A Big ‘So What’ for SoGlos.com #hyperlocal

No apologies that this particular post is not about London and arguably doesn’t even concern a site that is hyperlocal. I’ve previously blogged about how within the hyperlocal industry there are many who appear to regard success as a threat. One of the sites I featured was soglos.com and events site for Gloucestershire. It’s a superbly put together effort based on a very simple concept. I believe that the subscription base for the site’s newsletter is the largest in the UK.

A recent Press Gazette article has revealed that the site is targetting revenues of over £250,000 and currently directly employs 4 people. In the real world this is a tidy small business, in hyperlocal land it makes it an absolute leviathan, possibly the largest in the industry with only one other independent likely to be anywhere near that figure.

It is also a number in pound sterling that the more successful American community web sites like Baristanet and West Seattle Blog claim as their revenues in dollars. They are the poster boys (generally girls actually) of the U.S. hyperlocal industry and widely lauded there as examples of what can be done in this field. The size of SoGlos.com’s revenue targets really does mean people need to reassess what is going on in UK hyperlocal. It is difficult to overstate its importance yet the response has been, well – tumbleweed. The inveterate retweeters of hyperlocal minutae ignored the story and the only person to even acknowledge its significance was Roy Greenslade and even then only in passing. It is almost as if they are worried that if it emerges that some people are successfully generating revenue from hyperlocal, the gravy train of grant support for the industry might be stopped.

The story that was getting the hyperlocalistas excited at that time was My Society’s announcement that they were planning a ‘Hansard for local government’. I am admirer of the work that My Society do but this is a risible idea that isn’t going to get any traction. It is indicative of the dichotomy that exists in the media at the moment between those who believe people should be reading what they tell them and those that believe it is the media’s job to give them what they want. People in Gloucestershire want to know what is going on and Soglos.com caters to that need which is why it is popular and therefore makes money. 

The question that Soglos.com should raise for every hyperlocal is ‘am I getting events right’. The site operators that I have spoken to have often been ambivalent about events as the overhead of publishing them is higher and the shelf life of stories is lower. What SoGlos.com appear to have managed to do is convincing most event venues that they need to be on the site and therefore they are willing to supply event details and data in the correct format. Event the better hyperlocal sites in the London area cannot be said to handle events particularly well so this must give them scope for improvement both in user experience and revenues.

Although Soglos.com has a presence in social media it looks pretty evident that the real engine of the business is the e-mail list. This should serve as an encouragement to developing hyperlocal businesses – if you can write something about your area on a regular basis that is sufficiently interesting to persuade people to give you their e-mail address so they can read more then you have the basis for earning a living.

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UK Hyperlocal the American view – ‘It would be a good idea’

Visiting the United States is always salutory. Their economy may not be in a much better condition than ours but the attitudes are very different. Americans never accept they are not in control of their own ultimate destiny and are quick to take responsibility for both success and failure. The contrast with the U.K. is significant, even with the current Olympic euphoria. The ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ mentality isn’t necessarily entirely healthy one as it makes for a tendency to ignore big problems and assume that someone else is going to sort them out.

The trip was for proper paid work but I did get a chance to meet up with some people in the US interested in hyperlocal who I had been in correspondence with and share a few beers. When I asked one of them who had decades of experience in local media in the US what he thought about UK hyperlocal his answer was, “I think it would be a good idea.”

The discussion turned to the subject of why hyperlocal seems to be so far ahead in the States compared to the UK. The consensus was that American communities generally were much better suited to the development of this kind of site than the UK.

American towns tend to work concentrically with the suburbs being mainly dormitary areas and most peoples’ work and social life revolving around a central commercial area as opposed to the UK where, event within cities, a smaller village sized urban area was the focus for a community. These clusters were thought to be too small to support an economically viable community web site.

The lack of interest in community sports was also seen as an important factor. American High School sports, let alone the College and professional varieties, gain huge attention in local media and coverage is correspondingly detailed. The local teams provide a focus for a community that rarely exists in the UK.

Church attendance was also seen as critical. Churches remained a central part of American community life whereas in the UK outside immigrant communities only a small proportion of people turn up regularly to services.

 

Britain is also seen as a more socially divided society. Wealth differentials may be wider in the US but class distinction remains a much more divise factor in the UK. Britain was described by one person as ‘the spiritual home of the grammar nazi’. This discourages participation by people with lower educational attainment.

The tendency of a large number of UK undergraduates to attend a university away from their home town makes the educated elite more deracinated and have less affinity with the place they currently live in.

Multi-culturalism was also seen as a problem. America is a multi-ethnic society whereas Britain, within her larger cities, has developed a number of communities with little in common even though they live in the same area.

Lack of entrepreneurialsim in the UK was seen as critical. It was felt that most hyperlocal sites in the UK were developed with the intention of getting some sort of public funding and therefore they became dull and worthy with their intention to tick the boxes necessary to get grants from local or central Government. It wasn’t their primary intention to appeal to the community they were supposed to serve so they didn’t. It was noted that the UK probably has more sites per capita than the US but very few of them deserve to be taken into account in any assessment of the industry.

These aren’t the views of redneck American nationalists but experienced local media people who have spent time in the UK and have a good feel for how the country works. I don’t necessarily endorse every point but they were all thought provoking and some of them undeniably correct. However, having had a few beers and despite my own rather gloomy views about UK hyperlocal I did feel the need to defend my country particularly as we were ahead of the US at that point in the Olympic Medals table (ex-swimming). Unfortunately, as it was three to one and I was slightly jet lagged I was useless at making my case.

Here is what I would have said had I been more sober and better prepared:

The UK hyperlocal sector is clearly behind the US in general but there are pockets of excellence which compare well with anything in the States. Whereas in the US, sites like the West Seattle Blog and Barista.net are launded and constantly raised as examples the more successful sites in the UK seem to get the cold shoulder from the nation’s network of hyperlocalistas. Success in the UK appears to be seen more as a threat than an opportunity.

The East Dulwich forum based in South East London disproves categorically that England’s urban villages are too small to support active hyperlocal sites. This site is impressive precisely because it is so basic and it would be easy to set up equivalents. It is built by some minimal tweaks to off-the-shelf forum software and appears to have become the country’s largest and most active discussion board for a hyperlocal area. The Sheffield forum is the largest in the UK as far as I can see but covers a catchment area way beyond what would be considered hyperlocal. The big question about the East Dulwich forum is why there are so few equivalents. It is rarely mentioned in discussions about hyperlocal and this may partly be explained by the site owners appearing to want to adapt a low profile, but the reasons for the site’s success and the failure of so many other similar discussion boards for other areas really needs to be properly analysed and the East Dulwich formuala for success isolated and bottled.

ChiswickW4.com, a local community site for an area of West London, recently announced that it has gained over 20,000 membership registrations. This is for an area with a population of around 45,000. The site in terms of quality of news coverage compares well with the top US sites and the revenue achieved by the group to which it belongs may even exceed most of the US hyperlocal independents. It also has successfully used its design as a template – other sites in its network rank as some of the busiest in the UK. ChiswickW4.com is probably the largest in the UK in terms of traffic, revenue and membership. If you follow discussion of the industry you would probably be unaware this site existed because it never gets mentioned which is bizarre given that it has got to a place where must of the others would like to get to.

Not strictly hyperlocal but soglos.om an events site for the county of Gloucester puts out the UK’s largest distribution newsletter for a single area. Once again the concept is very simple and well executed. Events are an area of online news that very few sites handle particularly well but soglos.com. Big change in this sector appears likely with Time Out going to free distribution in London. Once again this site and its achievements never seems to be acknowledged.

These three sites have managed things that would have been exceptional even if they were based in the US but another thing they have in common is that they are widely ignored by the inner circle of the UK’s hyperlocal community. Sometimes I wonder if there are other fantastic sites out there that are simply unknown outside their own area. Quite what these sites have done to become ‘non-sites’ in the view of their industry peers is something of a mystery but commercial success probably has something to do with it. The trio show that if you have audience you will have revenue. This in turn shows the uncomfortable truth that if you don’t have revenue you probably don’t have audience which is the case for 90% of UK hyperlocal sites. The bizarre mindset of some of the people in this area was shown by an exchange I had recently with quite a well known hyperlocalista who was upbraiding me about one of my blog posts. She insisted that the definition of independent sites should exclude those funded by advertising. The basic difference between the US and the UK is that such views would be incomprehensible to everyone in the States whereas it would only be a majority in the UK. A worryingly large proportion of the minority seem to be involved in hyperlocal.

Ultimately, I think our American cousins are getting this more right than we are and the surprising reason seems to be that in this industry they behave more collaboratively. They recognise that if they aren’t operating in the same geographic area then the success of a fellow hyperlocal site is something that it is their interest to applaud, promote and imitate. The UK seems more prone to petty jealousies and to be clique dominated. One possibility is that this is paradoxically due to central Government in the UK taking an interest in the sector. Independently successful sites undermine the argument that public money is needed to catalyse local digital media therefore success is ignored. The UK’s focus on quantity rather than quality compared to the US seems to be predicated that at some point down the line public money will be available therefore the last thing you want to do is actually generate revenue from your site.

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OFCOM Report Makes Painful Reading for Hyperlocal

The hyperlocal sector has merited more than just a brief mention in OFCOM’s annual communications market report which some are interpreting as a coming-of-age for the industry. Unfortunately the new data published makes very painful reading for the sector.

The important new stuff in the report is the market research about local media usage patterns. The headline figure here is that of all people who use local media only 1% see their local community web site as the most important source of local news. Even if you narrow down the responses to people who actually do use a local community web site the number rises to only 6%. This is the same proportion as for the the web sites of local newspapers and joint lowest in terms of importance and collectively less than the total for using the internet in general as a source of local news.

 

OFCOM, to their credit, do their best to cheerlead for this industry sector, but there is no getting around that the numbers are dire. They demonstrate comprehensively that the problem for local community web sites is primarily audience. They may cost next to nothing to set up but very few people read them, generally because the standard and regularity of reporting is quite low, but sometimes even when a decent effort is being made in news coverage.

 

The results are similar to those of research done in the States which showed that the ‘hyperlocal’ web site sector was grabbing a very small proportion of audience time. The conclusion was that the sector didn’t have a revenue problem it had an audience problem. The OFCOM report shows that the reason so few sites have made any money at all is because hardly anyone visits them. Site owners get very excited about hits and visits from over-generous stats packages but as soon as usage patterns are subject to the same rigorous enquiry that other media are, the true picture becomes clear.

 

The low audience penetration of the sector wouldn’t matter so much if there was gangbusters growth. Figures from Birmingham City University are used to show a 46% increase in the number of web sites over two years. This is hardly the kind of growth needed for the sector to become a serious player in the local media industry and even this number is probably seriously overstated. It is based on the Openly Local database of sites which though, a laudable effort, is not complete and contains a significant number of moribund sites. There is a substantial amount of wastage in the sector with the shelf life of a site seeming to average about 2-3 years. Growth overall is probably taking place but only because packages like WordPress have made it easy to set something up with minimal effort. This reduction in the initial capital needed to set up a site has increased numbers but diluted quality.

 

The failure of hyperlocal to make an impact is disappointing and slightly mystifying in a way in that there are a small number of sites that do appear to have worked out how to do it. NESTA seems to have recognised the failure by chosing to leapfrog the current generation of web based sites in the hope that hyperlocal will have more impact in the mobile sphere. That still leaves us with a fundamental problem with local media: local newspapers are in chronic decline; hyperlocal sites are not filling the gap and the Government’s Local TV project is an ill-conceived idea which nobody believes will work. I’m not sure OFCOM is doing anyone any favours by pretending things are rosy in the hyperlocal garden. The precipitous decline of local media is already having an impact and there are bound to be unanticipated consequences that will make us regret complacency on this issue. The first step to solving a problem is recognising you have one.

The full text of the report can be found on the link below:

http://stakeholders.ofcom.org.uk/market-data-research/market-data/communications-market-reports/cmr12/uk/

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Hooray for Sir Ray – the Real #Hyperlocal Hero

There is a view among people who have never met Sir Ray Tindle that he is a dinosaur, a dyed in the wool technophobe who is the last person on the planet to recognise that dead tree media has had its day. When you spend a brief amount of time the man you will quickly realise this is not the case. He certainly has a great deal of passion for local news which, when combined with the fact that much of what he says goes completely against received opinion, could lead you to believe that his love of his industry is blinding him to its realities. However, the other thing that should quickly become apparent is that he is an extremely astute businessman with a knowledge of the local news business that is second to none.

Despite my respect and admiration for the man I did raise an eyebrow at the recent decision to launch a series of hyperlocal newspapers in the South London area. To me the huge relative success of his group compared to that of the other big local media players has been down to an approach which I didn’t think could work in the capital. The editorial staff on his best papers always seem to be deeply embedded in their communities. They may not be well paid but the Tindle employees I know will argue that the have a good quality of life. They are doing a job they love, they share Sir Ray’s philosophy and they live in areas where the cost of living is not that high.

Tindle Group is not immune from the revenue pressure that local print media has been under but he has not compounded a poor industry position with botched attempts to move into digital. People presume Sir Ray’s refusal to get involved in new media was down to him being of an older generation and stuck in his ways. In retrospect it was a stroke of genius. He has recognised the obvious fact that if you give away your content for nothing then that sets it value. His belief that print will be around in 50 years time is ridiculed but more and more he is starting to look like a prophet – literally and figuratively!

My view was that the Tindle model wouldn’t work in London. The cost of living is too high and quality staff have plenty of options and would get lucrative offers elsewhere if they showed any inkling of talent. The turnover of staff in the London local press is extremely high even given the inept way that it has been managed and all the closures. The decline of the local print press has been much more severe in London than the rest of the country and it is the one place where digital hyperlocal seems to be consistently producing a better product than the big media incumbents who are more and more putting out zombie papers that simply existed to justify take local authority money for statutory notices. The widely held view is that it was just  a matter of time before most local news in London was provided by the new digital sector.

My theory on the thinking behind the move into hyperlocal is that Sir Ray believes the cost of doing business in the capital has now fallen to the extent that he can deliver a quality product. Good journalists at London local newspapers in previous years have been snapped up by national titles or the Evening Standard as well as a host of other specialist publishers. The other big employer was the public sector who aggressively hired lots of people from the London press on generous salaries to staff their ‘Town Hall Pravdas.’ 

Right now none of these alternative employers are hiring plus the amount of freelance work available has contracted dramatically. Sir Ray knows at this point that he can get talented people quite cheaply and hang on to them. London is an expensive place to live in and even senior staffers will not be on packages that would be described as making them comfortably off but there are probably enough people out there who love the industry enough to accept that if they want to work in local news this is as good as it gets.

It is too early to judge how well these papers are doing and the particular challenges of doing business in London are not confined to editorial staff – distribution for instance is, and will remain, a nightmare. My hope is that the project proves a success and that these papers are the first of many. London digital hyperlocal is miles ahead of the rest of the country and it is the only place where independents have really gained the kind of audience that is needed to make them sustainable but their success remains patchy and there is a huge swathe of the capital that would benefit from Sir Ray’s brand of local media.

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Decision Day Looms for NESTA on Hyperlocal

The video presentations for the Destination Local funding by NESTA have now been published on YouTube. There are 165 organisations hoping for a grant of £50,000 to help develop a hyperlocal mobile phone application. My brother in law’s firm is one of the bidders and as the area is new to him and he was aware I had an interest in hyperlocal he asked me for an opinion on his chances.

Having scanned about 25 of the 2 minute videos a very clear pattern started to emerge so I stopped watching them. None of the ones I have seen seemed particularly compelling so NESTA have a tough task ahead although it should be said the real meat of the proposals will be in the written submission rather than the videos.

The bidders divided up into three very distinct categories:

1) Tech specialist – All the slicker and more coherent ideas came from this group. They all knew how to put together a good presentation and communicate their ideas well. The problem was that they were all variations on the same theme and not that different from stuff that was already out there. The quality of many of these presentations may just indicate that they are sloppy seconds from ones that have been previously made to venture capitalists who decided to invest elsewhere.

2) Old school hyperlocal – These seemed to be basically a plea to ‘help us make our site go mobile because we help the co-mmunity’. We are being asked to believe that having failed to make a commercial success of a web based operation they suddenly become worth backing in a different sphere were monetisation is even more difficult and the potential audience is smaller. There is a danger in this sector that sustainability becomes defined as  the person running the site being unemployable therefore there is no chance they will jack it in and they can present themselves as having purer motivations than nasty commercialism.

3) Subsidy junkies – There was a surprisingly high proportion of bids from non-profit organisations who, I suppose logically, have presumed that all human actions are in a sense hyperlocal that they could qualify for this funding. There are a lot of worthy causes in there that do deserve some sort of funding but it clearly isn’t NESTA’s role to be giving them money. Apparently the bid documentation for this process was very light which seems to have encouraged lots of organisations who serially bid for any public money to have a go.

Assuming bids in the latter category are ruled out then the decision seems to be between the first two. This isn’t an easy one and I don’t envy NESTA their task. By going for the technology led bids they increase the chances of something usable being developed and they potentially tap into further private sector funding later on if the app proves successful. However, they are potentially bringing new competition into a sector which is already very fragmented and struggling for revenue. As most of the proposals seem to target the small and medium sized business sector, a small pie is just being broken up into smaller pieces.

If on the other hand they choose to give out cash to existing hyperlocals who will use it for not much more than developing an IPhone app for their web site which will be used by a handful of people, they are unlikely to change the face of hyperlocal mobile in the UK but it might just keep some of the better quality sites in the game a bit longer to allow them to move towards sustainability.

One hyperlocal site operator I spoke to about this said that he wasn’t going to bid because it was going to be a carve up and he named 5 or 6 names that were going to be funded. I’m sceptical that this will happen as NESTA doesn’t strike me as the kind of organisation subject to cronyism and it is worth getting this process right. The emphasis should be on bringing new ideas into an industry that desperately needs them but also looking for a commitment to the industry rather than bids which are stepping stones. I spent an hour looking through bids and didn’t see one that stood out as a definite and there were just three or four basic ideas presented in a slightly different way. In a process like this you expect an 80-90% failure rate anyway so the hope would be there are one or two gems in that list of 165.

 

 

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London Hyperlocal – Top Ten by Twitter Followers and Membership

A few weeks ago I did a shout out for stats about usage for London Hyperlocal sites. The aim was to ovehaul and update some work a friend had done in this area as part of a commission. Thanks to all of those who replied and your data has been incorporated. To those of you who didn’t reply and have been missed out or I have got your numbers wrong please do provide correct information. The following is only meant to be a first pass.

Top Ten London Hyperlocals by Twitter Followers

London-SE1.co.uk – 15,500

yeah! Hackney – 7,220

Brixton Blog  – 6,660

WestHampsteadlife.com – 4,837

BeckenhamTown.US – 3,842

Brockley Central – 3,786

Harringay Online –  3,295

East London Lines – 3,202

ChiswickW4.com – 3,021

Camberwell Blog –  2,713

I anticipate some people might not be happy with me putting Twitter followers first. That’s not necessarily because I think it is the best measure but it is a like for like comparison. I’m well aware that there are all sorts of ways you can artificially boost your Twitter followers but I don’t think any of those in the list above are playing this game. They all have lots of followers because they offer a high quality addition to the timeline of anyone living in the areas they cover.

London Top Ten Hyperlocals By Registered Membership

ChiswickW4.com – 19,500

London-SE1.co.uk – 7,300

PutneySW15.com – 5,740

EalingToday.co.uk – 5,200

Harringay Online – 4,000

ActonW3.com – 3,900

SE23.com Daily – 3,512

Sydenham.org.uk – 2,903

BrentfordTW8.com – 2,600

HammersmithToday.co.uk – 2,040

It is likely that East Dulwich Forum would feature in this list – it may even be top but the number of members is not published on this site. There is a element of apples and pears with both news sites and forums appearing. I made a preliminary attempt to try and do a top ten based on traffic but there isn’t enough consistent data. Membership seemed to be a better guide to traffic than numbers quoted on the sites themselves. London’s busiest hyperlocal is either East Dulwich Forum or ChiswickW4.com. The latter has the higher numbers but those published by East Dulwich Forum are a bit out of date so if they have continued to grow they may be the busiest. I’m not aware of any hyperlocal sites outside of London that come near to either of them in terms of traffic or membership.

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Bonanza Time As #Hyperlocal in the UK Goes Mobile

The ‘hyperlocal community’ is all a flutter at the moment with news that funds have been made available for investment in the area.

The excitement may seem slightly out of proportion to the money involved. There are two chunks of £500,000, one from Nesta and one from the Technology Strategy Board (TSB). However, this probably exceeds the total revenue generated by the sector so it is perhaps understandable that there is much hoopla about sums of money that would be regarded as if they were presented as critical for the future of any other sector.

Nesta’s ‘Destination Local’ project is specifically for mobile related hyperlocal technologies whilst the TSB’s funding seem to be ploughing a similar furrow but less explicitly. Dr. Jeremy Silver, Creative Industries Lead Specialist of the Technology Strategy Board said of their funding, “new models for local media might emerge out of new smarter uses of enabling technologies”

On the one hand you could accuse these two organisations of following the herd. ‘So Lo Mo’ has been the happening thing for some time now and there is already a proliferation of applications available mainly in the states but plenty already in the UK. The area is hardly starved of funds as venture capitalist love this area at the moment and given the nature of the industry, once it is deemed hot everybody needs to be there. The small size of funding on offer means that the projects that are going to apply are likely to be the ones that venture capitalists have seen and passed up on. They are not infallible and often miss good ideas but they are also not complete idiots and will cream off most of the best projects.

On the other hand maybe there is a more carefully thought out plan in operation here. Nesta issued a report at the same time which was a review of the hyperlocal scene – ‘Here and Now’. Despite the unflappable desire to celebrate the sector on behalf of the authors, it made for depressing reading. The focus was, as ever, on a small group of sites and was broadly an attempt to cheer-lead for them but the lack of numbers on visitors and revenues and the sheer mediocrity of some of the sites featured reinforced the impression that the key competency needed is networking rather than giving a local community what they need. If there is an underlying recognition that as it stands the hyperlocal sector is not going to fill the growing gap in local media provision then it may have brought Nesta round to thinking it is time for something new hence the concentration on mobile.

Although the sums of money are small there are plenty of people out there with the skills and inventiveness to come up with useful apps within a small budget. They are not the same people who are currently involved in the hyperlocal sphere. If the money is spent wisely it will attract a new set of younger, less conservative people into hyperlocal one of whom may develop and application that gets widely used. Anything would be preferably to doling out the cash to the more well-connected and vocal members of the hyperlocal community who have little expertise in mobile and have thus far generally failed to crack the problems. What happens will be a good indication of whether there is a workable plan to move things forward in this sector or it is comprised largely of subsidy junkies scratching around for funding for their next project.

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