Stretching the Definition of ‘Local’ With Patch-HuffPo

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“Hair removal is just one of those things in life that women choose to participate it (sic). Sure we can let our hair run wild but, our dating prospects may not be as bright on the horizon. When it comes to hair removal we are classified in four groups: waxers, shavers, creamers (hair removal creams such as Nair), and women who let it hang loose. I decided to visit a new salon, Maisie Dunbar Spa Lounge, in the area that had a special on waxing.” — Silver Spring, Md., Patch (see video below)

Nothing is more local than one’s legs, or at least leg treatments. But does an eyebrow-raising topic coupled with a local venue qualify as “hyperlocal” content — and does it even matter, so long as the clicks are there?

The latter might be the case at Patch, as some of the network’s programming has turned toward the model followed by The Huffington Post and various (successful) content “farms” that draw readers in with off-topic sex appeal then deliver them off-site — thanks for the clicks and ad views! Apparently Patch is not the only AOL property being tooled by Arianna Huffington and her corps: AOL itself has dipped into such urgent topics as how men who fake orgasms should masturbate more. Titillating for sure, and likely a clicker, but is this really helping anyone (not least the online business that oversees Patch)?

Changes internally hint at what’s to come, as do comments from Patch editors who I spoke to. One recent change includes Patch co-founder Jon Brod, who got a bit of a haircut, going from being responsible for HuffPo Media operations to just focusing once again on Patch. But, as noted, this does not necessarily mean a turn toward hyperlocal-only focus.

Full disclosure here:  I was in charge of editorial for AOL’s 1.0 hyperlocal network called Digital City, later dubbed AOL Local. And I can tell you on many occasions I (and the co-conspirators I worked with) dramatically stretched the definition of local in the interest of driving traffic.

For example, let’s say it’s 1997 and the re-release of the Star Wars trilogy was hitting theaters soon, celebrating the 20-year anniversary of the first film. Surely fans were just as excited in small towns as well as large, or in general. So how do you “localize” Star Wars? Simple: secure the AOL keyword “starwars,” create a directory of theaters showing the re-edited trilogy, create games aimed at connecting people geographically around going to the theater and fill the message boards with fans waxing about when they saw the first release — where they were, what it was like, etc. And that’s what we did. The content was mostly user-generated, segmented by region and grew long beyond the release of the new films. But was it local?

In the early days, editors at the local level had a great deal of control over editorial voice and direction. That began to change as we turned the corner from a disparate band of individual city sites connected by little more than ethos to a contiguous network that the sales group could sell to national advertisers. Managing that change is very difficult. It’s a hard task to create relatively equal quality across a network while also assuring local personality, as Patch clearly is discovering today.  But again, that HuffPo influence… it could mean less hand-wringing is in store for editors around localization and more about simply sexing things up.

One of the problems could be the growing pains of a fairly layered operation (Patch) getting pressed together with an army of SEO/editorial experts who don’t necessarily care about local with a capital L. Especially following Patch’s incredible feat of getting over 800 towns covered in so short a time.

I talked to a couple of Patch local editors (not the Silver Spring editor), to get their perspective at the ground level. One in particular had several interesting points to make, which I’ve laid out below. Others have talked about how there seems to be a scrum shaping up between the Patch team and the HuffPo noobs.

Now while we wait for the budgets for the new quarter it looks like it will bring more emphasis on “trending topics” and tailoring content to what people web-wide are searching for, not necessarily what is going on in our Patch ~ Patch Editor

What are the criteria for hiring Patch editors? I assume quality varies greatly.
Officially: two years of experience and a journalism education. But there are a great many who were hired right out of college. Yes, quality varies wildly — from sites that break news and do some good things, are updated often and become a real part of the community to the item you found about leg waxing.

Patch seems to have gone through several phases, as though reacting to every months’ unique visitor quota. Is this accurate?
In the first quarter of this year the focus was on stay-at-home moms with day-parted content, following what seemed like a brainstorm at the upper levels of the editorial or marketing staff. That lasted a few weeks and then died off quickly because there was no unique visitor explosion, and it generally created confusion.

Then came Q2 and the well-reported drive to get free local bloggers writing for each Patch — at least 10 per site. The predictions were for 8,000 “Local Voices” in total but we ended up with not nearly that many, and a lot of those who were secured write about universal topics, or cooking and exercise.

Now while we wait for the budgets for the new quarter it looks like it will bring more emphasis on “trending topics” and tailoring content to what people Web-wide are searching for, not necessarily what is going on in our Patch. The Huffington Post influence is gently suggesting adding this content to drive UVs.

So it sounds like since HuffPo came into the picture there is even more layering of editorial decisions, creating a gulf between people “on the ground” and those making decisions. Is this accurate?
Indeed. Ariana says one thing and the other top brass say another. There are many mixed messages, which I think makes it hard to accomplish things, overall.

And while local advertising was once the exclusive goal of Patch — with national advertisers practically forbidden — I hear things there are changing.
They are taking national ads now.


While this last comment is not significant on its own, it does suggest Patch’s hyperlocal philosophy (or even the very model) may not be working as planned. National advertisers are fine, if you can satisfy their demand for foot traffic to local brick-and-mortars. As has been argued elsewhere, perhaps hyperbolically, many methods, such as branding campaigns, are ill-fitted for hyperlocal.

But I suppose if Lady Schick wanted to sponsor leg treatments at the local level across the nation then they have their venue. But is that Patch? Is that our hyperlocal future? Perhaps Arianna knows…

Rick Robinson’s Turf Talk column appears every Wednesday on Street Fight.