My Green Lake’s Duncan: Hyperlocal Means Shop Local

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SeattleSeattle is one of the hotspots of hyperlocal blogs. Its West Seattle Blog boasts 100,000 visitors per month. Capitol Hill Seattle Blog says it gets more than 120,000 visitors per month. My Green Lake is another Seattle blog, with about 16,000 visitors each month, twice the population of the neighborhood it serves, notes its founder, Amy Duncan. Duncan, a former librarian, started the site in 2009 and runs it as a for-profit business currently featuring more than twenty neighborhood-based display ads and participating in three city-wide advertising networks.

Recently, Duncan, who manages both editorial and advertising at My Green Lake, answered a few questions by email.

What does “hyperlocal” mean to you?
If you can comfortably stroll around the area you cover in an hour or two, you are serving a hyperlocal audience. On a hyperlocal beat, no news is too small if it relates to your neighborhood, and big news can never be big enough if there is no neighborhood connection at all.

Readers and PR professionals send me tips, pitches, and story ideas several times every day. Many of these could lead to compelling, interesting stories, or relate to topics that would bring heavy search engine traffic to my site. But, if a story doesn’t relate to Green Lake, I don’t publish it.

A hyperlocal site is a niche site. Lose track of your niche, and you will lose your loyal niche audience.

The reporter who covers Green Lake for KOMO does not live in Green Lake. I have met Patch reporters who do not live in the communities they cover.

What is the most successful aspect of your site in terms of traffic and revenue?
The most successful aspect of My Green Lake is that it links out to other sites since hyperlocal sites are, ironically, made stronger by partnerships with news outlets that serve other neighborhoods. In terms of boosting readership and from a business standpoint, the most successful aspect has been to enter into formal relationships with the Next Door Media network of north Seattle neighborhood news sites and with Formalized link sharing and cross-posting provides measurable, quantitative benefits to everyone involved.

However, there is more to partnership than numbers. Without the resources of a full news room and a sales staff, a small indie site such as My Green Lake needs friends.

In Seattle, we are very lucky. Seattle neighborhood news publishers have formed a true community of their own. We share ideas, tips, tech support, and general “water cooler” chatter every day, mostly over Twitter. I am certain that I would have burned out a long time ago without the mentoring of Tracy Record and Patrick Sand at West Seattle Blog and the daily comedic relief of [Capitol Hill Seattle blogger] Justin Carder’s Twitter stream.

What’s your sense of what local businesses want from hyperlocal websites?
I firmly believe that local businesses, as well as local audiences, want to feel good when they visit their neighborhood news site. I do not mean that hyperlocal sites should sanitize the news. In my opinion, news should be reported accurately and without bias, whether or not it paints the neighborhood in a rosy light. A hyperlocal site provides more than news, however. It provides a structure around the news, in the form of comments, forums, and social media. I believe that hyperlocal publishers need to maintain a strong presence in these arenas, from the very beginning, and set a respectful and kind tone.

I’m not talking about deleting comments or forum postings, but instead about carefully fostering a culture of civility, starting at launch and moving forward. If a reader leaves a snarky comment about a typo or an inaccuracy in your story, thank them immediately with a public comment acknowledging your error. If a social media follower sends you a short note, follow up right away with a reply, even if it’s a simple “thanks” or a smiley emoticon. If you are followed on Twitter, follow back. Small actions build up a culture of trust and respect. You are in charge of the interactive parts of your site, not through deletion, but through participation.

What do you see as the key to building strong, sticky relationships with local audiences, who have so many choices for content, listings and the like?
Hyperlocal publishers have an advantage. Unlike other niche markets, the hyperlocal audience is neatly tucked away in one geographic location. This means that it is very easy to actually know your audience, in an off-line, real-life way. I go to community meetings and attend business openings. I try to be at the scene when breaking news happens and eat at local restaurants, use my local library, shop at my local grocer and sit in a chair at my local salon.

If you have good, relevant content, people will read it, and your site will be used. But, if your readers actually know you, your site will not just be a site they read and use, it will be a site created by someone like them, someone they know, someone who lives where they live.

This is something that aggregators can never compete with. Frankly, even supposed “hyperlocal” sites, such as those connected with DataSphere and AOL, have shown that they cannot compete with this. The reporter who covers Green Lake for KOMO, the Seattle news outlet that partners with DataSphere, does not live in Green Lake. While there is no Green Lake Patch, I have met Patch reporters from other communities that do not live in the communities they cover.

I live and breathe Green Lake.

The real-life connection that an indie hyperlocal publisher has with a neighborhood audience is very difficult, if not impossible, to replicate in any kind of scaled, multi-neighborhood hyperlocal effort.