Last week I talked to a number of people about Aol’s Patch network and pointed readers to one Patch in particular that ostensibly seemed to be going for (human) form over (hyperlocal) function. It was a little unfair to single them out perhaps, especially with plenty of other examples of click-baiting to highlight, but I’m guessing I wittingly provided them just what they wanted by sort of calling them out: more pageviews, more clicks, more buzz.
At least a little.
This all points up a philosophical issue, and not a new one: in the service of business does one go for empty calories that still taste filling to the bean counters? Should the editors of hyperlocal sites abandon the idea of providing both solid local reporting and useful utility information (directories, movie times, etc.) in exchange for sexy hooks and cheap thrills that — while having little to do with Springfield’s quality of life, Shady Glen’s graffiti problem or Mayberry’s neighborhood racial divides — can drive a good deal more traffic (at least in the short term)?
It’s worth remembering that local stories can of course attract national attention and thus draw, naturally, more clicks and uniques. We see this all the time with spot news and serial crime stories (e.g. Casey Anthony). And because that traffic surge to the Hillsider Patch, following some event that touches a nerve, only temporarily drives numbers up does not always mean that traffic is for nought. In fact, this is a fine opportunity for a local network (or any hyperlocal) to draw attention to all the other unique things they provide; a network like Patch could push sudden traffic spikes in the direction of similar stories from others in the chain, or nearby towns, or collect citizen feedback across the network on that localized issue writ large.
But does all that nice stuff drive revenue by pushing through more relevant clicks from those new uniques? Arguably no. So what to do? Well, if we asked Patch’s unofficial guiding light Huffington Post (disclosure: I’ve published on HuffPo), it might come down to a simple equation: more + sexiness <+ success> = successiness. In that vein I figured I’d offer a modest proposal of ideas Patch might want to run to goose traffic:
My Healthy Body
Challenge readers to upload pictures of themselves at their healthiest. If that means most are scantily clad and can-tanned, so be it… it’s crowdsourcing for health, with a side of beef. Call it the Healthiest in Town contest and wait for the clicks to clack in.
Everyone’s ostensibly in the online personals business these days, even it’s called something a little different — like, I dunno, social networking. But hone that a little bit and aggregate localized personals profiles from the Match.coms and others of the world to create a neighborhood by neighborhood directory of who has an active personal. Bam! Voyeuristic pageviews.
[To that song from Mr.Rodgers Neighborhood] “Who are the deadbeats in your neighborhood, in your neighborhood, in your neigh-bor-hood?” It’s a matter of public record, yes? Create a live mashup of the data overlain on a map and subdivided by neighborhood and you’ve got a Wagger Widget for residents to while away hours snooping on the ills of the Joneses.
Greatest Price Drops
Oooooh, ouch…. That’s gotta hurt. Lots of us are upside down in our mortgages — why not share the misery and hammer home some pageviews while at it? Allow me: Retrieve the available databases of home sales for the past 10 years and create a running chart of who’s likely up and likely down. Break down by town then ‘hood. Repeat across the country. Toss in some of those nifty, meaningless data visualizations for distro and you’ve got a brand extension tool to hook more views from sites unrelated to Patch.
Scary drives traffic. Scary plows traffic into a jam, in fact. And what’s more scary than crime in the neighborhood? “Not in MY neighborhood.” You say? Oh yes, my friend, in yours. Know how we know? Patch will have a hyperlocal police blotter that indexes crimes by severity creating local heat maps, and allow citizens to contribute what the cops miss: a small item lifted from a garage; cell phone boosted overnight from the car in the drive. Before you know it you can track the growing crime wavelets from house to house. Sounds of nail biting is drowned out by clicks.
Those Top Doc and Best Burger lists are nice. Want to drive HuffPo-like traffic? Vote on the worst dentist, the clumsiest OBGYN, the ENT with the worst breath. Would you like a redundant server with that?
OK, if you’ve gotta do a Best Of, go ahead and create ongoing features for readers to contribute to: Best Places for a Lunchtime Nap; Best ‘Tree Doc’ for Eliminating Unwanted but Protected Trees; Best Teacher for Lazy Kids; Best Place for a Free Meal if You Just Happen to Find a Hair in the Food. Best Bookie. You get the idea.
But that’s just for starters. The possibilities are many but Patch’s time is… well, actually… Patch has LOTS of time given Aol’s budget. So I guess they can spend millions of dollars surveying for others that work well… most discreet firebug… homes with the loudest family arguments…
Rick Robinson’s Turf Talk column appears every Wednesday on Street Fight.