Backfence: Lessons Learned

Mark Potts, co-founder of Backfence, has shared some of the lessons he learned from his experience at Backfence. It’s a really insightful post and I’m thankful that he posted it. A lot of what his has to say is inline with what we debate at eNeighbors. You can read his thoughts here. He really gets it.

I want to piggy-back off of some of what he said:

  1. “A top-down, “if you build it, they will come” strategy absolutely does not work…”-This is so true. Local is a huge space, but it won’t be won by the standard approaches that the Internet industry has come to understand with national web portals and global audiences. A bottom-up approach is clearly the only way to go in local. Unfortunately, this means slower growth and more leg work up front, but in the long run, it represents a competitive advantage.
  2. “It’s about the community” – Community first. This is probably true with any site, but especially local sites. If you engage the community, the content will create itself. More importantly, your site will be relevant to users regardless of the content.
  3. “Hyperlocal content is really mundane.” – Yep. Unless it’s relevant to the community. If it is, then the conversation that ensues is really interesting.
  4. “Trust the audience.”– I love this one. Everyone one is scared out of their mind to let people post their own content, and as a result, we have installed a ton of controls to influence appropriate behavior. But at the end of the day, it works because people take responsibility for what they say.
  5. “Focus on strong, well-defined communities.”– In my opinion, this is the number one most important thing. I would argue that this is where Backfence failed. They weren’t local enough.

He has a lot more stuff to say. I highly recommend that you read the full post.

The Future of Online Classifieds

Kevin Kelleher wrote an interesting piece last week about eBay’s new Kijiji classifieds service in the U.S. and how it stacks up against Craigslist.

Kevin links to Internet Outsider which has this great comment:

Despite significant online classified efforts, moreover, the classified opportunity remains massive: The dying newspaper industry still rakes in tens of billions of dollars a year for printed classifieds — a less efficient, less informative, less convenient, more wasteful, and more expensive way to buy or sell products. In another few decades, when the current (and last) generation of hard-copy newspaper readers dies out, printed classifieds will seem as archaic as whale oil. The newspaper companies may be able to retain some classifieds business as it moves online, but given the success of Craigslist, Monster, et al (and the seriously weak newspaper efforts thus far), this percentage will likely be small.

So, there’s a $10 billion plus market for classifieds, and the majority of it is not online.

Here’s where I get excited. Of all the news and community content features that eNeighbors offers to the neighborhood residents, classifieds have been the most popular by far. To date (we launched in April), we have had over 300 classifieds posted from only 2000 users in 18 neighborhoods. Keep in mind that most of the neighborhoods have only been using our service for a few weeks.

Additionally, we have already received numerous comments from users that they would like to be able to publish their classifieds to other neighborhoods in their area. This is a site enhancement that we are currently working.

The great thing is that we built the classifieds engine as a “nice to have” feature for residents to use when garage sales were not appropriate never expecting it to be so popular, but our users have begun to see a huge potential for a truly hyper-local type of market square.

I’d like to see eNeighbors follow in Craig Newmark’s footsteps and provide valuable relevant classifieds in an even more hyper-local context.

Never underestimate the power of free.

TownKings: Location-based social networking

TownKings is an interesting concept. (TownQueens is the sister site for women.) They both look like they’re geared toward dating, but they also attempt to connect you to local parties and information about your friends.

My only concern with sites like TownKings and FatDoor is privacy.

I’ve registered on the site to test it out. Feel free to send me a friend request. You can find me by my username, cstock. So far, I’m the only guy who’s joined in my area.

Goodbye Backfence

So, you might have heard — Backfence.com is shutting its doors. As expected, the industry insiders (Greg Sterling, Peter Krasilovsky, etc.) have commented most eloquently. However, Perry Evans has posted my favorite analysis of the dilemma that was the ultimate demise of Backfence. He gives the best “when the rubber meets the road” commentary on why hyper-local may or may not work.

In reference to whether or not hyper-local destination sites can be created and survive, Evans states the following:

“I am constantly pleased by the insight I read from newspaper new media executives. Nothing I am saying hasn’t been said, debated and documented in the newspaper industry. Having said that, the gap between understanding and execution is one perplexing motherload of a gap.”

Additionally, American Journalism Review (AJR) takes quite a long look at the Backfence situation. Here’s my favorite part:

“What we’re struggling with, and every major paper is struggling with, is how to reach our audience on a granular level, in a way we’ve never reached them before.” — Jonathan Krim, WPNI.

So, nobody has figured out hyper-local yet. Everybody says it’s doomed and can’t be done. yet more and more companies keep trying. I love that the AJR article recognizes the Lawrence Journal-World as one of the few innovators that have been successful. The LJW was my news source for many a year when I was in school at Kansas University. The town of Lawrence is truly a remarkable anomaly in the middle of nowhere midwestern U.S.A.

Well folks, those of us here in Kansas must be on to something, because eNeighbors will do exactly what all the experts say can’t be done, and we aren’t doing it in San Fran or Philly or DC or Chicago.

First, we’ll build the online network that residents in the community will actually visit and populate with relevant “backyard” content. Next, we’ll build the ad network that will allow those residents to access local business and service provider information. Finally, the entire platform will give way to highly targeted, community-driven citizen journalism, political activism and the ultimate “grail” of all — offline human interaction.

Join us in our vision, and get your neighborhood online today.

eNeighbors: High Relevancy

Transparent Real Estate has a good post on hyperlocal websites as it relates to the real estate industry.

To sum it up, eNeighbors has the most highly relevant user-base to which a realtor can advertise.

Let me stress that eNeighbors is not a tool for realtors. Our customers are neighborhoods and their residents. Of course, that’s what makes us such a desirable target for realtors.

I’ve had several realtors ask me if they can pay for their neighborhood to get an eNeighbors website and my answer is always no. In order for a neighborhood website to be of value, we must establish a relationship with the board of directors or other neighborhood leadership.

However, if you’re a realtor and you want to get your neighborhood online. I would suggest that you email the board president and let them know about eNeighbors. Ask them to consider it at their next board meeting and forward them the eNeighbors website address – www.eNeighbors.com for more information.

Once the neighborhood is online, you can advertise for free in the classified section if you’re a resident. You can also sponsor the website to maximize your exposure whether you’re a resident or not.

Browsing vs. Searching vs. Sharing

The other day, Techcrunch ran a guest post from David Sacks (founder and CEO of Geni and previously the COO of PayPal). I’m going to attempt to summarize his point in one sentence:

Locating content on internet portals has evolved from browsing to searching to sharing.

And today, Facebook has this latest stage of “sharing” figured out way ahead of Yahoo and Google who are still in the search phase of allowing users to locate info on the web.

Ultimately, the sharing phenomenon is more about “pushing” content rather than “pulling” it since the content is recommended by your trusted sources (i.e. your friends list).

So, given that this is the eNeighbors blog, I’m obviously going to tie this into our long term vision and content model…

eNeighbors is building a hyper-local network of neighborhoods, and our registered user base is tied to a physical location (as opposed to the 18 different profiles you have on MySpace under various aliases and which MySpace can offer no data at all about where you really are on the planet).

Once this network is in place and has enough adoption, it inherently creates the ultimate local platform for local business advertising and referrals since the users all live in the same area.

The sharing concept of trusted content becomes extremely important when you are looking for someone to fix your roof or the best real estate agent in your area.

So, instead of going to Ask.com or Yahoo Local to find service providers in your area where you have to search at the city level or metro level, eNeighbors will be able to provide neighborhood-level information on service providers, and on top of that you’ll be able to get trusted referrals from your neighbors that have actually used the service.

I’m telling you, the top down approach to these search portals has to go, people. Demand better (and more relevant) information.

Neighborhood Search from Google

Last Friday, Google posted on its Lat Long Blog that Google Maps now has neighborhood search capability. To any but the most savvy users, this could be very misleading. Here’s the part that intrigues me:

Recently Google Maps introduced the ability to perform searches by neighborhoods. Neighborhoods tend to be somewhat informally defined but well recognized in certain cities. Neighborhood search is now available in fifty US cities, with more to follow.

The part about “informally defined” seems to be loophole to me. And then there’s the caveat of “only available in 50 US cities” which is the misleading part (since the title of the blog post doesn’t specificy “which” neighborhoods).

All this aside, I played along to see what the results would look like in Kansas City. Granted, KC is not the biggest metro in the country, but it’s respectable. My first search for art galleries on the Plaza gave me only one gallery that was actually on the Plaza (I know of at least 10 more). The other two results were in Kansas as far south as Leawood since Google didn’t know the difference between the Plaza and Hawthorne Plaza out south.

Second, I thought I’d try it on an actual neighborhood. I picked Mission Hills since it’s probably the premiere neighborhood in KC with the likes of Henry Block, George Brett, The Halls family, and The Russell Stover’s mansion being just a few of the well known residents. Looking for coffee around the Mission Hills neighborhood was a little better but not much. Only one of the results would I actually classify as being in Mission Hills.

My point in all this is that true neighborhood search still does not exist. It’s not even close. Google is still simply matching keywords to business listings. An actual framework of neighborhoods just doesn’t exist. Yelp comes close, and Urban Mapping has made some headway, but there still isn’t a true neighborhood level index to search from or serve content to.

Bottom line, it takes a lot of good old fashioned hard work, unique local knowledge, and lot of time to build such a network; and it’s just not economically viable for the large search companies to go down that road.

The Local Rant

Ahmed Farooq has a great rant on his blog, tech soapbox, about paid reviews and how useless and ineffective they’ve become. But the thing that grabbed my attention was buried in the middle — Ahmed provides some outstanding insight to the difficulty of understanding and utilizing local data.

(The following is in reference to their product iBegin Source)

“I’ll admit people have a hard time understanding the significance – local data is expensive, and that is why we keep seeing the same re-hashed sites. Plus – local data is inaccurate. Horribly so.”

Bottom line is, guys like Ahmed have been working on the data trying to figure out a way to make it relevant. To make it contextual. To make it usable. While other sites (like us here at eNeighbors) are trying to gather the users in one place. A place where local data is again — relevant.

So how do we bring this local data together and give it to the users?

Once again, I think the reason this is so hard is because when you go to Google, Yahoo or MSN, you start at the top. Then you work your way down to the city level. Then if your lucky, you can get to your community level (this is where Ahmed’s comment about the horrible inaccuracies kicks in).

It just makes sense to approach the users from the bottom up. I understand the cost issues associated with keeping a presence in every community in the country — it can’t be done. That’s why you let the residents do it.

But the problem is, they have to care enough to do their share of the work. Why should they care? No one has made it apparent as to how they will benefit. It’s not clear how their input will make their lives better. We need a way for residents to engage in conversation with other residents and in turn provide that missing link of local information that they seek, but don’t fully understand.

Ta da! It’s here. eNeighbors provides this exact sort of communciation platform, and in turn also allows the hyper-local presence that is a perfect match for local data on small businesses at the community level.

 Learn more about eNeighbors

Does “Local” Really Work?

There’s been a rash of local listing websites sprouting up lately (CityWaboo, Oddpath, FatDoor) and even more adding new features to their existing services (Local, AskCity, Superpages, CitySearch).

All these sites claim to connect me with all sorts of restaurants, coffee shops, book stores, events, etc. in my area, but they all seem like they just rehash the same data. Additionally, it occured to me that I can search all day long for chinese restaurants in my neighborhood, but the only one I’m going to eat at is the one my friend says is really good because he ate there last week.

So, what does that mean? Am I unusual? Do people really perform random searches for new bars to hang out in? Where is the word of mouth captured in these scenarios? We all know the personal recommendations matter the most. JudysBook and Yelp are on the right track, but unless I know any of the people giving the review, what’s the likelyhood that I’ll seriously consider it? In my experience… not very.

So how do you connect hyper-local audiences so they can share their collective insight and personal experiences? Furthermore, how do local service providers then tap into that collective to grow their business?

Start by getting your neighborhood online.