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    It’s The Network, Stupid!

    by G. Patton Hughes
    December 30, 2007

    My challenge has been summed up as making money from a hyperlocal community web site or, said differently “It is the sales, stupid.” (see previous entry)

    That is a gross oversimplification. What my 21st Century Newchallenge is all about is building a sustainable business model based on connecting a community. That means it is always about the network. Sales and revenues impact sustainability but are secondary to the core mission, which is to develop the community.

    If challenged to say what is the community, I could just smirk and say, read the site; all 1.7 million posts. If you were to ask, how do you know you have a community, that could be answered objectively.

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    Obviously, one of the key metrics defining the success of a web site is the amount of time spent on a site. According to the compete.com analytics for Paulding.com, the average visit on Pcom last 17 minutes and 33 seconds as they view an average 14.6 pages. This compares to a typical local news site – I’ll choose Macon.com (Macon Ga) which has an average visit of 4 minutes 51 seconds and 4.9 pages, also according to compete.com. The primary reason for the difference are the social networking aspects of paulding.com.

    Indeed, paulding.com’s figures in the social networking world pale in comparison to myspace.com which compete.com puts at the head of the pack. Compete.com says each visit to that site consumes 24 minutes and 26 seconds of the visitors time as they peruse 36.6 pages. Paulding does compare favorably to Facebook in terms of time on site (14:09) but those college kids tear through 43 pages on each visit according to compete.com.

    When thinking about these figures, it is important to consider the demographics of the audiences involved. Myspace has a reputation of skewing to younger people … literally high-school age and even younger. Certainly these kids have more time to burn than their college age brothers and sisters and of course, Paulding.com members tend to be marginally older – I.e. adults living in a hyperlocal community.

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    Regardless, the ability to gain such high levels of involvement are a distinct advantage common to successful social networking sites. That paulding.com competes favorably in terms of time spent shows it is possible to overlay a social network on a hyperlocal geographic environment. (Kind of a ‘duh’ moment it seems to me.)

    Key to this success in the hyperlocal environment is the audience. The most desirable computing component in these local deep networks is the wetware – the people who come together to form these networks. For myspace it is the peers of the tweens and teens; for facebook, college peers constitute the largest draw. Frankly, one of the main reasons both sites are a success is that most there are probably on the make.

    While there is some of that on paulding.com, the draw is infinitely more community minded. Many come to this hyperlocal community because they need the knowledge of those who live and know the community.

    The point is each kind of social network targets a different demographic group – and most are places where ‘people like me’ congregate. That the large national social networks seem to target the youth is unmistakable. What is equally obvious is that in the hyperlocal sphere, it is geography rather than the common angst of being pubescent that is at the core of the social mortar.

    This meas the hyperlocal network naturally targets adults living in a community. The prom is decidedly less an issue than is deciding the communities future by passing a fire tax. The challenges they face are politics, dealing with government, dealing with the schools, dealing with fulfilling the needs of the family to shelter, feed, clothe, educate, entertain and keep its children safe. All of these processes are at the core of adult involvement in a community. It is their interests, presence and experience and their willingness to share that knowledge that are at the core of the value proposition of the hyperlocal social network.

    It is no secret that news is one of the primary draws for the most desirable network members … those being adults who have a deep understanding of the community and its politics.

    Their value to the network cannot be minimized. News or even sales; while as essential to the hyperlocal network as the heart, mind, liver or kidney to the life of an individual, are just part of the whole of the community – the network.

    The power of this network is that as it forms and grows it begins to write the narrative of the life of the community. In doing so it naturally challenges the schools, the newspapers, the politicians and the business community – any and all who previously controlled the public debate. The authority of those who head local institutions will likely find themselves in the midst of unanticipated conflicts.

    And it will get worse before it gets better, particularly in the south where authority is particularly jealous of its prerogatives.

    Remember the Gail Sheehy’s book “Passages?” Consider that people in the Internet age are going through one of many stages in life. As they age they will not so much change their media habits as adapt them to the new demands they face. I’m pretty certain they will move on from these national peer group networks and with the nesting instinct, instead turn to tend their gardens in their own backyards. My gut is they will migrate to a hyperlocal social network if one exists in their community and that migration will be an element of their passage from being kids to adults.

    This does not imply that they will adopt the media habits of their parents and read the newspaper; rather they will find themselves attracted to new media forms that fulfill these predictable interests and give them voice.

    I fully believe that hyperlocal networks will become integral to the communities. Part virtual tool, part social network and part news, their function is to aggregate the knowledge and understanding of the adults in a community. As in all networks, it is the people who are the most valuable resource. It is their local knowledge that adds value.

    Building and maintaining the local network is a differrent task than that of publishing a newspaper or producing local news for radio or TV. It requires that those seeking to create these hyperlocal-social-news networks provide the individual a voice as unrestrained as that they have had on facebook or myspace.

    To gain economic viability it must also easily incorporate local commerce as seamlessly as it does local politics, religion, and all the other local social aspects of living and dying in the community. All these topics will be the topics of discussion and interaction.

    Local news is the glue that brings these largely disparate elements of community life together and only a fool would expect the result to be quiet order. Strife and conflict are as natural an element of the network as are death and taxes. Those who create these hyperlocal social-networks will have to be adept at managing them.

    Managing that and bringing together a new kind of community that has more cohesion than dissention is the challenge of the hyperlocal community network builder.

    For those who might say, but it is the sales, stupid, I can’t over-emphasize that commerce is the life-blood of a community network and permeates all aspects of the community. The task of the 21st century hyperlocal publisher is to build a virtual social, economic, political and spiritual network that transcends the conflicts of individuals and ultimately unites all elements of the community by telling their individual stories.

    The tool is radically different from a newspaper. There will be hundreds or thousands of individual writers conversing. Still, when it is all distilled, the product of the hyperlocal network is just a new kind of journalism.

    GP Hughes

    Tagged: demographic targeting hyperlocal news social networks
    • Frances

      You make some good points. I think that each social network is vastly different.

      For example, Seniorocity, the new online community for adults and senior citizens, at http://www.seniorocity.com), is going to have much different user behavior than Facebook.

      There’s a different “thread” running through those two sites: Seniorocity has much more “mature” topics than Facebook. The design of the two sites is much different as well due to the differing user audiences.

      A hyper local site will necessarily be different too. And I think will draw a different set of advertisers (but probably much higher per click due to the targeting).

    • A couple of great posts… thank you for sharing your data and observations GP. -Michael

      P.S. Our online service, Front Porch Forum helps neighbors connect and foster community at the neighborhood level. More than 30% of our pilot city (Burlington, VT) subscribe already. We’ve just started pursuing advertising and are seeing promising early results. Happy New Year!

    • Michael and Frances:

      Thanks for the feedback. I visited both sites and find them both interesting community building efforts.

      Frances; I wish you luck with the seniorocity project even though it seems the antithesis of hyper-local in its approach. Do recognize that I see hyperlocal sites as one of many media options but one that has a special claim on the individual regardless of age.

      Michael; Yours is a hyperlocal site and I find the site’s approach of assigning an individual to a neighborhood quite intriguing. I believe you could email me directly

      I am a little critical of the purity of that approach though.

      Why?

      Well, what if I wanted to move there? How could I interact with the community to ask them advice on schools, on shopping; on where the next landfill is being placed? Is that barber on the corner really that big a #$%#@#? Oh, and the special deal this week at the Amazing Variety Store. (That is commercial ‘news’ worth repeating.)

      I caught your blog and I see this clotured community as the philosophical difference you suggested was based on my journalistic background.

      Yes, I see news as the social mortar. Yes I seenews as something you yell from the mountaintop – Hear Ye! Hear Ye!

      That is why one can read most of the Pcom site for free – We’re yelling from the mountaintop like every good journalist should.

      Your vision of community is oh so much more private.

      Still, I wonder about the backend tool you have that assigns folks to neighborhoods. Cool work that a country boy like me could put to good use :) (email me, why don’t you.)

      GP Hughes

    • Fantastic post. It says a great deal I wish I could say as well and still more I’ll want to repeat in the future!

      The key addition I believe is necessary is democratic tools that resist the censoring tendencies of advertising and ownership, or more broadly simply becoming established.

      Commerce is a part of life and infrastructure needs to be supported also, my concern is that social networks mean network effects in the economic sense – value created by the number of people in the network, rather than anything produced – and this natural monopoly should in some real sense be controlled by the people who make up the network.

    • Benjamin:

      I know all too well the concerns that you express. I grapple with them continously.

      I have actually developed a rule-based approach that I hope addresses these concerns.

      I probably need to do a whole topic on this particular subject area (can commerce and social networks mix?) as I do understand your concern.

      Let me say that the use of an off-the-shelf forum package means that competitors are there to take your audience if, as a publisher, you violate or disrespect the network. I’ve seen a site evaporate in less than 10 hours (in the auction arena) when management dissed its members. They all have feet; they all know how to walk.

      I’ve personally had five individuals/groups splinter from paulding.com and start up as competitors. One time because I wanted them to not chat so much (servers needed upgrade but they wanted to compete anyway) and another because I’m more liberal than many of my members who’ve elected folks like Larry McDonald, Bob Barr and Newt Gingrich.

      Regardless, let me say the members on the site do keep me honest and it I’ve been called on the carpet, so to speak, more times that I like to remember.

      That said, I’ve been able to establish rules designed to protect all interests and have successfully defended their application.

      GP Hughes

      PS: I wish this was a forum :) … simply more conversational.

    • I look forward to your next post!

      > PS: I wish this was a forum :) … simply more conversational.

      Yup. Does Paulding.com offer e-mails when your posts or comments are replied to?

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