Friends List: Face-to-Face or Virtual?

Information Week has an interesting article up titled “5 Keys To Social Networking Success” by Andrew Conry-Murray.

One of the five keys is that successful social networks should facilitate interaction among a close-knit, pre-existing circle of companions who have existing relationships. In other words, I should be able to find my friends on the site.

But there’s an exception to this rule…

“The exception to the friends characteristic are groups that coalesce around profound experiences, such as pregnancy and childbirth or a cancer diagnosis. These groups form expressly to connect with strangers who are sharing the same experience. However, other characteristics certainly apply.”

What I like about this is that eNeighbors is the perfect example for the exception rule. You probably don’t know every person that lives in your neighborhood, but you still share common interests, goals, and concerns.

The other great thing I like about Andrew’s explanation of the exception is that this common experience connects these previously disparate people. eNeighbors takes it a step further — you can literally connect with these people right outside your front door, face to face.

I know, it’s shocking to think of real, physical interaction with people in this ever-increasing online world. Maybe that’s the defining point of a “highly” successful social network. After all, that’s what MySpace started doing with band concerts.

Local News and Content Innovations

Yahoo Local redesigns their interface adding all sorts of cool content controls and useful features for discovering local news and events.

By partnering with MenuPages, CitySearch has added extensive menu content to their restaurant profile pages. Awesome! Now I can find out ahead of time if there is a kid’s menu.

Google is now allowing users to comment on stories (that they appear in) on Google News. Still wondering how Google will verify that people are who they say they are…

To Sale Or Not To Sale

A recent Facebook application launched from Buy.com called Garage Sale. I think it’s self-explanatory — sell your stuff to your friends on Facebook. Theory is that they know and trust you, so it’s like a “garage sale” at your house.

TechCrunch thinks this type of closed system of selling won’t work because in this scenario, sellers don’t have access to a large customer base (like on eBay), or for that matter like on edgeio.com (the TechCrunch-backed classifieds site).

I thought about this for a while especially considering our success with classifieds in the eNeighbors neighborhood sites. For instance, if eNeighbors grew to the point of millions of users, how effective would our inter-community classifieds be? Would we be able to truly replace the newspaper classifieds? Or would someone like eBay ultimately win out?

The offline print classifieds are still successful to this day due to their ability to give you the “local” view of what people are selling. All you have to do is drive over and get it. Additionally, I know that some people (like my mother) love to go hunt for hidden treasures at garage/estate sales. Putting this experience online just wouldn’t translate.

In the end, I think the answer will be whatever website your average “non-techie” internet user knows about will be the one he/she uses. Additionally, that website needs to be easy to use and not intimidating to newbies. We are doing everything we can to make eNeighbors.com be exactly that.

Does Local Search Equal A Trillion Dollars?

How many times have you gone to Best Buy to buy a new camera/TV/computer/printer and were carrying a bunch of printouts of product reviews you got from researching online first?

More and more of us are now researching purchases “online” and then buying “offline” in our respective local communities. In fact, Yahoo just released a study that confirms this behavior, and even more specifically outlines how online advertising affects offline purchase behavior.

Greg Sterling, interestingly enough, calls this behavior “Local Search” by way of his definition:

“Local search is a process where users conduct research online but with the ultimate intention or result being an offline transaction. It’s about the Internet influencing real-world buying decisions.”

In my mind, this means that “local search” really means “local buying” due to the fact that these two actions are merely steps in the traditional commerce process. In other words, you aren’t going to search for a service or product outside of your geographical vicinity if you intend to buy it offline.

Here’s the other part of Greg’s post that got my attention:

The phrase, The Trillion Dollar Marketplace, comes from recent Jupiter and Forrester e-commerce/retail reports that predict the Internet will be influencing a trillion dollars of offline (local) spending by either 2010 or 2011.

Personally, I think this estimate is a bit overly optimistic (1999 flashback, anyone?), but the point is that we spend most of our buying dollars in the physical community in which we live. You can’t buy food out of state and have it shipped (I guess you could, but it wouldn’t be hot). Most of us still like to try our clothes on before purchasing, and there’s no denying the joy of instant gratification (or less hassle of returns) of picking up that shiny new gadget toy from your local electronics store today (rather than in 7-10 business days). And if I want any type of service or repair for my house or car, guess what, it’s going to be local.

More and more, it’s becoming important for online buying guides to provide very relevant and very accurate local retail guides. Innovations like alerts to local sales and special offers or service referrals from your in-town friends and family are going to become imperative for the bricks and mortar lot to compete for those dollars that are not spent in the online channel.

Why Build-It-Yourself Websites Suck

Let’s say you are on the board of directors for your HOA. You’ve been put in charge of the landscaping and groundskeeping for the neighborhood. Naturally, you need to hire a landscape company. Most landscape companies provide the following:

1. Seeding, fertilizing and cutting of grass
2. Planting and care for flowers, shrubs, and trees

Why do you pay a landscape company for these services? They have the right equipment and the expertise to do the job, right? Also, to do all this work takes a lot of time. I’m not just talking about the time it takes to plant a tree, but the ongoing maintenance of watering and caring for any growing, living thing. Oh yeah, and the grass has to be cut about every 4-7 days.

Let’s not forget, you are a volunteer.

Since you have a day job, you would never attempt to do all this work yourself. There’s simply no time to do it, and you aren’t getting paid for it.

You call the landscape company and they tell you that they have a revolutionary new process for taking care of all your needs — you do it yourself.

Stay with me here… let’s say the landscape company then offered to give you a manual and training guides on how to take care of all your own landscaping, AND they want to charge you for it too.

That’s when you hang up on them.

So, why in the world would you accept this type of service for your neighborhood website?

Are you going to pay some company for a website and then do all the work of setting it up yourself? On top of that, you will have to update the site constantly by yourself. I don’t care if the fee is $2.00 a month, you’re still paying “them” and doing all the work on your own.

When we created the eNeighbors web application, this volunteer situation and constant maintenance issue was the central focus of our application development. We do all the work for you (that’s why we get paid). We set up the site for you, we make sure the site stays up, and here’s the best part — the entire community updates the site.

The board is no longer the continual bottleneck for new, fresh, and relevant information in your neighborhood. Every resident in your community has the ability to share news information, host a social event or post a classified ad.

Stop doing all the work yourself, and sign your neighborhood up with eNeighbors today.

National Neighborhood Day

Do you love your neighborhood? Are you the one that always hosts the block party? Do your neighbors constantly help each other out?

Show how much you appreciate your community by celebrating on National Neighborhood Day, September 16, 2007.

The mission of National Neighborhood Day is to inspire, build, and sustain the neighborhood relationships that provide the foundation for civic action and the building of stronger, more caring and effective communities.

Also, be sure to check out the short film contest winners from 2006. The three films are very different from each other, and they give a great insight to the wide spectrum of community that exists across our country. The comments from the contest judges reflect this as well.

Visit the National Neighborhood Day website for more info.

What to look for in a neighborhood website

Evaluating the best solution for your neighborhood website can be difficult. There are a lot of things to consider like site features, hosting options, domain name registration, and of course, price. For the most part you don’t want to get caught up in the technical stuff. Instead, focus on how the site will provide real value to your neighborhood.

First, let’s cover the basics. What is your goal? Why do you want a neighborhood website? This is the very first question that you should ask yourself. The answer to this question can lead you down very different paths. More often than not, though, neighborhoods primarily want a website to improve communication amongst their residents. And when you think about it, improving neighborhood communication solves a myriad of other neighborhood challenges, such as social event participation, architectural compliance, and safety. (Download a full list of common neighborhood challenges and solutions.)

Assuming that your goal is also to improve communication, here’s what you should look for when considering a website for your neighborhood.

Registration – Does the solution you’re considering have a registration engine? If it doesn’t, remove it from your list of considerations. A registration engine allows residents to fill out an electronic form online with information such as their first name, last name and email address. Through this process you can capture resident’s email address and establish an electronic communication channel. Registration also allows you to track your success because you’ll know who’s online and who’s not by looking at who has registered. eNeighbors takes this a step further and helps you to send out website welcome letters in the mail that encourage residents to register on your site. See how it works.

Privacy – Does the solution you’re considering protect resident’s privacy? You must be able to protect people’s information online and guarantee their privacy if you expect them to turnover their email address and join your neighborhood website. You want to make sure that your website provider never displays email addresses on the website, gives residents complete control over their personal information, and implements extensive moderation controls that ensure no inappropriate content is published. See eNeighbors Privacy Policy for an example of what to look for.

Security – Is the solution you’re considering secure? Before you can ensure privacy, you have to be able to secure private information through encryption technology. Make sure that what you’re looking at offers 256-bit SSL encryption.

Communication – Does the solution you’re considering improve communication? After all, that is the goal. Look for things like automatic eNewsletters, news postings, social event listings, social groups, an online resident directory, and classified postings.

Sustainability – This isn’t usually high on the list of considerations, but it should be near the top of yours. Why? Because you want the solution you implement to work for a long time. Unfortunately, most neighborhood websites fade away in a very short period of time because they’re not sustainable. To ensure that you’re website will run for a long time, absolutely nothing can be dependent upon you or the board. It must run on it’s own without you. And let’s face it, you don’t have the time to maintain a website anyway. A website that runs on its own comes with technical support for every resident, automatic processes that don’t rely on you, and allows everyone in the neighborhood to contribute so you’re not the only one posting information on the website.

Ease-of-Use – Finally, is it easy to use? If it’s easy to use, residents will use it. If it’s not easy to use, residents won’t use it. For this reason, I’m generally opposed to custom designs. While they can look nice and be tailored to the look and feel of your neighborhood, custom neighborhood websites often sacrifice the most important feature of design – usability.

If you have a specific question, please post it in the comments so I can answer for everyone to see.

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.

Do you get along with your neighbors?

Neighbors have gotten a bad rap. It seems to me that the perception is people don’t like their neighbors.

But apparently, if you’re like most people, you get along very well with your neighbors, according to a study by Zogby International on “Homeownership and Association Living”.

“An overwhelming majority of association members get along well with their neighbors (86%), and a substantial two out of three (64%) get along very well. Among those who report conflict, pets are the most common source (28%).” -Zogby International*

So why do neighbors get such a bad rap? I think it has to do with your neighbor’s ability to affect your life so dramatically – positively or negatively. If you get the wrong neighbor it can make you seriously consider picking up and moving out of town. On the other hand, the right neighbor can become a good friend, provide a sense of place, or at the very least, someone you trust to watch the dog when you’re on vacation.

In my own experience, I find myself complaining about a neighbor because I don’t or can’t communicate with them. Every single issue that I’ve personally had with a neighbor has been resolved almost instantly when I knock on their door and talk to them.

Communication is critical in any relationship, and that includes the relationships that you have with your neighbors. One of the higher order goals that we have here at eNeighbors is to increase communication in our neighborhoods to make them better places to live, providing those who live there a sense of community. So, whether you get along with your neighbors or not, sign up for eNeighbors today. Who knows, maybe you’ll resolve a conflict or meet a new friend who has a lot in common with you.

*This study was commissioned by Community Associations Institute, a national organization devoted to common interest community research, development, and scholarship.