How Hyperlocals Can Burn In Their Brand

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There aren’t a ton of major brands in hyperlocal yet. Why is that, I asked Brian Timpone, founder and CEO of six-year-old entrepreneurial Journatic, which recently added Tribune Co.’s 90-community, five-year-old TribLocal to sites it operates.

“In branding, trust and credibility are everything, but you have to earn it,” he said. “You have to be frequent and consistent. You can’t be random — that will kill you. You can’t cover one high school game and miss the others.”

He emphasizes that branding is a two-way street: “You earn it because the community bestowed it on you.” That doesn’t happen with the waving of a PR wand. Just a few years old, most hyperlocals are still earning their branding.

Timpone says ad agencies and ad exchanges, with their emphasis on buying ad impressions, are inhibiting development of branding on the Web, including at the community level. When they buy a million impressions, parsed down to selected demographics and psychographics, they are, Timpone says, “just buying numbers. They aren’t buying brands.”

How important is branding to hyperlocals? I put the question to a handful of editors, publishers and other leaders of hyperlocals that are successful or are headed in that direction, and here’s what they said:

Mike Shapiro, founder and editor and publisher of The Alternative Press, a 15-site network in suburban New Jersey that was founded in 2008 in Union County’s Borough of New Providence: “A hyperlocal site can be a brand. We are known for being truly local, having objective, thorough, high-quality news, and providing residents, businesses and organizations with a platform for their voices by offering various opportunities to contribute online content.  Our brand sets us apart from other hyperlocals that do not have these distinguishing characteristics. [This comment by Shapiro replaces one that was erroneously attributed to him. My apologies. — T.G.]

Jennifer Marley, director of engagement and social media at Charlottesville Tomorrow, the seven-year-old nonprofit in Jefferson’s Virginia hometown: “Branding is incredibly important, because people have so many choices about which media they consume today. If your brand image connects with your readers, they will choose you. A good brand can also equal flexibility. We’re in a situation right now where we want to expand our coverage area, and because people trust the way we’re already covering our core topics, we already have their ear.”

Gordon Joseloff, founder and publisher of Westport Now, the nine-year-old independent site serving that most rarefied of Connecticut suburbs: By providing top journalism 24/7 with breaking news, compelling photos, and popular features such as our “Teardown of the Day,” WestportNow has branded itself as the news leader in this highly affluent, online savvy community where there are five online sites competing for eyeballs and advertisers (as well as two newspapers, one a weekly, the other twice-a-week)….We don’t consciously think of branding in the traditional sense – but have attained a modicum of branding by virtue of what we do day and day out. Our brand has come to represent quality and reliability.”

Scott Brodbeck, founder, editor and publisher of ARLNow, the two-year-old indie in  Northern Virginia’s inner-suburb Arlington County: “A brand is only as strong as the customers’ love for the product. The best branding for a hyperlocal news website is consistent, relevant, compelling coverage of a local community.”

Debra Galant, co-founder and editor of Baristanet, the eight-year-old indie site in suburban New Jersey’s Montclair Township and surrounding Essex County: “If you’re not a strong brand you’re a commodity. We’re the local media outlet with attitude and style. One of the ways we ‘sell’ our brand is through our annual July 4th float at the Montclair parade.”

Margie Freivogel, editor of the St. Louis Beacon, the four-year-old nonprofit serving greater St. Louis: “It’s very important for the Beacon to understand what our value is to our fellow St. Louisans. How we perceive that is summarized in two shorthand slogans – “News That Matters” and “A Better St. Louis Powered by Journalism.” These guidestars helps us make decisions about what to cover and what other kinds of efforts to get involved in. Content comes first.”

Ned Berke, founder and editor of Sheepshead Bites, the four-year-old indie serving Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn: “Branding at the hyperlocal level is not like Nike – “Just do it” – you have to produce. We are known for producing good journalism from people in the neighborhood for people in the neighborhood. You build a trust with your readers. We also serve businesses that care about the community, and snip out those that don’t. Branding at the hyperlocal level is grassroots. The people – your readers and the small businesses that care – build the brand for you.”

Mike Marty, VP/marketing, Patch, the AOL pure-play network of 850 sites nationwide dating to 2009 when AOL acquired the original five-community cluster centered in suburban New Jersey: “We have three phased branding goals – short term, transitional and long term: Short term, we create ‘celebrities’ out of our local editor and sales reps that walk the local streets.  They create human connections.  As the community understands we’ve invested in editorial and sales professionals, there starts to be a trust. This leads to the third phase – Patch the brand becomes part of the community. People refer to ‘The Patch.’ These core tenets came shrink-wrapped [from the original team], but we’re learning how to implement them in 850 communities.”

What’s interesting, and reassuring, is that these leaders of indies, corporate pure plays, legacies and nonprofits are in basic agreement — branding is important, it has to be earned, and audiences wield the iron that burns in the brand.

Tom Grubisich authors The New News column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of LocalAmerica, which is developing a Web site to rank communities on their livability across 20-plus categories. The rankings will be dynamic, going up and down daily as they are updated through a combination of open data, journalism and feedback from local experts and users of the site.

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