Locable’s Aim: To Help Sites Build Community as a Brand

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Locable_LLocable is a network of 50 local and hyperlocal websites that shows its “partners” how to build community around their brand. It does this through an approach it calls “Main Street for the 21st Century.”

In this recent Q & A with Street Fight, the company’s co-founder and CEO Brian Ostrovsky talks about what this approach means, and how community sites can position themselves for success.

What do you offer community publishers that they have trouble providing themselves?
We’ve found that local publishers tend to have certain high-value skill-sets, but no one is an expert at everything. This is why groups like LION [Local Independent Online News publishers association] are valuable. We take things further by providing a turnkey marketing platform that serves the entire local community — locals, local businesses and the publisher. Publishers may operate autonomously but that doesn’t mean they have to be alone.

How did you start and who else comprises Locable?
We started with community magazines as an MBA research project in 2009 because my step-brother ran one in my hometown and Locable co-founder and principal Ryan Frisch’s parents run a few in New England. We were never in the “magazine” business — we’re in the community-building business. We realized that in order to be authentically local you had to be present in the markets you serve. Patch and others have shown that it’s prohibitively expensive unless you work with partners.

Community news sites aren’t, overall, doing that well, compared to local commerce sites — the Groupons, Yelps, AutoTraders. Have you figured out how to help community news sites attract businesses as advertisers?
I see publishers using uniques, impressions and click-through rates used as the core value proposition with potential business clients. Advertisers care about reaching the right audience. Statistics only matter when it comes to pricing and that happens after the advertiser is effectively sold.

The magic of a local content site is that local readers are the same people who are local advertisers. The stronger your engagement is with the community the more you get advertisers coming to you. The challenge is that they start by wearing their “reader” hat and you need to be able to help them put on their “business owner” hat. This is an area Locable and our technology excel. At that point, if you’re just selling banner ads then you’re doing yourself and your supporters a disservice.

Do you help community publishers who focus on news to develop a better and broader editorial model?
Absolutely. If you refer to yourself as a “news site,” I’d bet you neglect two of the three major pieces of local content: event information and business information (from directory listings to customer reviews and more). We help publishers expand their view of editorial and drive revenue in new ways in the process.

We see few community sites effectively leveraging social promotions like contests and sweepstakes. Effectively selling and running them is not trivial, but earns the publisher revenue, increased reach and traffic, and a growing distribution channel (more Facebook fans and email subscribers). We show publishers a range of promotional opportunities, provide a range of resources such as sell-sheets, marketing collateral, template graphics and playbooks and in some cases we’ll run the actual execution.

At the local level there is a symbiotic relationship between the various types of content and their sources. Providing unique content is great, but providing a reliable place to find great local content is what makes you truly unique.

You provide a content management system — the “Community Content Engine.” What does it offer that, say, WordPress doesn’t?
WordPress is a great tool, but it’s not the right one for local community sites. Local is the one case where the modular plugin features of WordPress are a negative. Fundamentally, we started with a solid Article/Event/Business information foundation and we focus on “local integration and discovery.” This perspective within our platform as well as our explicit focus on local has significant effects on all of the features we develop.

One of our publishing features allows a website to quickly reuse content by inserting information about an event, business listing, or another article into an article. You can reuse content in WordPress, but it’s cumbersome, which means it won’t happen as often as it should. Our integrated contest engine, powering photo, essay and reader’s choice contests allows publishers to run more compelling, community-engaging contests natively on their site. Locable manages and refines the on-site and retention marketing and provides guidance for newsletter development.

What are your typical monthly costs to the publisher of a community site that uses your basic menu of services?
Our membership fees are based on either print circulation or target audience population for online-only publishers and typically run $125-$400 per month. Membership includes all of our technology, hosting, ongoing enhancements and support as well as our Media Accelerator — the collection of training and resources which help publishers operate more efficiently and profitably. Growing your social media reach, email opt-in list and sales efficiency are just as important as content, but often receive just a fraction of the attention. With Locable you get, in effect, a digital director, sales manager and chief technology officer.

You talk about “building community at the local level into a national network.” Is that happening? What do members of the network share?
Members absolutely benefit from one another. We’ve had some publishers have success running what we call a “5-Star Customer Reviews Contest.” It was just started at West Coast Magazine, which serves Chino, Chino Hills, Corona, Diamond Bar, Phillips Ranch and The Foothills of  Rancho, all in eastern Los Angeles County or San Bernardino County. We built out new features into our directory and developed a playbook that any publisher can follow to successfully monetize and execute a similar campaign. In some cases our publishers interact directly and in others we act as a sort of home office to facilitate an exchange of knowledge and experience.

What should community sites focus on to ensure they’ll be in business in five or 10 years — particularly those that offer news?
We think the “Main Street for the 21st Century” approach is the most natural way to serve a community online. If you set out to build an online newspaper, you’re in trouble. It’s simply too narrow. Think of what Main Street was at its peak. It was a place of commerce, events, an information exchange and the like where all participants created and consumed “content” and all had a responsibility to the community.

Local sites succeed when they solve problems. For local businesses one big problem is effectively engaging their target audience and navigating digital marketing landscape. When you realize that an engaged community is a valuable asset then combine that with a revenue strategy you’re uniquely suited to deliver you’ve got yourself highly profitable, sustainable, and impactful local community site that can evolve as media evolves.

Tom GrubisichTom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) writes “The New News” column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of the in-development hyperlocal news network Local America that rates communities on their performance across a broad spectrum of livability — Local America Charleston launched this month.