What Works in One Local Market Won’t Necessarily Work in Another

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Helping lead the growth of 280 communities across ten broadcast stations in 8 states at Gannett has not been an easy task. I’ve learned, sometimes through epic failures, what works in Tracy (a suburb of Sacramento, Calif.) won’t work in Tampa. However, I’ve also learned, through epic victories, that when you harness the power of 200+ communities for a common goal great things can happen. Here are a few bits of wisdom I’ve picked up along the way.

Think Small
One reads a lot about small hyperlocal start-ups and what they need to do to survive. Big groups of local sites need to steal pages from their playbooks. Even if you have dominant local TV stations that you can leverage for promotion, creating niche communities requires knowing the neighborhoods and starting from the ground up. You need to reach out to local bloggers, civic leaders and personally attend those community luncheons and fairs (you know, the ones too small for the TV news to cover).

You also can’t lay out blanket requirements for every station and community. We learned the hard way that getting participating bloggers in Sacramento is a lot different than doing the same thing in the D.C. area, where writers are more competitive and less likely to share their thoughts. Meanwhile, we’ve found that running contests works in Tampa, where simply highlighting the “best of” (best burger, pizza, and etc.) worked just as well as it did in Grand Rapids, Mich. You must set expectations and goals for each community separately rather than requiring every site to meet the same goals. One producer may be able to manage the sites on the phone in the newsroom in Macon, Ga. But in Jacksonville, Fla., the producer will have better success meeting people face to face. Bottom line: know your community.

Separate Sales & Content
One area where it pays to be big is in the ability to split sales and content. We have one team focused on sales and a separate team focused on content. That’s helped us have 12 straight months of growth in both areas. Obviously the two groups need to come together for promotions and community events. But keeping producers focused on great content and sales members focused on getting local businesses on board is a key to success.

Try Everything Everywhere – But Be Ready to Punt!
While you can’t mandate the same standards across the group, you need to get all the sites to try the same ideas. They will work differently in each neighborhood and that’s the best way to get the best practices for the group. Roll out contests to every site, but be prepared to adjust the prizes for your community. In one town, giving a tour of the studio may result in tons of entries, where in another area you may only get a dozen. A fair photo gallery may generate thousands of pageviews in one community but only a hundred in another. The key is finding the gallery or contest that works for your specific area.

Want to Win Big? Act Your Size
When the big news happens, you’ll be small minded if you don’t harness the power of being a big group.

When Hurricane Irene went up the east coast, most community sites could have posted school closings, shelters, pictures and the like. In fact any site worth its weight should do those things. But we tied our communities together in galleries, story links and even on air promotion. So people in Maine started seeing the impact of Irene in Jacksonville, along the coast of Georgia, through DC, Buffalo and finally into Portland. They could see how other communities their size were handling flooding, food distribution and shelter. Perhaps it made those communities a little more prepared.

Then there was the “Occupy” Day of Action. Most of our communities had rallies or protests. We created special sections showing local stories and pictures. But we also linked to other protests in our other communities across the country. And when one group walked from NY to DC we were able to show it from different points. So we were able to cover a big story from the view that matters most to our users… their neighborhood level.

We’ve even had a playful competition between one of our Michigan communities and one in Florida, showing off their best weather in a gallery, asking users where they’d rather be.

So yes, being big can be a big struggle. But teaming up means even bigger success. What if you’re not a big group of hyperlocal communities? Partner with TV stations, newspapers, radio groups, local bloggers in other areas and you can see the same success.

Don Buckindail is community website station liaison at Gannett Media.