Your Hyperlocal Site Might Suck (Unless It’s Doing This)

There are numerous places where local content producers can get advice about how to find the right groove with readers. Some have created guides to those businesses who have executed well, or “7 Habits” lists forsuccessful hyperlocal sites. The folks at J-Lab did their own in-depth investigation into “what works” in hyperlocal journalism and came up with this, while a journalist across the pond takes a diplomatic view when considering hyperlocal content/news sites.

All of this is no accident — people love lists. They love reading and debating them. I’m no different there, which is why I’ve collected for Street Fight five elements which, based on my experience, are key to successful hyperlocal endeavours.

1. Not news, response to news
It scarcely matters any longer who actually breaks a story. It’s the actions of the fast followers that matter. Successful hyperlocal sites that grab the story after it has been reported by more traditional media and generate responses to it from those close to the event win.

Take a string of burglaries in a neighbourhood. Reactions from Bob, who lives next to a house that was hit, and John, one of the victims, are more compelling and often more relevant than the actual headlines.

The narrative that follows a local story carries unimpeded communication among neighbours around a unifying topic, sometimes causing change to happen (fixing streetlights) or  fierce disagreements (it was those kids from the housing unit next door). Point is successful hyperlocal practices must included the ability to exploit an event that already occurred with a platform for neighbours to scrum it out or join forces for change.

I once characterised it as the “11 0′clock news dilemma.” Wasn’t long ago people would watch the 11 p.m. local TV news only to get wound up and frustrated over local issues with nowhere to vent before bed — makes for light sleeping. There simply were few contextual outlets for frustration until early local online sites and message boards began providing neighbours a place to express frustrations. Today, of course, this is commonplace among thriving hyperlocals.

2. Zip the ZIP … keep an eye on the cul-de-sac
Reduce the radius. Leave it to others to focus on the region, the county, the township. Instead focus on the neighbourhood, the subdivision, the cul-de-sac. Attacking hyperlocal requires getting deeper, closer, more intimate and sometimes down to where it’s less comfortable: Maybe it’s not the neighbourhood scuttlebutt exactly, but what’s on the minds of neighbours — almost regardless of subject — is certainly worthy of reporting or gathering and posting for discussion. Work from the inside out; start at the dining room level and build the radius out.

3. Social is an ingredient not a garnish
Too many attempts at creating successful hyperlocal destination sites have concluded with a thud — at least in part because the site owners made the critical mistake of pushing social activity below the surface (or at least not proactively buoying it to the top). Even in the age of Facebook and Twitter, where everyone is “publishing” all the time, there is still a great crowd of holdouts who simply like to watch. These are the neighbours astride the sidelines silently chastising or pulling for one household over another in the latest dust-up over trash collection or cracked sidewalks. Love these people. While they don’t contribute visibly, they feed off social content generated by others and create vital offline word-of-mouth. Any hyperlocal site expecting to succeed needs to begin with a strategy to gather, infuse and highlight neighbour input even before determining how to create the context.

4. Focus on fears
This is different from “fear mongering.” At the hyperlocal level, concerns over various environmental factors move from abstract to the concrete, from the beyond-control something that can be dealt with. National crime statistics, for example, are alarming — but don’t often move people to change their behaviour. But experience a robbery on your block and people are buzzing, scrambling for alarm systems providers. Message? Focus on dangers people can understand viscerally and can act upon.

5. Stir the pot of competition among neighborhoods
This neighbourhood pwns the one-streets-over. Its got mature trees, proper drainage, larger lots. But it’s also got the ding of having a sex offender formerly on the block. Time to get to work, voicing up the good sides of the the ‘hood and downplaying significance of the other. Hyperlocal sites that allow a platform for residents to, in effect, change their figurative “community Google rank” will gain the trust and ultimately the contribution of their neighbours. But to get that going, a site needs to surface the issues in such a way that illustrates where one neighbourhood is excelling and where another isn’t. Inevitably, discussion will ensue.

Others you’d add to this list? Go here