Finding a plumber, ordering a pizza, picking a good Mexican place to try for dinner: these are all problems that local technology firms have solved over the past few years. And companies like Angie’s List, Seamless and Yelp have cashed in on answering our questions — serving up solutions to clear, concise problems.
However, that success has largely steered clear of media. Many hyperlocal projects like Patch and Everyblock, which strove to engage, surprise and delight us with content about our surroundings have wandered in the dark, struggling to balance the high cost of producing compelling local content with the fickle appetite of an oversaturated media consumer and a crowded local marketing industry.
But Tony Longo and Dan Adams, the founders of Block Avenue, are doubling down on media. Two years after launching the service as a tool to rate locations, the company has rebranded as CO Everywhere, and released a mobile app to help people explore the world around them. Using the tool, users can pick a featured place, or outline a geography on a map, and peruse content from Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Yelp, Foursquare and a other sources that come from within the area.
And, in a sense, the app does delight. Draw an outline around the Philadelphia Eagles training camp, and browse thirty or so photos of today’s practice. Or select “Disney Land,” and see hundreds of Instagrams and Facebook pictures of Mickey Mouse and friends. Photos dominate, but they’re nearly all relevant — not a trivial accomplishment with the messy state of local data. But without a problem to solve, it’s unclear why consumers will come back to the application outside of the occasional curiosity.
“We’re not a utility. And I wouldn’t classify us as an aggregator or an analytics dashboard. We don’t fit into those categories” says Longo. “We’re still struggling with the terms of exactly what we are. The first version of the application is about consuming social content, and being aware about things that are going on in your local area or another place in your city or across the world. We’ve been calling it a local awareness platform.”
But it isn’t necessarily an absence, but a fragmentation, of potential useful scenarios that limits the service. For journalists, the app solves a very acute problem in tracking social media reports as news breaks in a given location. Twitter, for instance, has yet to release a feature, which would allow users to organize content by a geography, and other third-party services like Topsy primarily focus on marketing analytics. Meanwhile, a music enthusiast might be interested in photos from a favorite band’s recent show and an avid sports fan might want to see tweets from users at football stadium.
Longo thinks there is still a big opportunity in curating and surfacing local deals, and says the company is considering a number of the other non-advertising revenue models like licensing data. Opening the service beyond Block Avenue’s narrow focus on real estate was a big part of the pivot, he says.
But one wonders whether the service needs a specific utility and a concise audience for the software-as-a-service model to be viable. That line of thinking leads naturally back to a media model, and inevitably the selling of audience. Whether it’s deals, banner ads, or paid search messaging, consumer products either need to sell the product to the user, or sell the user to a marketer. And without access to one’s own content, one wonders whether a company can really root itself in aggregation and create and audience that sticks.
Steven Jacobs is Street Fight’s deputy editor.