A deconstruction of how TBD and Patch do hyperlocal

Yesterday I said that hyperlocals must find the network if they are to be sustainable. Today I want to take you through networks like Patch and TBD.com.

TBD

Upon visiting TBD.com it’s hard to see how it even is hyperlocal. Under the logo we see the tagline “All over Washington” but its’s hard to see how, if I lived in an area such as Annandale, I’d find out what’s going on in that area.

Under the very last menu item, in a drop down I spot the “TBD Community Network” – is this it? Regulated to a sub-menu option after everything else? Actually, no this is an alphabetised list of links to other blogs, many of which are not overly local.

So I tried the option above the Community Network – TBD Blog Network. This seems to be topic-based, although there is one called “@TBD Community” so I check that out. Nope, not that either.

Okay, I’ll use the search. I try various areas of Washington D.C. including; Annandale, Aspen Hill, Colesville, Brentwood, Marlton and Oakton. The majority of results are for external sites, both independent and many from TBD competitor, Patch.

Where there are good articles on the area there is no indication of how I can subscribe to content about that area. Each article is also headed with the section it’s in – often just “Community” or something like “On Foot” – the relevance of which I’m struggling to see.

Meanwhile I’m being shown generic, seemingly site-wide ads that have no relevance to the area I’m reading about.

This is no network. It’s a mish-mash of regional content supplemented by aggregation of independent hyperlocals and all surrounded by the same lack-lustre ad targeting that seems to infect local media here in the UK.

Patch

Moving onto Patch I’m instantly greeted with a map that I can click into my area with. It’s all state-based though which isn’t exactly very refined so I try the (very small) search box beneath. I figure I should try the same areas again.

I instantly find Annandale Patch which appears to show local content, invites me to sign up to the newsletter, shows me locally relevant ads and I can see services like event listings, a business directory and classifieds – all focused around Annandale.

Patch isn’t in any of the other areas, but does suggest Vienna when I look for Oakton. So I wonder if these areas are too small for Patch and check Wikipedia for population stats;

I’d randomly picked these places off a Google Map so I’m quite pleased with the range of population sizes, so it’s not that they’re too small.

Perhaps Patch just hasn’t found anyone in that area! Looking at the jobs they’re advertising in the area, they don’t seem to be looking in the towns I’ve chosen. Where they are looking, population appears to be above 30,000 as far as I can tell.

Additionally, a quick search for Aspen Hill shows an existing community wiki for the area. That site isn’t featured instead of telling the user ‘nothing for your area’ so the network is decided by where Patch wants to be, not where there is a passion for hyperlocal.

Thoughts

Firstly it doesn’t surprise me that TBD is having to cut staff because it hasn’t sussed local advertising. When it isn’t sending people away (and thereby limiting it’s own traffic) it’s serving up generic, poorly-targeted ads. It ain’t rocket science boys and girls, it’s common sense. It’s a lesson for all hyperlocal endeavours – serve an area properly, and make the model work.

On the flip side, Patch appears to be doing a good job. What Patch does appear to be suffering from though is blowing air into an emerging hyperlocal bubble. It’s spending about £3,000 on each site with plans to reach 1,000 by the end of the year. £3m sounds a lot to be spending on a business that isn’t getting the traffic in. The same lesson as TBD, except that Patch’s rapid expansion could, if it fails, mean the loss of numerous jobs and a another blow to the communities they serve, just like TBD has already done.

Headlines are already questioning whether any hyperlocal can be successful in light of analysis of these two.

I’ll touch on that last point in more detail tomorrow when I talk about why I believe networks in the UK, including my own efforts, are showing the way forward.

5 thoughts on “A deconstruction of how TBD and Patch do hyperlocal”

  1. Personally, from everything I have read and seen of TBD, it was never intended to be a hyperlocal operation in the way many define hyperlocal. And certainly bore little resemblance to the likes of The Lichfield Blog and alderleyedge.com, or Patch for that matter.

    I think Jim Brady was quoted as saying that it’s was a regional site with hyperlocal elements. Also based on reports, out of 20 staffers on TBD, it only had two “community reporters” whose work may be considered hyperlocal. As such I don’t think the demise of TBD should be seen as a hyperlocal failure.

    Moving on to Patch. I’ll start by saying i’m a big fan of what Patch are doing. Their proposition in my opinion is smart and focused and I think a lot of UK hyperlocals could do a lot worse than look at some of the more established Patch sites as a potential blueprint for a sustainable hyperlocal proposition. One thing they have always recognised is that if you are going to become the hub of local information and engagement, and more importantly make enough money, you need to go beyond news.

    Both Patch and STV up in Scotland are leading the way in developing large scale networks of hyperlocal sites. The quality of people they put at the coal face will have a big influence on whether they will succeed. Their community reporters need to be part of the local community (and passionate about it) and not simply distant commentators.

    With regards to the phenomenal growth of Patch I think Tim Armstrong has astutely identified that there is a window of opportunity there to be taken advantage of. Traditional media is struggling to come to terms with the impact the Web and Mobile is having on how people consume local news and information – this leaves the door wide open for disruptive digital local media alternatives like Patch. For Patch this is currently a large scale land grab.

    Whilst i’m a fan of Patch, I do think it will take longer to build audience than they anticipated and take longer to grow revenue from truly local advertisers than they thought. Will they succeed in the long term? Yes, BUT only if they have the balls to double down on this major bet they have placed and hold their nerve. Whether that happens might have more to do with whether Tim Armstrong stays at the helm of AOL than anything else.

    Can independent hyperlocal sites compete with Patch on their patch over the long term? Possibly – but only if they have a comparable technology platform and product proposition – that takes the sort of investment that is only feasible if the cost is spread across many hyperlocal sites. Which I guess is where something along the lines of Journal Local may come in.

    One thing I forgot to address was your comment “the network is decided by where Patch wants to be, not where there is a passion for hyperlocal”. Whilst doing a quick search I can’t find it again I am positive I remember reading that Patch takes a quite scientific approach to deciding where to open its sites. Part of that evaluation does take into account whether there is “a passion for hyperlocal” by looking at statistics such as the % of people that vote in local elections etc. Of course they no doubt will but a large degree of weight on whether there is the degree of affluence and enough population to make opening a site commercially viable. From what I can determine Patch site usual cover a population of between 15,000 and 75,000.

    I look forward to tomorrows post.

  2. Have you seen wusa9.com and their community news? It’s powered by Datasphere (my co.) and has quite a lot of content and local businesses in Annandale. You can find that hyperlocal page at Annandale.wusa9.com
    I would be interested to hear your thoughts, thanks!

      1. They are a combination of reporters on staff at the station, editorial staff, and viewers who decided to contribute.

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