Webster Says Patch Must ‘Be the Community,’ Others Weigh In

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This is a the third installment in a series about hyperlocal past and present. Read here about Digital City / AOL, CitySearch, and Microsoft’s Sidewalk.

I reached out to Warren Webster, president of AOL’s Patch network, the day before their big multi-thousand-blogger launch for thoughts on some of the views of the “Local 1.0” set discussed in the previous posts in this series. In an email, he said: “It’s important to note that Patch isn’t citizen journalism. Patch is a platform staffed by professional journalists with an average of nine years’ experience. Patch also offers many opportunities for members of the community to have a voice on this platform — and for SMBs to drive consumer actions.”

He was philosophical on community and the community, terms somewhat lost to “social media” and geo-social-mobile, saying: “The thing with local is that it’s not enough to ‘cover’ the community and push it out. You need to ‘be’ the community — a virtual version of the physical place. This is where many media companies have stumbled when attempting a digital local play.”

Webster said that in the ’90s and over the transom into the ’00s, it was all about getting the local newspaper up on the Web. The demand for media, and user behavior, has shifted more dramatically in the last three years, he said, than perhaps anytime in recent history.

“While the Internet of 10 and even five years ago was perceived as making the world more global and taking away the limitations of geography (eBay and Amazon allowing you to buy anything, anywhere; Facebook allowing you to stay in touch with your friends no matter where they are) much of what we’re doing today is reconnecting people with the place they live,” said Webster. “Whether it’s news that is no longer being covered by traditional media in small neighborhoods, or critical information that will help you know what’s going on at the local school or in government, or a notification that the restaurant down the street has a two-for-one special tonight, it’s conversation with your neighbors that will strengthen communities and ultimately make Patch successful if we do our job right.”

While the Internet of 10 and even five years ago was perceived as making the world more global … much of what we’re doing today is reconnecting people with the place they live.” — Patch president Warren Webster

Webster also said it’s important that Patch news and information must be “accessible everywhere” — including mobile devices, partner sites, readers, TV — not only on a destination site: “We also believe that scale is important for our model, with all the efficiencies and shared benefits that we’ve been able to find as a result of our scale.  Ultimately the mix of professional journalism, the most important information (events, deadlines, facts) you need every day, user contribution and engagement, multi-channel distribution, great technology and scale are the pieces that come together to make Patch successful.”


A couple of the hyperlocal 1.0 heavies we interviewed last week had their own ideas about what would make a hyperlocal effort like Patch successful today:

Bob Smith: I like Patch better than some of the earlier “citizen journalism” efforts. I like the fact that it’s a “push” product. Hyperlocal needs to be pushed because it’s very difficult to build user habit with a destination site — the days of AOL Digital City using the front button on AOL as our primary traffic builder are over. It will be interesting to see how well they monetize. In theory they are a great delivery platform for coupon deals and local ads. How effective they’ll be will depend on open rates, etc. just like any direct marketer.

Another potential challenge for them is editorial cost versus quality — Every hyperlocal effort taking a traditional journalistic approach versus a community or social approach has failed because the balance between editorial costs and quality almost always ends with costs winning. The problem with hyperlocal is it follows the law of geometry that says that there are an infinite number of points between any two points. So even if you try to reduce the scope to a very small community you can theoretically still create an unlimited amount of content about it. If you have high fixed operating costs or per-article costs you need highly efficient monetization to make the effort work. However, monetization drops off precipitously the more “hyper” your local content becomes. Pulling up to the metro level (like we did with Digital City) means you are competing with TV, radio and other local media information. High content costs combined with poor monetization potential per article is a bad model. 

The challenge to create a rich, seamless, immediate experience for consumers across all the localities nationwide is daunting. … Figure it out and really do it well in a few places before you take an excessively thin service to every city.” — Former CitySearch chief Charles Conn

The Washington Post had problems with this a few years ago in Loudon county [a Virginia hyperlocal effort] and teh Chicago Tribune had that problem in 1997 and 1998. It’s a tough formula to get right. I wish them well. I helped found BrightHub.com and that has been a continuing challenge to us — thankfully we’ve largely succeeded in keeping the balance right.

What would you recommend to “hyperlocal 2.0” players starting out today?
Charles Conn: Local is the pie-eating contest where the prize is more pie. Everyone knows that there is more than $100 billion per year in local advertising, and much more value than that in tickets, reservations, coupons and other services. But the challenge to create a rich, seamless, immediate experience for consumers across all the localities nationwide is daunting. The thing that makes sense to me is to figure it out and really do it well in a few places before you take an excessively thin service to every city.

Bob Smith: Mobile is local and local is always the best place where community and commerce blend seamlessly. In my recent, unsuccessful efforts to build a new localization tool with iBelong Networks, I really tried to focus on how content is distributed rather than how it’s created. Ultimately, local needs to be directly delivered to the participant; it can’t rely on search or a destination to succeed. That’s why, in theory, it’s tailor-made for the app world.

If it’s possible to tap into how very small informal groups disseminate content there may be a possibility there to push editorial content (like Patch). I always thought American Towns Network could have gone that way. Really good feed aggregation combined with community formation and sharing could be a way to go. Ultimately, though, people are increasingly completely atomized entities loosely tied together by social networks accessed through mobile devices. These networks are increasingly serving as the way of distributing very localized or personalized content streams. Creating a means of helping local merchants access these networks effectively is a way I’d look. But it’s also unlikely that the city guide as we originally conceived it is the right model. In an app-driven world the categories we combined each will live as discrete properties. Users will assemble their view of the world through the apps they select and how those apps are configured. You also have to see Facebook as a huge hyperlocal publishing platform — after all, what is more localized than your circle of friends.

So, better ways of creating an individualized stream of content and offers to people based on their demographics, behavior and situational context served with geo-awareness makes a lot of sense to me. Ultimately I think that we’re soon going to break down even the mobile device chokepoint for message delivery. Soon I think that display technologies will proliferate to permit us to push hyperlocal messaging to a lot of non-traditional messaging platforms including a store window, bus stops, taxis, buses and subways, etc. through devices that know who is in the crowd and what they want to see. That means geo-analytics are a key in the future and why I got involved with GeoIQ.