Anyone paying attention to this column knows I’ve dedicated plenty of thought to AOL’s efforts in local, primarily via its Patch effort. Sometimes I’ve listened as editors ranted, other times as AOL execs pushed back, or extolled their me-too schemes. And once I marveled at how sensitive-area hair removal was localized. Ouch.
Some at Patch/AOL were unhappy. Others mailed me with even more colorful complaints, or “can-you-believe-this” vignettes — much of which just sounded to me like daily life in a corporation.
So I wanted to turn the tables on myself a bit and challenge Patch to sell us on what is going right. To that end, I asked Patch co-founder Warren Webster what he and team could point to as 10 things he considered clear accomplishments of the company. Here is what he sent back:
• Connecting with communities. According to Webster, Patch was “just an upstart on the media scene” when it launched its first three towns in New Jersey in 2009. In four years (more like two, for most sites) Patch has become known in over 900 towns across 22 states, becoming “a go-to community hub of information and conversation for residents and businesses alike,” he says. Traffic continues to grow, and he asserts that “in many towns, it may be hard to remember ‘life before Patch’ where you wouldn’t stop to say ‘hi’ to your local editor at the coffee shop and fill her in on a developing story.”
• Disrupting an industry. Webster says Patch came along just as the experts [not this one] were predicting the demise of local newspapers; a situation where many had tried — and failed — to find a solution. “As perhaps the largest single investment in the local space, Patch jumped in with both feet and set a standard that inspired many media companies, large and small, to invest in neighborhoods again and forced legacy players to rethink their strategies,” he says.
• Iterating to find solutions. “As a start-up that is disrupting an industry that has been around for hundreds of years, it’s not surprising,” notes Webster, that Patch “relentlessly tweaks its product and structure on the fly,” trying new things and looking for the formula that will work across every town in America. [Well, not quite every town — AOL has slowed its rapid expansion of Patches.]
• Improving local life. “Patch exists because there is a critical need in local communities,” Webster says. “While the Internet did a good job connecting you with your friends and family wherever they may be (Facebook), globalizing commerce by letting you buy anything from anywhere (Amazon, EBay), or organizing the world’s information (Google), no one had solved the local information problem.” He went on to ask how does one “stay informed about the decisions that affect you most in your own neighborhood, where you send your kids to school, spend the majority of your income and make critical decisions everyday?” Webster notes that Patch provides a platform for news and information, commerce and conversation that fills that void and measurably improves the way you live your life in your town. Specific example? Webster points to crime fighting: An East Haven, CT, Patch story apparently led to the apprehension of two fugitives — a man in New York and one in Massachusetts.
• Helping small businesses succeed. With an audience of 13.5M (comScore) monthly UVs, and average implied penetration of 75%, says Webster, Patch has become the “entry point for digital advertising in local communities, helping over hundreds of small businesses reach qualified consumers and inspiring them to buy.” Webster points out Patch has also held over 50 “Main Street University” events, bringing small business owners together with digital media experts to advise them on how to navigate digital advertising and commerce. “Patch Partners,” said Webster, “helps small businesses by offering them tips from some of the most successful entrepreneurs in the world, and giving them access to information that will give them an edge.”
• Inspiring positive change. Since Patch started in 2009, there are hundreds of examples of residents rallying together on Patch to change their community for the better, according to Webster. “After reading a Ramona Patch rticle, which reported that Ramona’s Arriba Teen Center was in danger of closing, a Patch user, and local psychiatrist, called the center and pledged support for the monthly expenses,” Webster said. “In addition, she challenged other local healthcare providers to meet or beat her pledge.”
• Connecting neighbors. Webster asserts Patch is a “community bulletin board that brings neighbors together by providing a place to post events coming up, fundraisers, interest groups, local sports and every other aspect of community life.” He says that Patch is a place for conversation and “connecting neighbors to each other and to organizations that are an integral part of daily life.”And it doesn’t get more small-town-connecting-homey than this: Pacifica Patch’s local Editor was looking at the announcements posted on her site and read one looking for a missing cat. “She contacted the woman who posted the announcement,” said Webster, “confirmed that the cat was still missing, featured the announcement on the homepage — and within two hours, with the help of the community, the cat had been found and was returned to its home.” Call Hallmark!
• Providing a lifeline. “Patch proved invaluable during times of crisis over the past months, says Webster. “During Hurricane Sandy we had over 300 communities affected. We posted over 14,000 critical updates on the status in each community, shelter, food and supplies.” And Twitter and Patch were a helpful duo in South Carolina, apparently when Mauldin Patch helped bring two missing teens safely home. The Local Editor received tips via the site’s Twitter account which he then forwarded to the authorities. In turn, the police recommended that locals sign up for Mauldin Patch alerts.
• Giving back. “Patch invests in communities by creating local jobs, providing a valuable platform, but also through volunteerism and giving back to the communities that we serve,” Webster says. “Patch employees have volunteered countless hours to good works in their town through the Give 5 program, working at food banks, homeless shelters, senior centers and many other charities. Giving and volunteerism are fundamental principles for the company.”
• Living local. Finally, while many companies have tried to approach digital media from a “we’ll build it and they’ll come” point of view, says Webster “Patch believes that you must ‘live local to win local.’ Patch has hired over 1,000 local journalists during a time when tens of thousands of journalism jobs have been lost, and hundreds of local sales professionals, because they know that the local presence is key to serving a community.” And, well, trading that former newspaper salary for Patch’s might be worth it if you can live that local life.
This will be my last Turf Talk column for Street Fight for the time being. Though, as has been the case before, I may return in time to focus on things through a different lens. Stand by.
Rick Robinson is an advisor to Street Fight. Follow him at @wideopensea.