Are Community Networks the Final Frontier for Local Publishers?

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There has been a lot of debate recently regarding whether Facebook is or isn’t a publisher. Regardless, some assert that Facebook, at a minimum, should exercise editorial control much as as a publisher would. Given that nearly 40% of all Americans claim to get their news from Facebook, it’s an important topic and impacts consumers, but more importantly, existing publishers.

Tom Grubisich recently wrote on Street Fight about the love/hate relationship that local papers have with Facebook. He offers some suggestions to local publishers on how to take back some control over their own destiny. Shortly thereafter, SocialFlow announced that its data indicates publisher reach on Facebook decreased 42% between January and May 2016.

At Bizyhood, we work closely with hyperlocal publishers — publishers that serve a local community and are primarily online only. We’ve noticed that they rely heavily on social media to distribute and expose their stories. Unfortunately, many of our publishers’ Facebook posts aren’t being seen, which is exactly the conclusion that SocialFlow reached from their analysis.

There have always been tradeoffs in the “rent vs. own” conversation on the Internet. It’s expensive to build and operate your own platform that can meet the needs of demanding users. But it’s equally risky to rent other people’s platforms, as they can change the rules at any time with no consideration for how it impacts you.

The challenge for hyperlocal publishers is to figure out how they can have it both ways. It’s imperative that publishers have their own platform; we do not expect many publishers to flourish solely or primarily off the back of a social platform like Facebook or Twitter. However, existing social platforms do offer a rich set of possibilities that, when complemented by a strong publisher platform can create an unbeatable combination.

Here are a few additional suggestions, on top of Tom’s thoughts, specific to hyperlocal publishers.

First, it’s important to consider your strengths when focusing on strategy. When it comes to hyperlocal publishers, their strengths are reporting local information that (typically) nobody else is reporting on. These publishers also have knowledge and access to local info and data, as well as a highly targeted reader base. These are all things that nobody else has access to. So, let’s consider how to leverage these assets for maximum benefit:

  1. Listicles – It’s interesting that local publishers don’t rely on these as much as they should. Top reviews sites such as Yelp and TripAdvisor live by these. How many useless “Top 10 <food type> in <city>” have you seen on these sites? Hyperlocal publishers can bring real value to these listicles and create unique content, not just aggregated user generated content in an auto-generated web page. And the beauty is that these type of pages do very well in local search queries. It’s also a fantastic way to crosslink from a listicle landing page to specific pages about the businesses you reference – and these specific pages can live on the publisher’s site as well.
  2. Search – with all the advancements in local search, it is still ridiculously hard to get a nicely curated and relevant list of places, events and services for a local region. And it’s even worse when I want to search for something in an area I don’t know well at all. Once again, the curation and local knowledge of the local publisher is a huge advantage here. The challenge is that the search capabilities on existing hyperlocal publisher sites is sorely lacking. A more powerful and integrated search strategy that can deliver news, events, places and services in a single interface would be immensely valuable to readers. And of course, once this is in place, there are monetization opportunities for local businesses who want to come up prominently in local search results.
  3. Engagement – Jim Brady from Billy Penn wrote a thought provoking article on how local news can re-invent itself. Billy Penn has done a great job around Events. And many of the other local sites he mentions are all innovating local news. What they have in common is they are focused on engagement. A platform gets more valuable the more content it has. What hyperlocal publishers need to realize is that this content doesn’t have to come exclusively from them. In fact, the more content that comes from the community itself, the more interesting information you can return in your search results (see #2), creating an even more powerful discovery service for other readers.
  4. Calls to Action – People have limited time and attention span online. Most people scan articles, and few read all the way to the end of an article. Hyperlocal publishers need to focus on bounce rate and think about what they’d like a reader to do (other than read that one article) when they arrive on their site. If all they do is read/scan that one article and bounce, you are losing on several fronts. Search engines will not consider that content high value, you aren’t providing any utility to your advertisers (since they aren’t clicking on anything else on your site, much less an ad), and they aren’t sharing your content. I’m the last person to recommend in-content popups or other annoying interruptions to the reading experience, but you need to think about doing something. Add a call to action in-line in your article. Do one popup for every 10 visits so it isn’t so invasive. There are lots of things to try and experiment with.
  5. Mobile – As Wayne Gretzky famously said, “skate to where the puck is going.” And the puck has been moving to mobile for quite some time already. It’s time for hyperlocal publishers to take the lead here. Based on our own studies, over 70% of hyperlocal publisher traffic comes on mobile already. But most hyperlocal sites experience are not truly optimized for mobile. As a publisher, when you go to your site, how do you get there? If you aren’t doing so on mobile, start right now. Check that experience and see if it’s something you would enjoy as a reader.

To conclude his article, Tom asked: “What if papers changed their strategy to featuring homepages that told more about their communities – how they were really changing and why, and whether they were becoming more divided or connected”

I’ll go a step further. What if local news changed their strategy to focus exclusively on engaging and connecting their community at large? It still requires the great content that they create daily, but also a powerful and relevant search experience for users, more calls to action, and a more native and engaging mobile experience. That would be a platform that I would keep coming back for more.

Scott BarnettScott Barnett is a serial entrepreneur with 25+ years experience in software development, product management, sales, and marketing. He is currently founder of Bizyhood, a startup focused on content distribution and engagement tools for local publishers and businesses.