Backfence Founder Shares Tips on Hyperlocal

by Brian Blum on July 31, 2009

Mark Potts, co-founder of the defunct hyperlocal citizen-journalism experiment BackFence, shared some thoughts on lessons he learned during his tenure at the company. While “some of BackFence’s problems were internal and self-inflicted,” Potts is still “very optimistic that a similar model can and will succeed.

We’ll summarize Potts’s main points here, but the full article, published in 2007, has timeless advice.

Potts, by the way, has already moved on and started an ad-services group aimed at helping hyper-local and vertical/niche sites generate more revenue. GrowthSpur, which includes an impressive team of ex-newspaper execs, is focusing on technology, training and ad-networking to improve ad sales.

— Engage the community. “ 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,” Potts says. “A top-down, ‘if you build it, they will come’ strategy absolutely does not work.”

— It’s not journalism – it’s a conversation. “The magic of hyperlocal sites is that they provide a forum for community members to share and discuss what’s going on around town.”

— Hyper-local content is really mundane – at least to outsiders looking in. “But for residents of a particular community, it’s very relevant. Mundane is a competitive advantage.”

— Trust the audience. BackFence never became a nasty free-for-all due to a number of tools – required registration to post comments, profanity filters, “report misconduct” buttons on every page. As a result, the need for BackFence to take down content “happened just a handful of times over two plus years.”

— Focus on strong, well-defined communities. “We chose them because they had a strong, well-focused sense of place and community pride—I live here, I don’t live over there.” Don’t try to cover too large a geographic area.

— 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.” Backfence, Potts says, never took proper advantage of social media.

— Local advertising is robust. “Local advertisers are eager for new online advertising vehicles. We sold ads to more than 400 advertisers, more than any other similarly sized hyper-local effort that I’m aware of.”

— Keep costs down. “The BackFence formula averaged about one staffer per community site, and in retrospect, that probably was too rich.”

— Piggyback on a print or broadcast partner’s existing community relationships and marketing power. “It’s very, very difficult to start from scratch in a community and get to critical mass without help.”

— Hyperlocal is really hard. “ Anybody who’s run a hyper-local site will tell you that it takes a couple of years just to get to a point where you’ve truly got a vibrant online community. It takes even longer to turn that into a viable business.” Backfence failed essentially because, although it raised $3 million, it couldn’t sustain itself long enough.

Ultimately, Potts says that he believes that at the core, “user-generated hyper-local citizens’ media is sound. 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.”

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