How Hyperlocals Can Build Community and Source Stories With Meal Meetups

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As the campaign season heats up, the candidates are all stoking their boots-on-the-ground operations with social media efforts to drive out the vote and build community.

The Obama campaign, in particular, gained considerable traction in 2008 from a well-thought out, well-executed local strategy that used email and Facebook to pull in volunteers for specific discrete tasks (manning a call bank for a couple of hours one evening) or asking them for specific, modest amounts of money. Obama’s team also made it drop-dead simple to share your campaign activity with others. I get the campaign’s emails because I signed up for them in 2008 to stay informed; I also signed up for a number of other campaign email lists.

Another email list I am is for GrubWithUs, a well-financed group-meal site that announces dinners themed around specific topics or traits. It’s a nice way to meet people, like-minded or otherwise. Not surprisingly, the Obama email campaign has been taking a cue from the GrubWithUs crowd, pushing local fundraising dinners pegged to specific neighborhoods. This is probably not an entirely new tactic; coffee-klatsching-for-cash is a time-honored political activity. But what’s new has been the persistence and the clever insertion of virality, along with the idea of building community. Obama’s operators have smartly inserted a contest aspect that enters paying dinner guests in a sweepstakes to win an actual dinner with the POTUS himself and his wife. Call it the “carrot and carrot” approach.

I couldn’t help but wonder, having watched these two successful efforts at building community at the local level – what lessons could hyperlocal publications take from this? Patch does sponsor a handful of events. The Bay Citizen does a very nice job of putting on”Happy Hours” and sponsoring lectures (although this is on a wider scale because it covers a big area). What I haven’t seen a lot of, however, is the block-by-block, table-by-table approach to building community. In turn, these events could probably generate some pretty interesting content — for not a lot of money.

So how would it work? Simple. GrubWithUs teams with Patch or West Seattle Blog or Baristanet (insert favorite hyper-local news blog or company here) to tee up discounted dinners at local establishments. Each dinner would have a sponsored topic or theme. These could be political, social, sports-related, or cover just about anything to do with the community. GrubWithUs generally offers these dinners for $30. A hyperlocal host or guest blogger serves as the moderator. Guests have a glass of wine then chat a bit about the topic at hand. They eat their meal, then chat some more. The conversations are dutifully recorded via video with streaming video available during the chat sessions. The dinner winds down with a sweet. The attendees vote on their favorite dishes from the meal.

And here’s how to make the sausage: The testimonies of the attendees are broken down and transcribed for publication on the hyperlocal blog, along with their headshots. They also vote in a poll that provides yet another small content element. Anyone can vote in the poll, including non-attendees and general visitors to the hyperlocal blog. The video stream gets a sponsor logo from the supporting restaurant. The publication writes up the favorite dish(es) as a mini-review that fits the generally positive ethos of small-town restaurant journalism. The blog editor gets multiple pieces of content and gets excellent facetime with the community – all at a fairly minimal cost. The events, when shared either pre-or-post event, provide additional exposure for the blog.

Granted I’m making all of this sound easy — I fully understand it would take real time and energy to make this work. Then again, the net result could be far more powerful than a standard phone-reported story. What’s more, the effort to get out into the community and just listen would build additional trust and pull in new visitors to the site.

Am I sure this would work? No, I am not. But that said, having watched the successful construction of communities brick-by-brick in politics, in meals, and in high-tech around topics of interest, I know that the power of simply sitting down with a small group to learn their views can result in powerful changes and truly viral sharing of genuine user-generated content of the highest quality. Note to my regular readers – this is all part of my ongoing obsession with strategies to generate cheap, high-quality content for hyperlocal. We can build a better mousetrap! Stay tuned.

Alex Salkever is an executive at a cloud computing company and a former technology editor of The views expressed in his column are his own and not those of his employer. His Personal Fight column appears every Wednesday on Street Fight.