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In The End, All News is Local

February 13, 2010

GrowthSpur’s Dave Chase, who also runs local site SunValleyOnline, writes about how national and international stories with local angles can help increase traffic to a hyperlocal site:

Hyperlocal sites, by definition, are focused on their local community. However, periodically something happens in your community that has national significance and can draw some national attention. It’s important how this can accelerate your reach in your community by exposing your site to a new set of people.

The reality for most communities is that their neighborhoods have never received coverage from local media or that coverage has been pulled back as newsroom budgets have tightened. This has left a big opportunity for hyperlocal sites to get a marketing boost like no other. I will share how that has worked tremendously well for my local site—www.sunvalleyonline.com—so that you can take these experiences and apply it into your own site. I will also share how we are being proactive with the upcoming Olympics to draw in more audience. Our site has a local connection with the most prominent snowboarders on the U.S. Olympic team—Lindsey Jacobellis, Seth Wescott, Shaun White, Nate Holland and Graham Watanabe—that we are going to use to provide our community with a perspective it won’t get from NBC.

Not only do we have a local who is the technician for some of the top snowboarders in the world, we hope to tap others from the community. It could simply be someone attending the Games or it may be a local who is a coach or athlete. Each brings their own perspective. In our case, we are pursuing the following angles:

  • Curtis Bacca is the top snowboard/ski technician in the world. No one has done the tech work for more gold medalists from the Olympics or X-Games in the last decade. He had three athletes (Lindsey Jacobellis, Nate Holland & Seth Wescott) competing in two events at the recently completed X-Games, and they came in 1st, 1st and 2nd. He shared some pics on our site after the event and was profiled by ESPN. He also provided updates on our special Waxroom page. Afterwards, he told me he was blown away by the many people from our community and around the country who saw what he was doing, and he was psyched to provide us even more content from the Olympics. We’re setting him up with a helmet cam as they recon the course in Vancouver. After the events, he’s going heli-skiing/riding with Seth Wescott and will share that, as well as being able to liveblog from his Blackberry, shooting pics (we have a feature that allows users to email pics/stories directly to the site), giving us the inside scoop, etc. If you know anyone who has interest in snowboarding, in particular, send them to the Waxroom page. They’ll get a perspective like none other.
  • Some folks in our community are attending the Olympics. We’re inviting them to send pictures and experiences.
  • One of our community members is Dick Fosbury (yes, the “Fosbury Flop” guy). Dick is now the head of the World Olympians Association. In his role, he will see a boatload of former Olympians while in Vancouver. We hope he’ll share his experience with that.

We’ve got a number of features on our site that we hope will turn first-time visitors that come to us because of the Oluympics into repeat visitors (something that Jeff Jarvis would probably recommend to Rupert Murdoch surrounding the whole paywall kerfuffle). I should give a shout-out to Neighborlogs for providing us with a Content Management System (CMS) that enables what I outline below.

  • Nearby Stories module. Most of our stories are geo-tagged. Chances are if someone is reading a story about a topic, they’ll be interested in stories that are about that same location.
  • Featured Stories module. These are our editorial picks of the most interesting stuff on the site that we hope draw them in.
  • Featured Photos module. Some people are more visual, so we highlight some of the best pics that come in to the site. Hopefully some will grab their attention. Those pics, in turn, have links to the articles they are associated with.
  • Events module. We highlight the upcoming events happening in the area and encourage them to post their own events.
  • At the bottom of each article, we provide ways to sign-up for our email newsletter or follow us on Twitter (as well as some recent tweets).
  • Finally, if none of that grabs the new visitors’ attention, at the bottom of the page we have teasers for our Most Viewed Articles.

The Olympics is an event that brings together people from all over the nation, providing all sorts of local angles that local sites can capitalize on. But they’re not the only example of a big event that might drive local traffic. Here are a few others—some obvious, others less so:

  • Natural disasters of local significance: In Sun Valley, have had a flood and mudslides. When we had the flood, our community paper only updated its website once a week. Conditions were changing by the hour, so our site’s updates, including pulling data from federal data sources, was invaluable for our community.
  • Natural disasters of local and national significance: We had a major wildfire that became the #1 priority fire in the country. With people being evacuated and many people either traveling or being second homeowners, the local newspaper and radio just didn’t reach beyond our community. We turned our classifieds system into a resource for people needing housing, places to board animals and more. Even though the local newspaper has 30 times more resources than us, we had the most comprehensive coverage because we tapped our community. SunValleyOnline audience members were shooting pictures, sharing stories, taking video and more. Some of the video ended up getting picked up by CNN and CBS’ “60 Minutes.” By the time the fire was out, we’d had site visitors from all 50 states and 42 different countries. To this day, many of those people still visit the site, because they have some connection to our area (friends, family, 2nd homes, etc.).
  • Locals hitting the big time in their field. Whether it is a Little League team going to the World Series, a local athlete going to the Olympics or someone in the arts hitting the big time, locals are deeply interested in the experience and proud of their connection with those individuals. Some subset of those people are willing to blog and share their behind-the-scenes perspective that you don’t get in a traditional media outlet. Even if it is raw, people love it.

Around the time of MSNBC.com‘s 10-year anniversary, I visited their newsroom and noticed what looked like an EKG reading (i.e., a line graph with spikes up and a plateau followed by more of the same). Each plateau on the graph was a little higher than the next. As I got closer, I realized that this graph was actually MSNBC’s traffic growth over 10 years. Each of the spikes was labeled with the associated news event— the OJ verdict, Princess Di’s death, 9/11, elections, the tsunami, and so on. Little did I know that there would be a correlation between that graph and growing a hyperlocal site’s traffic.

Not unlike MSNBC, we have experienced the same dynamic. That is, when there’s a big story, we see a spike in traffic. Afterwards, traffic doesn’t drop significantly—it plateaus at a new higher level.  That plateau has great value. If we did a good job when people visited for the first time, by giving them a good experience, we’ve found that they will come back. Better yet, we get some to subscribe to our e-newsletter or RSS feed, giving us more opportunities to remind them of our site.

SunValleyOnline has gotten progressively better at increasing the length of time people spend on the site as we have added modules to expose them to other content we have. We haven’t spent a penny on marketing, in the traditional sense, to build the site’s audience. Instead we have used tactics such as the ones outlined above to build SunVallyeyOnline into a top site in its area. Many other tactics have also played a role, and they are captured in the GrowthSpur “cookbook” to which sites get access when they become a part of the GrowthSpur network. This kind of resourcefulness is what has enabled SunValleyOnline to be one of the early profitable hyperlocal sites supporting a small team. GrowthSpur’s mission is to create hundreds of similarly economically self-sustaining sites—and we are sharing our know-how to make that happen.

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