New ideas, new ventures, new visions: They never turn out quite the way the entrepreneur expects, and often the path to success comes from walking backwards into a great idea. That’s what happened with an innovative digital media journalism venture that emerged from the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
The founder wasn’t even a journalism student. He was a film student with an idea for a better way to get people interested in watching movies. In fact, his idea was nearly a product with a customer and investor lined up when the student, sophomore Marius Ciocirlan, asked to become one of our special Advanced Projects in Digital Media Entrepreneurship students. Within a matter of hours, the founder had deconstructed his original idea to design a new kind of product and business model that may have a significant impact in reviving an audience for local journalism.
Ciocirlan noticed something that was no more radical than a fish noticing that they live in water. He looked around and observed digital screens and billboards everywhere — in cafes, restaurants, stores and malls; at gas pumps, and even on roadsides. Furthermore, he noticed that largely they were being used merely to push more advertising and marketing onto the public. With a new medium this pervasive, he mused, there had to be a better way. And Blimee was born.
The Blimee concept is deceptively simple: The online platform pushes content to specific screens at specific locations, and then allows people to interact with the content — and with each other — while in front of the screens via Twitter, text messaging and other novel means. Local content plus social interaction displayed on digital signs while people are “out and about.“It’s a simple combination that yielded profound results.
While so many upstart ventures claim to be close to the holy grail of “hyper-local” news and content, Blimee achieves it handily. By pushing content to the locations, Blimee allows each screen to have unique news, relevant to the neighborhood, mixed with news relevant to the community, town or city at large. Users can tweet comments and responses about the content or even about the activity surrounding them. Viewers in front of screens at other locations can join the conversation — as can readers from home.
Relevant hyperlocal content is part of what makes Blimee so compelling, but where does all this content come from? One powerful behind-the-scenes feature is that reporters can be assigned to neighborhoods where they regularly write and deliver news and then get feedback and tips from readers in real-time or later via the web. Blimee revives the local beat. The reporter can develop a relationship with area residents, build their personal brand and develop a following.
Back to the Future
By combining real-time local news and local political issues with local events and attractions in the heart of the community, Blimee revives a trio of concepts that long ago defined community: The town crier, the town hall and the town square.
In the 21st century, Blimee uses digital signage scattered throughout malls, cafes, offices and stores to push local news (town crier), allow people to interact about local issues (town hall) and inform them about local attractions and events (town square).
Blimee displays news on each screen that is most relevant to the neighborhood or town where the screen is located. Passers-by can stop and see the latest local news, mixed with other fun and compelling information. Later, they can go to Blimee on the web, and look at a map of all its locations and view the news and information on the screens in case they missed something, and even forward new information to the beat reporters. The content has some advertising around it, but Blimee’s business model is not to make money from ads — these revenues go to the content providers: The journalists. Yes, this is a product that actually has a way for journalists to make money.
Blimee also has a strong social networking aspect. While people are standing in front of the screens, Blimee displays tweets and text messages from viewers who are standing in front of screens at other locations. The screens can inform people on timely local civic issues — from city council votes to reports of traffic or roadwork — as they stroll through town. People can even tweet just-in-time messages of value for other screen owners, such as the availability of parking or the proximity of aggressive tow trucks. Viewers can comment on the news or on community issues, and Blimee takes ad-hoc polls, and showcases interesting and insightful comments. When viewers get home, they can log on and continue the discussion with their neighbors.
There’s also another feature that makes so much sense, it’s almost funny that so many have missed it: While people are in front of a Blimee screen viewing news and messages, Blimee informs them about local attractions, events and special offers — all of which are within walking distance of where they are right now. Then, when a local movie theater discovers that the “Wall Street” sequel only has a few people seated 15 minutes before the start of the movie, it can broadcast a special offer to all screens within walking distance for a 50 percent discount to all those that can arrive in time.
Of course the same concept is just as valuable for restaurants and any other retail store within walking distance. In fact, this is Blimee’s primary business model: Making money from local businesses pushing last-minute offers to attract immediate walk-in customers.
To make the experience even more compelling, Blimee has other aspects to keep people engaged — from trivia games where several people can play against each other or be quizzed on the “host” restaurant’s menu for discounts and prizes — to the ability to view live webcams from other areas of town nearby.
From the first day it launched, it’s fair to say that Blimee has been a rousing success wherever it has appeared. Almost everyone who looks at the screen “gets it” immediately. Soon after, they realize they can text and tweet their opinions about the news to each other and they see the discussions appear on the screen as they unfold. It is engaging and compelling.
During the first deployments, people were so intrigued to see their comments in public they even posed for photos next to the Blimee screen when their tweets appeared. But viewers are not the only ones who understand Blimee’s value. Retail owners and advertisers are quick to grasp Blimee’s potential for attracting customers and new revenue opportunities.
Public tweets, movie tickets and tow trucks — what does this all mean for local journalism? Quite a bit, as it turns out. Blimee provides three vital aspects local newspapers seemed to have lost over the years: Engagement, relevance and a viable business model. The audience remains as interested and as enthusiastic as ever. Now local journalists have a way to reach them again.
The extinction of the colonial town crier didn’t mean people’s appetite for local news diminished: It’s just that the method and model became outdated. Local newspapers filled that role for centuries until their viability waned. Today, digital signs and billboards may the 21st century town crier, with Blimee leading the way.