Ah, hyperlocal news: The promise of delivering local stories, events and announcements (and ads) based on geographical relevance. Internet giants like AOL and Yahoo! have pumped tens of millions into creating content factories that target to the granularity of the neighborhood, and now Newton, MA startup xtra xtra is trying their hand at making hyperlocal stick.
Hyperlocal Is Mega Difficult
In an imaginary survey of the world’s hardest things to do conducted by no one in particular, creating a profitable, sustainable, up-to-date hyperlocal news site was listed as #3 after running a sub 3-minute mile and winning an Oscar with a live action musical rendition of Catcher In The Rye starring Vin Diesel and a talking log.
It’s not impossible, but damn is it tough.
The problem rests in the paradoxical business model used in most hyperlocal news startups. The more “local” the news, the greater the value to the end-user, but the more local you get, the smaller the audience. The smaller the audience becomes, the smaller the potential pool of advertisers willing to pay to engage said audience.
Screenshot of xtra xtra's homepage
I asked Cooley the one question that I couldn’t avoid: What does this site do that facebook and other social networking or review sites don’t?
The answer: “We don’t think of xtra xtra as a social networking site. It’s more like an online version of the announcements section of your local paper with stories written by people in the community. Social networking does a great job connecting users to other individuals, and we aren’t trying to compete with that. Our site appeals to a wider demographic. It’s a less complicated tool that easily delivers the latest announcements from schools and towns.”
“Users can browse different communities from one central site without restriction, but we’ve eliminated the clutter that comes with social networking sites; there are no “friends,” games, or profiles, and we never request personal information in registration. We want xtra xtra to be accessible to all users. You can email your announcement to an older relative who may not have a social networking account, and they can view it without signing up for anything. Then you could then easily share that same announcement with all of your social media networks.”
A Closer Look
So, I took a closer look into xtra xtra's site. To access local news for your specific area, you need to put in your zip code or city/state. Once entered, you will see the screenshot to the left.
You’ll notice a couple of things here.
The first thing that sticks out is xtra xtra’s integration with Boston.com. Cooley Horner explains, “Boston.com is the first newspaper partner that we are rolling out. With this agreement, the announcements for the hyper-local Your Town sites will
be powered by xtra xtra. This means that xtra xtra milestone
announcements will be displayed on the Your Town page and users will be encouraged to submit their own. Those postings
will be available both on the Your Town page and on our site. In these Your Town areas, we have co-branded our headers for a seamless
transition between the sites. Once on our page, users will be able to
browse other locations and schools as they wish. It is a mutually
beneficial relationship, as we gain traffic and brand recognition and
Boston.com gains a portal for user-generated content and interactivity.
Media partnerships are a big part of our strategy moving forward.”
You’ll notice the main call to action on the page is to
“create a milestone”, xtra xtra’s term for a user post. “A milestone
free posting created by a user to commemorate a life event. We feature
categories on the site—everything from weddings, birthdays, graduations,
birth announcements to academic, athletic, and professional
encourage users to share the stories that matter to them,” Horner said.
I went through the process of creating a "Professional" milestone for Aprigo, as we just launched a new product (shameless plus anyone?). To create a milestone, you need to signup for a user account. The process was fairly simple and here is the end result.
One of the key aspects for a site like this... is ultimately content. When you click on many of the categories, you'll see that there is no news. I asked Cooley about the customer acquisition piece, because if users see little content, they are unlikely to post things themselves. From Cooley Horner: “User adoption and attracting user generated content are by far the biggest challenges we have faced with the site. We initially faced the “chicken or the egg” dilemma; users told us that they love the site but don’t want to be the first to post. Similarly, users told us they would be apprehensive to post to a site that they have never heard of. We addressed the first issue by scraping content and focusing our marketing on promoting more awareness for the site. We are hoping to address the second concern of attracting content by partnering with reputable media companies (like Boston.com) until we are more recognizable on our own.”
The Bottom Line
The key issue will be user adoption and getting people to actually create content (chicken and egg problem). Without content, the site will seem hollow. It would also be helpful to allow end users the ability to create links when putting in a milestone, but I can understand the reluctance to do so, as the potential for spam could be overwhelming.
It’s a tough problem, and they’ve tried to overcome it by scraping content, but that runs the risk of being perceived as just another content scraping site with no original content.
I like the idea of hyperlocal a LOT. Last year, I moved to Waltham and since I had only been there a handful of times before (other than to go to work), I had no answers to the most important questions one asks when moving to a new city.
• Where’s the best place to grab lunch?
• Who has the best chicken parm sub?
• Where can I find a bar with the coveted trifecta of a dart board, Bud Light on draft and Keno?
So, I went to the web and did some searching around, but was fairly disappointed. Other than sites like Yelp! that offer reviews of restaurants and the like, finding a good source of local news, reviews and events is hard. If a site like xtra xtra would be able to overcome the adoption and motivation problems they face, and had users consistently posting new milestones (with links to other sites), I’d be all over it.
Nathan Burke is the
Marketing Manager at Waltham, MA startup Aprigo. He is an infrequent writer at both Blogstring.com and MarketingStartups.com and is uncomfortable describing himself in
the third person in italics at the end of an article. You can find him on
twitter at @nathanwburke.