In an email to regional editors last week obtained by Street Fight, Brian Farnham, the editor-in-chief of AOL’s Patch network of hyperlocal sites, suggested that the sites should increase unique visitors by upping post production, and touted an experiment at 14 Florida sites where increased posting resulted in more uniques.
After preliminary internal data indicated a slight drop in monthly unique visitors (potentially the first month-over-month decrease in the hyperlocal network’s history), Farnham shot off the memo suggesting that an 8% dip in daily article production per-site — from an average of 4.6 in March to 4.2 in April — was to blame. Patch currently requires every site to post a minimum of four times per day.
A spokesperson from Patch said that official data from comScore later indicated that there was actually a more than 6% increase in month-over-month growth in April over the network, and she pointed out that according to comScore Patch’s sites had experienced traffic growth of 128% since the beginning of the year.
In his email, Farnham outlined a plan to increase traffic by increasing article production, saying the process of ramping up production would involve “adjustments,” but wouldn’t be “painful”:
…right now we’ve got 68 sites producing 6 or more articles per day, so we know it can be done. I can also say that because “article” does not have to mean “800 word piece.” And I can say that because of this: in South Florida, 14 sites just completed a three-month test that proved you can do 7 posts a day, hit your UV goals, come in under budget, and cut the LE work hours to between 40-50 hours/week. … So not only is more production possible, done smartly it’s possible to do with less pain.
A spokesperson from Patch said that the 68 number Farnham quoted is “substantially off” because it was “preliminary” and that the company is very happy with the number of sites producing six-plus articles per day.
“If one of your sites is producing less than 4 posts a day (and unfortunately, there are a lot of these — nearly 350) immediately talk to that editor about it,” Farnham’s memo continued. “This should not be a punitive conversation, it should be a collaborative discussion about how to improve things. (Are they spending too much time reporting and writing long articles? Are they too caught up in editing freelancers?)”
The spokesperson said the 350 number Farnham quoted in the previous passage was also substantially incorrect. Farnham suggested sites could increase their output by “being creative,” and perhaps posting shorter items “even if that’s a 30-word or single-photo way.”
Reached for an interview yesterday, Farnham told Street Fight that the memo was intended as a call to action:
We have a culture of urgency. It’s still in our DNA, because we still consider ourselves a startup even though we’re bigger than most startups these days. So, anyways I fire off a lot of stuff. The whole point of that was meant to say: when you look at data there is this correlation. It’s sort of the most common-sensical thing you could say which is if you write more articles, you’ll affect growth positively. Or, at least you should. So, I was sort of using the stuff I was looking at as a jumping off point to say this is a good thing for people to keep in mind.
He confirmed that a new emphasis was being placed on “quick hits,” including smaller bits of news as well as daily photo posts. But he also said that traffic was actually not the ultimate way that Patch was judging its success:
Each site has a pretty firm ceiling as optimal traffic, where you’ve got the population of that market and that’s all we’re trying to reach. So we’re not chasing page views like some sites do, because that just doesn’t make sense. We’re chasing unique visitors who we want to have come back all the time. That’s really our metric for success. It isn’t about punching up the numbers any way you can, it’s about tracking the people you want and then keeping them around, which is no secret with local.