Putting local back on the fence

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Techcrunch‘s Duncan Riley has noted that Backfence has recently closed its doors. The founders, who had taken $3m in venture funding almost two years ago, state that they “still believe strongly in the need for community information services”.

It’s debateable what led to the demise of Backfence and the number of variables is myriad – bad management, fallout with investors, not enough market traction, you name it there are many ways to snuff a start up, and many get snuffed, but here’s my take.

Sites like Backfence aren’t “community information services”, they are communities. They are about the people who visit them and the people that write for them.

As Bronwen Clune, the founder of the citizen journalism site, PerthNorg notes, “Citizen journalism is about people being able to communicate their message without having to rely on a third party.”

From the Backfence founders’ language methinks they lost their way and therefore lost their community.

Bronwen, whose site is showing a sustained upward trend, has taken a sage approach: “What I want PerthNorg to become has been very fluid and I’ve left that really up to the community to decide. I’m a big believer in listening to what your community wants and being flexible enough to implement that.”

And this ties into my thesis – the success of niche or localised sites is directly correlated to the flexibility that being niche or localised allows, the flexibility to listen and adapt to your community’s needs.

Let me use a sailing analogy – imagine you have a kite and your are trying to steer a sailing craft — if its the size of the aircraft carrier currently hanging out in Sydney Harbour you are going to have a tough job even making an iota of difference, but if you are on Loic Le Meur’s kiteboard…whoa, any slight shift is going to take you careening across San Francisco Bay.

Brad Feld, a self described dabbler in niche or vertical plays (Wallstrip – Wall Street vlog, Dogster (u guessed it), Shelfari (book enthusiasts), notes two of the challenges for those going vertical are generating organic traffic and keeping users coming back again and again.

Creativity through collaboration (see my post on 3eep and Kanga Cup), guerilla marketing (see my post on Zooomr on iPhone Day) and a deep understanding and empathy for your niche all help in overcoming these challenges.

I agree with Ross Dawson’s take that there is no right or wrong place to be on the media model curve, but that, dependent on where you are on it, there are certain characteristics that should be borne in mind…

“advertising or other revenue models and content creation mechanisms need to be aligned with the audience… going for niche audiences can attract stronger revenue relative to costs. A “multi-niche” model which is effectively monetized can be more effective than traditional mass media approaches, by allowing sharing overheads and sales efforts, and gaining more value from highly targeted audiences. Scaling costs and overheads and extracting premium revenue is as viable a strategy as increasing audience size.”

An example of a multi-niche model is The Enthusiast Group (one of Brad’s investments) which has sites like YourRunning and YourMTB. This is what they have to say about themselves:

We develop websites that serve sports/recreation enthusiasts in telling their own stories without professional writing or photography help. Sports enthusiasts have compelling stories and images to share, but they typically are under-covered by traditional media. It’s nearly always the stars of any sport that get the media attention. But everyday athletes and sports participants deserve coverage, too; many have compelling stories and images to share with fellow enthusiasts.

Our citizen-media websites give a home to such “self coverage,” under the guidance and support of an expert editor who’s a sports enthusiast him/herself, while supporting it with a commercial marketplace designed to meet the needs of particular sports communities. The sites (yourBiking.com, yourClimbing.com, etc.) serve as a home base on the Internet for all those who are passionate about a sport or activity.

The websites tap into current trends of blogging (express yourself to a worldwide audience), digital still- and video-cameras, and photo cell phones’ ubiquity. These new tools allow people to share their experiences with others who share their passion — to tell their stories. We’ll make it worthwhile, too, by offering prizes and other ways for sports enthusiasts to be compensated when they share good stuff with fellow enthusiasts.

I can almost tangibly feel their community empathy in that blurb.

In short, community is king across big horizontal platforms like Facebook or the many, many niche sites out there. Just because one of them has hit Techcrunch’s Deadpool, don’t write off vertical players.

Photo courtesy of Best Kiteboarding.

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