just assume that by having a news section for a certain suburb, people in that suburb will flock to the content, and we can sell ads around that. We want to be the news content portal for everybody, but the more we try and do that, the more we become a portal for no one. Remember, AR&D’s research shows that up to 90% of the users of the typical TV station website represent that stations’ own viewers. So what’s the use?

The use is that everybody else is doing it. “If they’re selling it, I’m selling it.”

This will forever keep us functioning as TV stations and newspapers online, when we all can do so much better. The disruption, remember, isn’t about content; it’s about advertising. The more we keep insisting that it’s all about content, the deeper we sink into the hole we’re digging for ourselves.

Besides, the hyperbole of hyperlocal isn’t sufficient to mask what’s really wrong with the concept. Here are five reasons I think this is not a smart move for media companies.

  1. It’s not sustainable. The nut of this whole thing is that media companies want to provide this kind of content at virtually no cost to themselves. This might work if your town is just swimming with local news and information blogs, and you can sell those bloggers on the idea that the traffic you provide is worth their participation. But really, a simple RSS reader will do the same thing for users and without all the extra clicks. If you’re going to actually pay people to create the content, well it hasn’t been established that that’s a viable business. Remember, the expectations of a one-person start-up will always be different than those that come with a “job.”

  2. Its revenue source is banner display ads. I have nothing against banners, but people do (they don’t even see them), and one day advertisers will stop paying for them. Legacy media people believe that hyperlocal is magic, the ability to place messages in front of a special audience, but those messages just aren’t effective, and the people formerly known as the advertisers have many other methods of reaching the same people we can reach. Moreover, unless these invisible ads are sold on a flat rate, the nature of the content won’t produce enough traffic to justify the CPMs being requested.

  3. It’s a mass-marketing play. The Web is a direct marketing machine, and it doesn’t work well with mass marketing concepts. This is especially true, because the numbers at the hyperlocal level are so insignificant that it’s hard to justify any reach/frequency play. For advertisers, they don’t need news and information content to reach their customers or potential customers anymore, and the more we sell this, the more we deceive ourselves.

  4. It’s popular, because we understand it, not because it makes good strategic business sense. The world of content marketing when coupled with something as simple as a QR code allows merchants to reach people via portable devices. The only real reason they need us anymore is for SEO. The idea that “suburban weeklies” are the only thing that can sell to a suburban audience is archaic. However, that’s our business model, so we need to be innovating in areas beyond it, or we’ll be left behind as the people formerly known as the advertisers advance in their knowledge.

  5. It doesn’t satisfy from an audience standpoint, only from a business perspective. This is the biggest problem with the hyperlocal concept, for unless the people creating the content are motivated, the pages we’re using to attract an audience won’t be compelling enough to do the job. Let’s face it. There are start-up hyperlocal websites that do a fabulous job covering their communities, especially in the Northwest, but they’re not necessarily motivated to be connected with somebody else’s brand. Aggregating the content of others generally leaves people unsatisfied, for there’s no advantage to reading neighborhood news on, for example, a TV station’s site.

Of course, these are all offset by the reality that it’s quick, easy money — for awhile. That’s an attractive proposition, but unless it’s accompanied by a strategic, aggregated approach, I’m convinced it’s a dead-end for most places.

Please don’t confuse this with advice that strongly suggests aggregating all local voices and providing filtering for what is generally an enormous volume of potential news and information content. That’s one of the key places we need to be focusing attention for the future. Hyperlocal, as it’s positioned today, however, is strictly an old school “serve ads next to targeted content” business play, and it’s potential is extremely limited.

p.s. If you’re going to do hyperlocal, get it away from your brand.

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