Two things drive traffic to Patch: natural disasters and elections. No one can control the former, but the latter occur on a predictable schedule, and the AOL property is aiming to capitalize on the 2012 campaigns. Street Fight spoke with Patch Elections head John Ness recently about traffic surges, keeping people coming back, and why he’s not worried about user fatigue.
How is Patch covering the 2012 elections?
Last year, we launched “Primary Patches” in New Hampshire, Iowa, and South Carolina — the three big primary states. They had nine local editors each, with a regional editor over the top of them. Those served as a great starting place for us to see what works on a presidential level. Politics in South Carolina, New Hampshire, and Iowa really is culture, so to a certain degree all they did was politics. In other Patches, politics is just one facet, but in Iowa and New Hampshire, especially, all anyone cares about is politics.
We’ve been hitting most of the primary states since then. We are in 21 states across the country. We weren’t in Louisiana, but we will be in Wisconsin next week. We’ve taken the best practices out of those first three states and rolled out across the country. Our brand for everything election-related is “Participate 2012.” We think of election coverage as an effort to get folks engaged, and we are purposely placing that in contrary to say “Decision 2012.” We’re not about making someone make a decision in November about Romney versus Obama. Our goal is to get folks engaged in their communities. That’s what we see resonating with our audience overall.
Traffic must be biggest on primary days.
Yes, it is. We usually break our voting records then. The two absolute rainmakers for us are voting day or a hurricane coming to town. We can’t schedule hurricanes, but what we always find — whether it’s a diehard state like Iowa or one that’s a little more relaxed about primaries — is that people love voting results. Even when we get reports out of Illinois, for example, that turnout is awful, people still really want to know, “Did my neighborhood go from Romney or Santorum?” Obviously, they can go to other sources to find out if Romney carried Illinois, but what they consistently come back to us for and how we grow our audience is through people wanting to see those election results. Because we’ve been doing this for awhile, we’ve really gotten good at explaining how it breaks down township by township, or county by county.
What surprising things did you learn when you launched those first three states?
One thing is the importance of utility to our audience. People really want to know what their neighbors are talking about. People are also really interested in big stories that changed the national narrative. We were successful in getting some stuff. We got Mitt Romney’s sons making a Birther joke. We did some research that told us before anyone else that Newt [Gingrich] was going to skyrocket up and come back to earth.
But what people really care about is when Mitt Romney is nearby or a county over. In 99% of cases, what really resonates with users is when you can say some event is going on 13 blocks from you. Visiting candidates are the only events that are exceptions. If Barack Obama is in Long Island, and I live in Park Slope, I want to know about that.
On the business side, are you doing anything to sell against the traffic spikes you know are coming?
That’s more a question for the advertising side, but in September 2011 we created a huge grid looking across all of Patchlandia both figuring out where all the elections were and then working with national focus to figure out where the high-interest elections were. That’s where people were going to start dumping the money. We always knew that Mitt Romney was going to dump money in Ohio or Iowa or the obvious places, but we made sure to work with the national folks who told us where the really interesting races were. Editorially, we made sure to have x, y, and z in those places so we were ready to go.
Creating the grid mapping out next year was one of the first projects where the edit team and the sales team worked together. At the end of the day, there’s no one better than edit folks to know that information. You can try to go through partnerships, but no one really cares about that stuff like a local editor.
How do you keep people coming back after the elections?
They really have stuck around in the primary Patches. They discovered us because we were talking about the big point of the day, but they stuck around to see everything that’s going on in their patches and to see about news generally. I think it’s like any other big get. We get a huge swell of uniques on voting days, which is important because it’s local people who are coming in. If we happen to be the outlet that gets video of Mitt Romney’s son making a Birther joke, that’s great from an editorial point of view, but the lion’s share of those uniques are people coming in from across the country.
What really works for us is when we steadily build up anticipation to the election, and then do a great job on election day. We’ve really exposed our brand to thousands of people locally, and they come back because they’ve had a good experience. We have hundreds and hundreds of journalists here, and if there’s one thing journalists have in their blood, it’s the ability to execute on voting day. It’s a thing that if you wanted to do this in the first place, then you get excited for.
“We’re not part of the problem in voter fatigue. We’re here when people want more information about the election coming up.”
Is the plan going as expected so far?
I think so. It’s really amazing to have this amount of resources to throw at the election. Every single editor of our hundreds and hundreds of editors is really excited to do 2012 in an amazing way.
When the Wisconsin primary comes up, the great news is that our guys there have done a great job covering the Gubernatorial recall for months now, so they’ve already gotten the politics bug. But whether it’s someone like that who has been executing day after day or someone new, we find new ways to make this really relevant place to place. Deerborn, Michigan is one of the most diverse communities in the country, and even though the primary wasn’t the biggest thing in the world, they’ve done some amazing feature work talking about who Arab-Americans are likely to vote for and how they are responding to the news. Those human interest stories might not become a talking point, but they do a great job of bringing the election live for people. We’ve done a good job of coming up with models for that so we can do it everywhere. When a local editor starts to hear about a trend, we have models to build feature stories around it. We’ve done a good job of not just flooding the patch on voting day but also building a conversation over the course of the year.
There is a mountain of political coverage out there. Are you worried about fatigue from the audience?
No, not especially. What we’re doing is pretty fresh on the scene. I think everyone who follows Fox News or goes to the Drudge Report all the time worries about fatigue but we don’t so much. We find that people are really refreshed by what they get when they come to Patch. I’m not lying when we know internally that there are two types of people: People who don’t know what Patch is and people who love Patch. Whenever we expose our brand to new people, we usually do pretty well.
We have data that says people love to get this kind of information from us, whether on the day of voting or soon before when we ramp up. When we get it in front of peoples’ eyeballs, that’s when we do really well. The people who are our natural base of traffic know that they want the information, and we are inevitability the best-placed brand to give it to them. We’re not part of the problem in voter fatigue. We’re here when people want more information about the election coming up. When they ask Google when they have to register by, we’re the first people that come up and we’re the people that give them answers. Thankfully, we’re dealing with people when they are activating their civic duty; we’re not the folks who are telling them every day that they need to be angry about Etch-A-Sketch comments.
Noah Davis is senior editor at Street Fight. He previously covered media at mediabistro.com and Business Insider as well as during multiple stints of full-time freelancing. He has written for The Wall Street Journal, NYMag.com, Wired.com, SportsIllustrated.com, and many other publications.
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