Topix CEO Chris Tolles: Community Over Content | Street Fight

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Topix CEO Chris Tolles: Community Over Content

22 Comments 18 April 2011 by

When hyperlocal news and community site Topix was founded in 2004, the company’s plan was to take all the local news out there and aggregate it into niche news Web pages around hundreds of thousands of topics. The site’s algorithm sorted through 50,000 news sources and created feeds around all kinds of subjects, creating niche content aggregation. But in 2007, the company shifted gears after finding what it thought was an even more compelling product: harnessing the flood of user-generated commentary and debate around their topic areas. Today the company is profitable and boasts 9 million unique visitors per month.

Street Fight spoke with Chris Tolles, one of the site’s founders and the current CEO, about how hyperlocal has evolved, Patch’s place in the pack, and how journalism is actually just a means to an end.

Tell me a little about where hyperlocal has been and where you think it’s going.
So, the way I look at it, hyperlocal has sort of evolved in the past six years [since Topix launched]. First off, there’s a lot more people who tried things both successfully and unsuccessfully. I think that you’re sort of seeing two different areas emerge. One is e-commerce and things like the daily deals segment of hyperlocal. And then on the other side of it there’s the media side. And I think that from there, there’s been two different approaches: One is to go after a very small town or try something that is actually sort of probabilistic in its approach.

If you look at, say, what Howard Owens is doing in Batavia [New York], that’s one town, one guy trying to build out the next-generation local news source. Alternatively, if you go look at — whether it’s Patch or the lamented, late Backfence.com and things like that — it’s folks who are trying to create something that is hopefully to franchise themselves across a larger set of communities.

For us, we started off as a local news aggregator here at Topix and aggregated local news to begin with across every single town in the United States. Then we provided local comments on the news, and then eventually local forums with original stories.

So, I think that there are different ways to skin a cat. Clearly, the e-commerce portion has made some people a lot of money. I think that what you’re going to see is that folks who have enough of a footprint are going to start making a reasonable amount of money on the media side as well. What we found is that local [information] and a local context has a higher uplift in value to advertisers. And so I think that’s what’s coming out right now for the next phase of this evolution.

Can you do an alternative weekly-style network of reporters without having the alternative weekly print publication?  I think that Patch is probably the leading contender to prove or not prove that model.

Does it make sense to spend money on professional journalists to create hyperlocal content?
Well, we’re definitely pegging the needle on the other side of that. We’re basically saying that we’re going to spend nothing. Like, zero. And I think, so far, that’s actually been a relatively reasonable bet. I think that on the other side, you’ve got, let’s say, the Batavian model where you’ve got a couple of people, or Baristanet, and you’ve got a small group of people who can make a website profitable with a couple of people and maybe an ad sales guy.

Patch is trying to scale that model out. And I think that they’re showing that you can actually at least grow traffic. I mean, the interesting thing here, two years into [Patch's] model, is that they spent a fair amount of money, anywhere up to $120 million. Now they have almost 800 different Patches or whatever you call it. And, so I think that it really is kind of interesting to see what they’ve actually come up with. And they’ve gotten growth. They’re not like the former folks who have done this — whether it’s Backfence or others — who just went out and failed; they didn’t get any traffic. Patch has actually been able to — with presumably a fair amount of help from AOL — they’ve seen solid growth.

So now the question is whether you could scale that journalist model across 800 different communities. Let me point out the Examiner is doing something very similar but they actually also have print — essentially giveaway print publications. As well, if you also look at, let’s say, the alternative weekly-type folks, if you put those in there, they’re essentially a profitable, cash-flow-positive business. And really the question is: Can you do an alternative weekly-style network of reporters without having the alternative weekly print publication?  I think that Patch is probably the leading contender to prove or not prove that model.

For us, we’re a little bit chicken, right? We actually said, “Hey, we’re Silicon Valley people. I’m not in the business of trying to get reporters. I’m in the business to try to get audience.” I have more people doing community management — as opposed to journalism — to try and moderate the commentary and the community. We’re in the middle of having that play out.

It’ll take a lot of money to boot up what they’re doing in Patch. It might take a few years for it to pay off. It may be something that turns into a pretty big cash machine in five years — but it’ll take three, four or more years to pay it out. And then all of a sudden, they will have made the investment required that no one else will have done, which will be pretty cool. But, I don’t think you can say that one way or the other yet. My suspicion is they’ll have to figure out ways to generate a fair amount of money to pay for that, which they have not done yet.

Do you think there’s any future in paid hyperlocal content?
People read the stuff. There are newspapers that make a fair amount of money. Clearly, and more importantly, they have a fair amount of people coming to them. So, what you really need to do is make sure that you have some sort of business model behind it.

Journalists never like to think of Groupon‘s ad copywriters as journalists, but really they are. As a Silicon Valley person, journalism is just writing copy. Journalism isn’t a profession. Journalism is, in fact, merely the pretentious part of the ad copywriter role in some ways. Paying writers to write words — and when they’re good they make more money — is kind of the name of the game here. And I think that Groupon is a better model for paying people because it’s worth a lot more money than most of the hyperlocal sites at the moment.

But, the other side of it is, I think, as you are able to monetize hyperlocal content more effectively, I think that you’ll actually have a niche there, or there’ll be a hole there which can get filled by good writing and good journalism. So, for example, as national advertisers realize that local advertising in a local context works four times as well, which is what all the surveys say, what all of the studies have indicated. Wow, it’s actually worthwhile, providing good local copy to hang advertising against. And that means that there’s a place to have writers do it.

Where is Topix at these days, and how are you looking to evolve?
We started off as a news aggregator back in 2004. And we grew into a local community site after we realized that there wasn’t enough local stories to really power the aggregation site. You start doing the math and there’s 1,400 daily news sites — or daily newspapers, rather. There’s 4,000 TV stations, 3,000 radio stations and all of them do three to six articles a day. You take that and you’re also going to realize there’s 20,000 local pieces of journalistic content that’s locally focused on the Net. And you divide it up by the 20,000 cities and towns in the country and there’s not enough to fill out an interesting site for every single zip code. News aggregation doesn’t work very well as a standalone business, which is what my guess is some of the local blog aggregators might have found over time.

But what you do find out is that people really love the local content. So, what we did is we gave people the ability to comment on the existing content and then turned those comments, aggregated those to the forums and gave people the ability to write original stories or essentially start their own threads in the commentary. And that worked out incredibly well. … Since 2007 when we really turned on the gas in the model, we tripled page views and tripled traffic. So, we’re now, depending on the month, we are a bit of a seasonal business, anywhere between 8 million and 9 million Comscore uniques. So, that puts us at about double what Patch has today. That’s 10 times what all the other aggregators and hyperlocal sites have, put together, beyond those guys.

And, again, we spent a lot of time getting to profitability. In 2010, we were profitable, which is for us a big deal. So, 9 million Comscore uniques, profitable. It took us about two years to build a direct sales force, so now we have ad networks and a direct sales force. And we’re monetizing our local content which is primarily user-generated at around $4.00 CPM, which is a pretty good business.

  • Alexa H

    How idiotic. And hilarious. If this man really doesn’t understand the difference between a journalist (a real, researching, fact-finding, truth-uncovering, news-reporting journalist) and a copy writer then he is either mentally challenged or willfully ignorant.

    • http://twitter.com/tolles Chris Tolles

      Bleah bleah bleah.

      Now, I’ll admit to saying that deliberately to get a rise out of the interviewer, but Jesus, so what?

      Journalism isn’t a profession, it’s a religion.

      • http://pop-pr.blogspot.com Jeremy Pepper

        Nice retort, Chris. It Bleach a combination of blah and blech? ;)

        But you know that words have power and getting a rise out of someone isn’t worth the the PR crap you are dealing with now on other sites.

      • Local Observer

        I paid $19.99 to have Chris’ reply reviewed and it was found to be in compliance with the common level of discourse on Topix.

      • Steven Barth

        Athough your comment may have been meant as sarcastic, a few years ago a very prominent newspaper editor also described journalism the way it is practiced by large metropolitan newspapers as a religion. I believe that is not far from the truth!

      • Tell it like it is

        So what? Journalism is a profession Chris Tolles you just don’t like it.

        You are scared shitless of journalists because they might shine their light on you and your rotten website, as they should.

        Topix is a mess. A bastion of bullying, hatred, censorship and repression. The tea party is quite at home there and Topix is as fascist as they are.

        • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_X5NZCD46WXHNU56ISOPIVD3QNI Bradley Plunk

          Good point, journalism is a profession which requires checking facts, etc. How Topix can claim it is any form of journalism is astonishing. Calling your neighbor a whore or claiming they are a drug dealer, when it many cases it isn’t true is not only evil, but that person has committed a criminal act by defamation and should be punished accordingly.

          • Tell it like it is

            It is astonishing that Chris Tolles can call what happens on Topix forums as being anything close to news.

            Every single Topix forum is loaded with fighting and defamation, Topix just does not care. Tolles and Topix have absolutely no feeling or concern for the people posting there and the thousands being slandered, the businesses being ruined.

            Tolles is proposing in this interview  that Topix is a site for hyperlocal news, what a joke!

            The man is a megalomaniac and out of his mind. The sooner he is exposed, the better.

  • Anonymous

    Unbelievable. I am not trying to start anything here, but Topix has developed the reputation as one of the worst sites on the internet even their own users admit the site serves no purpose other than to attack others and just start a bunch of junk. Also, Topix claims “citizen journalism” yet if you have ever seen one of their forums it such “newsworthy” stuff as who is doing drugs in a town or who sleeps with who? That site is awful and calling a journalism a copy writer is immature. If Topix wants to be taken seriously they need to require registration (most reputable sites do) and have more moderation. You can’t have over 350,000 forums and less than ten moderators. Why are there so many forums anyway? There are small towns that have no news occur in the community most of the them. The stories posted on their site are coming from bigger towns or cities. Wouldn’t it make more sense to focus on the active forums and you can be “local” but combine forums in more rural counties making the site easier to manage.

    • http://twitter.com/tolles Chris Tolles

      Always happy to respond to feedback:

      - The stories posted on Topix come from over 50k sources. A blanket dis of our news aggregation saying that “news is coming from bigger cities and towns” isn’t really very specific. While not always great, we do have the best news site for many small towns without their own newspaper, and the commentary is what provides the meat of that coverage

      - We clear the feedback queue of the 1000+ issues with our moderation team daily at this point, and are able to use a combination of AI filters and human editing which cuts out about 15% of the posted comments. So, the idea that you can’t moderate our site with 10 moderators probably needs a bit of explication on what you want to do with that moderaton

      - Along with interpersonal beefs, we get a whole lot of small town government hijinx being reported, discussion of local events and over 100k comments about local elections in the last mid terms.

      My beef with “journalism” is that the idea that something is or is not newsworthy in 2011 should be decided by everybody. The gatekeeper function of editing really does poorly in small towns where everybody knows everybody else.

      Oh, and who would you suggest should have the right to shut down anonymous gossip in a small town? There are 278 people on Topix in Pikeville Kentucky for example as I write this out of a population of 6,200. Seems like they like it well enough to be there.

      http://www.topix.com/forum/city/pikeville-ky

      • Anonymous

        Thank you for your reply. You miss what I am saying. If what you say is accurate and there are 278 people on Topix from Pikeville, that justifies having a forum. However, what about the places that have 6,200 people and there are let’s say less than 20 people regularly on there and very few new threads. What ultimately happens because of a lack of news is the few that do post make it gossip galore where they will post things that are nothing more than vile attacks on other people. That type of forum serves no purpose.

        What I am saying is does it not make more sense to find out which forums are active and have lots of users and keep them alive but the ones with very little action, combine them with a larger active town and city. It would lead to better dialogue and make the site easier to monitor as well without losing many users. It is a win-win situation.

        Also, it has to be about more than numbers. The internet trolls don’t care about the ads you run etc. I would rather have fewer users but have good active information forums than a ton of trolling. I have seen the Pikeville forums and those forums are awful. It is just one constant attack after another, that is not journalism whatsoever.

        You have stated there are over 1,000 complaints a day, what does that tell you and that’s not to mention the ones that haven’t been reported. Why not keep the forums strictly reported news from you over 50,000 news sources or if someone wants to post a legitimate newsstory and not who is sleeping with who, they submit it to a moderator through feedback to get their story approved.

        Plus why doesn’t Topix require registration. I have heard the argument it doesn’t really control trolling, but that is not true. The truth is it makes people a little more accountable. I realize some people can go in and create a fake profile but that requires effort. It shows a lack of confidence by Topix because you are afraid that by having some rules, it will run people off instead of standing behind their word and I am not trying to attack you personally Mr.Tolles but that is cowardly. Just about every other message forum, system requires registration, Topix should do the same. One time I saw the argument from Topix that some people just like to pop in and pop right out and don’t want to register. That was a bologna response. It takes all of a minute to register for a site and after that you are registered. If someone wants to jump right in and leave within seconds, chances are they came in simply to launch an attack on someone and then jump right back out.

        If Topix is a reputable site that really wants to be informative, then require registration like they do with Disqus or some other commenting systems. What is the purpose of even having an alleged Terms of Service since time and time again you don’t abide by it? It never ceases to amaze me that if a forum gets out of hand, the response is always report it through feedback. You have over 350,000 forums and less than then moderators and have admitted (your own words) that there are over 1,000 complaints in feedback a day. No one could keep up with that and considering the constant filth that is on there everyday, your filter system is not very effective. Private citizen’s names should never be allowed in the subject thread unless it comes from a legitimate newssource.

        Also, how do you defend forums such as the human sexuality or the AFAM one that has next to no news, is very active, and just about every post is something awful.

  • Anonymous

    Interesting discussion. First of all, the comment about journalism was ridiculous. I must confess it is astonishing to hear a CEO of a company say something like that just to get a rise out of someone. Second, I would agree that local content is a good thing. The problem is Topix seems to take the low road on everything. First, let’s consider the really bad weather just as an example that has recently occurred in Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Miss. You would think Topix, since they claim to be a news aggregator would want reliable information on their site. The problem is the site isn’t reliable at all and that is because very few citizens few the site as “a news aggregator or citizen journalism.” It basically has become a haven for people to go in make racial slurs, attack business owners, and children. I don’t think a company like that needs to be commenting on what is legit or not, until it cleans up its doorstep.

    The other problem is that the site is too easily accessible for children to allow the content that it does. Some of the stuff is horrific and frankly it is NOT the responsibility of citizens to report all the negative content, it is the Topix company. They make the profit they should take pride in cleaning up their site.

    In terms of the comment a poster made about the numerous forums. That is spot on. There are forums in many area that have under 500 original topics being posted, limited posts, and most of the content comes from other places. Eliminating the forums with low numbers makes complete sense because the focus can shift for moderators to look more closely at the towns and cities getting numbers. If a county has twenty really small towns, you don’t need twenty separate forums, you need maybe one or two. It increases dialogue, makes it easier to police since Topix seems to refuse to police its own site, and makes things far more manageable. Registration is another thing that is indeed needed. If the company is truly strong, registration would only enhance the reputation of Topix not hurt it. Another thing that could be done is require the community forums to having registration, but also provide a few forums for unregistered users that is more targeted to adults. The current model is dangerous.

  • Hank54

    I am sorry but Topix is no more a community than a bunch of guests on the Jerry Springer show. Mr. Tolles wants people to think that Topix is a local watering hole, yet the company is owned by NEWS COMPANIES and its software aggregates and localizes news. Google treats the site like a news site, crawling for local news updates on the minute. Local regulars to forums seem mostly to be those involved in slander, mud slinging and the like. Topix regulars do bounce around forums with creative commentary but there is nothing local about them. They are everywhere, and nowhere. Topix is not known or used anywhere as a local community site and google searches continuously bring up the most salacious Topix forums, not the most relevant ones to communities. Topix insistence that it is a community is a proposition made by Mr. Tolles to justify the existence of his site which would be too expensive to moderate and which would lose its web traffic (read: profit) if it were no longer anonymous. Media need to stop giving him a forum to propose uses for the site that are not happening and start revealing the realities of the site, how it makes money and who is pocketing the winning.

    • Jst_a_girl19

      I love Topix…this is a site that people can get the truth out and, well, I do believe you people might just be the scared ones. You are afraid of the truth that might could be even told about yourselves. The days of skeletons lying in the closets are long gone. Politics itself is a Jerry Springer show, so is journalism. Topix has everyone running scared because all their skeletons are being exposed. So come on, slam me, you people here, are doing exactly what you’re whining about is being done on Topix. I say, HURRAY! for Mr. Tolles for having the guts to get out into the open all this corruption that is happening in all the small towns. You have my vote Mr. Tolles. The rest of you on here, cry if you must, but, the truth always hurts, doesn’t it?

      • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_X5NZCD46WXHNU56ISOPIVD3QNI Bradley Plunk

        It is one thing to talk about social issues such as government corruption because that is real news and those are public positions, etc. It is something else to defame a person particularly a private citizen. The problem is in the design of Topix. The site makes it too easy for bullying and there are a ton of lies and defamation that occur on the site which can ruin innocent people and there are way too many attacks on children as well. There has to be more accountability because many communities are being taken apart by Topix and much of what is said is untrue. A person of character has the guts to say it to someone’s face and not spread lies out over the internet. If one wants to expose “skeletons” or “corruption” they should have the guts to stand behind their word or they are know better than the government agency or whomever has done something wrong. If the person is a private citizen they have a right to live a life in peace. How does anyone who wants to defend Topix account for the lies often told and children being bullied. Even if someone ignores the site, their reputation can be gone and if anyone can justify that I am sure you won’t have a problem explaining it to God at the day of judgement.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_X5NZCD46WXHNU56ISOPIVD3QNI Bradley Plunk

    I have several thoughts. The first question I would ask is a member of Topix management team had comments about themselves or their family posted on their own site and it ended up costing them their reputation or their livelihood or lead their child to commit suicide, would that be acceptable to them? Of course it wouldn’t, so why is it okay for other people and communities to be destroyed?

    What I am about to say is not original by any means and some of it has been said by other people on this site. The New York Times recently published an article concerning how wicked Topix is and hundreds of people left comments, you can count on one hand how many of them favored Topix. Perhaps that is because a child committed suicide over bullying which Topix is famous for. Why is it that many other sites are trying to do more to fight the problem while Topix does close to nothing. Even sites like Facebook have come out and said anonmity needs to be done with. I personally would not go that far though if you are going to attack another person you should have the guts to put your name behind it. Why do you think most states are adding cyberbullying laws seemingly by the day? Because Topix is a real plaque to most communities and people with morals. Those that do defend Topix are the same people who find humor in hurting other people in many situations.

    The problem with Topix is they have allowed the company to be known strictly as a gossip site. Even fans of the site who claim they are looking for news aren’t referring to legit news, they go to read abuse of other people and that speaks volumes.

    With all the negative press Topix is receiving, isn’t it funny how Topix will claim they want to clean things up (without really ever doing anything) and in a few communities when a negative story has been ran they will come into a forum, remove a few things, and then when the heat is off the site will go back to the way it was. That is poor business.

    In terms of local stories, etc. content does matter and it matters a lot. I do like to hear about my community but I want accurate stories and real news. If Topix was simply aggregating legit news stories to various communities, it would be one thing but I cannot go to Topix to find out much of anything that is accurate. What I would like is a company to come up with a site that actually posts real news not who is allegedly sleeping with who. That is trash and there is no defense of that, none.

    If Topix is truly serious about making changes, the answer is simple. Once again none of this is original and some of the other users on this site and others I have seen have said the same thing, but here goes. 1) Require registration. Users can keep their anonmity if they choose but something like the way Disqus does things would be perfect. It takes only a few minutes to register. That would help a lot. 2) There are way too many forums. The dead forums where there are a limited amount of posters should be done away. That way leave more time for moderators to actually go into active sites. 3)  Post IP addressed. Other sites do it, why not Topix? 4) Have a better feedback system than the one Topix currently has. They have few moderators yet thousands of complaints a day. Regardless of Topix spin control, there is no way a few moderators can keep up with that many complaints. There should be live people at Topix a person can speak with. 5) If a topic has not had any new responses in a 30 day period, it should be archived 6) Any subject heading that list a private citizen’s name should be banned from the site (a lot of people have said this) 7)I read this one on another site and love it. There should be a filter sytem where a person, by request, should be able to have their name blocked from appearing on a site. For instance if a person lives in Frankfort ,Kentucky and their name is Joe Smith, there should be a way where their name is blocked in the Frankfort forums if they request to do so.

    Here is the bottom line who aren’t convinced. Why does Topix have an attorney if they don’t think they are doing anything wrong. Why does Topix have a feedback system if they think anything should go in terms of speech (they realize not all speech is protected) and why do they have moderators at all? The reason is simple because they know all speech is protected and much of what occurs on their site is wrong. Chris Tolles said on the Today Show, Topix was not created for people to hurt one another. Well if that is true then Topix should be more than willing to do the simpliest of things which includes things like archving, eliminating some unneeded forums, and registration or only allowing comments on legit newsstories.

    • Tell it like it is

      Topix isn’t interested in changing its act Bradley. Topix as it exists is the vision of Chris Tolles, who has the nerve to say in this interview that Topix is a site for local news, it is not.

      Topix is a troll-filled bastion of hatred, fighting, gossip and slander. Reputations are being tarnished daily there on the personal and professional level.  Entire city’s economic development is suffering from it. Topix fully supports this, they do not care one ounce for the people posting there or the cities they are located in, their army of lawyers brushes off the many lawsuits with the protection Section 230 of the Communications “Decency” act, gives them.

      And don’t think the free-for-all on Topix is really that free, Topix favors certain trolls and definitely leans towards the right. Chris Tolles views media as a weapon and his favorite weapon of choice, are trolls. Topix is all about manipulation of media, it is not about citizen journalists, it is not about news.

  • http://macklyons.blogspot.com/ Mack Lyons

    Chris Tolles makes his money from the ad traffic. There is no real impetus for him to change anything until his cash stream dwindles or gets cut off completely. Too bad there isn’t a Google Panda for so-called “hyperlocal news aggregators” such as Topix.

    • justjss

      It’s a terrible site and deserves its terrible reputation. No army could keep up with the lies posted there. I keep it on my personal block list (thx. google) …

  • deniese

    Topix is a horrible people bashing site.  I am all for freedom of speech, however, I think one should have to be held accountable for their statements.  I don’t have the freedom to go into a public place and start bashing someone without being arrested for bullying or slander.  If someone wants to comment on Topix, they should have to register and their name would appear beside their comment.  I have students that have been hospitalized due to bullying and most of it was bullying via Topix.  Topix is not being used in the manner in which would promote debates and discussions about current events or ideas. 

  • Secret consulate

    someone posted my HIV status in open on this website. and im not gonna stop until this site is shut down.

  • Anonymous

    Topix has become well known for its abusive practices and its constant failure to do anything about it.  

    Chris Tolles said on July 8th, 2011:  “People do post stuff that should be removed — which is why we have a significant bunch of folks dedicated to reviewing feedback here. If there is defamatory content, we typically remove it upon getting a complaint.

    I’m often the subject of vitriol on the web, and when it goes over the line, I complain, and typically get the same kind of action on other sites. ”

    http://www.topix.com/forum/city/utica-ny/T131USHMC33N5CG6N/post6

    How’s this for feedback?  Your admins have failed  to remove my name from the comments in the forum where I’m being stalked and hounded day in and day out.  Your admins know exactly who I am.  I’m the subject of a forum that has nothing to do with me, where I do not post and have no interest in posting.  Basically, your resident trolls  want to attach my name to their daily activities like barnacles.  Arguing with them would be like visiting my local kindergarten class.  Nothing they say is news.  It’s adult playground bullying.

    I stopped reporting the comments being made in my name, with my name, in my children’s name, attacking myself, my business and publications when it became clear that I had been shanghaied into an unwanted second job, basically reporting defaming comments on Topix every day.

    See, in order to report the comments,  you have to actually visit Topix.  More traffic for them but what’s the point when the commentators are long-standing resident posters using proxy servers &  multiple names and Topix admins aren’t doing jack diddly about it? 

    Doesn’t matter if  the comment are reported or not, nine times out of ten, Topix does nothing.
     
    Chris Tolles defends the abusive behavior that takes place on Topix as  free speech and seems to think he is going to single-handedly revolutionize journalism and put news reporting in the hands of the people.

    Can someone download this information into his skull:  Bullying is not a protected practice under the law and gossip is not news.  The main staple of his site are the forums, and the forums have been overrun by bullies. The majority of the activity in the forums consists of hateful opinions from dysfunctional people intending to do harm.




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