Over the past few years, as print advertising sales have plummeted alongside circulation numbers, local newspapers have faced a somewhat treacherous path to survival. Many have ended up forced to choose between consolidating with national outfits or relegating themselves to online-only publications. Local newspapers of long and storied pedigree have shied away from daily publication, closed altogether, or been acquired by large digital media companies.
In the process, news about smaller, local areas may get lost in the digital shuffle for page views. It seems that 140 characters may be trumping 140 years of print journalism. Patch, a hyperlocal news portal, aims to fill that gap.
Funded by AOL, chaired by new-school journalism academics, and managed by New Media entrepreneurs, Patch targeted 906 communities along the country’s coasts, giving social media’s newest demographic a source of local news. With an organic traffic source and an active online community, Patch rose to be the 180th largest website in the US.
According to Alexa, the site’s users are predominantly female and over 40, the same demographic that would purchase a community newspaper for the pictures of family members or to read the results of the local firemen’s fair.
Since the beginning of the year, the site has seen a massive uptick in social media mentions, in part continuing the general uptick in age of social media-savvy groups. But even before it, it was becoming a source of unfiltered local news after Hurricane Sandy that seemed to push the site over the edge — over 26% of Patch’s 98,000 recorded tweets on Topsy at year’s end came in the last month. This has continued into 2013, as the site has garnered nearly 900,000 new tweets since January, with a growth of now nearly 10,000 tweets per month.
The AOL Way
Nearly two years ago, AOL’s content strategy was leaked, showing how the media giant would develop and manage the content generation that drove sites like Huffington Post to SEO and traffic glory. In it, they show a rapid ramp-up of news flow driven by a writing team of named and staff writers crafting posts on topics culled from a search predictor, creating an organic floor of page views to their properties.
However, Patch approaches page views from a totally different standpoint. While the editors likely have a style, schedule, and content strategy to meet, the user-generated content is largely unpoliced, even if it shows on the front page. Despite this, the content still fits within the goals of the AOL model — driving display ad revenue at low content creation costs.
While the revenue of the Huffington Post business strategy can easily be tracked and predicted, the scores and play-by-play of the RBR-Lincroft game is likely more sharable among demographics that might not even care about NFL — and those are the people buying from the local businesses advertised on the site.
The Patch Way
Patch offers a holistic media site for multiple towns in a small geographic area. By narrowly focusing their subdomains, they create a tightly-knit community that not only consumes but also shares content in the form of images, blog posts, videos and comments on the site.
These bits of organically-generated content usually center around local schools, businesses, and government issues, often offering conflicting viewpoints on city and county matters, blotter-style rundowns of local happenings, and even deep coverage of high school sports.
Yet, Patch isn’t just a grassroots local UGC site that’s nipping at Craigslist’s heels. Two types of commercially-minded content makers supplement the purely organic content of the site: local businesses and paid editors.
SMBs in the area are given a loudspeaker to talk to a prime customer base either by posting their own organic content or their packaged advertising on the site. Paid editors seem to be community managers and higher quality journalists who still give the impression that they are ordinary Patch users. Culled from the ranks of recently-graduated journalism students and qualified users, editors are apparently recommended to disclose personal beliefs in an attempt to acknowledge possible biases to the articles they write.
Patch seems to be a news site, but the traffic model seems to be a portal, mimicking today’s social networks while hearkening back to AOL, Yahoo, and the original portals. Patch is sort of set up as a “choose your own filter bubble” news site, focusing on the social aspects of the site to better know your author and why the subject is meaningful enough to organically share the content.
So, Is It a News Site? Or a Blog Site?
The Editor-Business-User trinity gives Patch a bit of an identity problem: it can’t decide if it’s a hyperlocal news site or a hyperlocal social network. Their editor-written articles are indexed by Google News, but their local users don’t get the same respect.
Editors try to have a semblance of journalistic integrity, but Patch’s focus is on transparency of bias rather than a lack of bias — an important distinction from traditional news sources and an area of possible contention with readers. It may be difficult, for example, to determine if what you perceived as unfair reporting in an article was an accidental function of the author’s personal feelings or if it was just how the story actually unfolded.
The distinction of transparency vs. removal of bias may be difficult for readers to reconcile. One comment from the Red Bank-Shrewsbury, NJ Patch highlights two important issues with the site’s focus:
First, even Patch’s engaged users might not understand the site’s values or identity – the site isn’t one for particularly “breaking” news updates, though some stories by paid writers and even regular users may be.
Second, Patch seems to ignore that its users are not necessarily the most tech-savvy people, which may mean that they need to actively guide users instead of simply point them to the management’s goals.
Local SEO On Patch
Muddling the issue more, Patch seems to be attempting to replace niche blogging platforms such as RealSelf. Companies and representatives are easily able to post blogs, press releases, opinions, and news to the site, giving users the chance to get to know companies, but certainly crossing the line of what can be considered “news.”
These press releases, hosted blogs, and other company content would be enough to consider it as a content magnet. But to boot, Patch also includes a local directory linked to the news, blogs, photos, and events the company creates on the site. The directory uses a lot of Schema, but a quick check shows that it’s a bit malformed for optimal display. This local directory, especially if fixed, could provide an easily editable, high-value and high-volume citation source for Local SEO.
What To Do On Patch
Patch is an interesting source of content for hyperlocal neighborhoods, spreading both “county fair revues” and deeper analysis of local events by citizens. For businesses, the robust events, local directory, and blogging platform offer a unique location for reaching users in their area.
No matter where Patch falls on the journalism/advertisement spectrum, one thing is clear: if you use it wisely, you can reach an ever-growing pool of daily visitors and engaged community members. You can use Patch to grab the attention of the millions of Americans who have folded the daily paper for the last time and turned permanently to the Internet for both global and local news stories.
For those in the over 1,000 locations Patch covers, take these three steps now to establish a presence on Patch:
Create a personal profile on Patch
Comment on articles in your neighborhood that matter to you professionally to raise the visibility of your business’s Patch bloggers. Your profile serves as a central repository for your writing on the site, including any images uploaded to the site and any comments on other articles. This allows a business owner to broaden their exposure among a demographic that often makes the majority of buying decisions in a family.
Claim your business’s local directory listing
Your business may already have some exposure through the Patch’s directory. Like any local directory site, a business owner will want consistent and accurate information on their directory listing. Ensure that your business name, address, phone number, and website are all the same across your online listings — this ensures that your Patch listing will not conflict with your existing online profile, keeping this site’s highly trafficked directory from hurting your other marketing efforts.
Write content about your business
Linked from both personal profiles and business listings, business-owned blogs are the best way to drive traffic to your site. Make sure that the content is useful to your local readers, who won’t likely patronize a business that’s “polluting” their favorite local site. Medical offices, real estate lawyers and agents, and local nonprofits are just a few of the businesses that can provide local-focused content that will create a buzz, leading to site traffic and ultimately high-ROI sales.
Post your business’s events
The last step for a business owner new to Patch is to place your business’s events on the site. This not only provides another link to your site, but adds your event to a community calendar viewed by a valuable local demographic. Providing the user with a broad swath of information, the event listings also direct users to your website, you Patch listing, and tells the reader where and when the event takes place.
These steps are not far from the daily actions of anyone already focused on their business’s online presence. Moving some efforts over to Patch gives your business an organic, largely “un-spammy” site geared toward holistic Internet marketing to boost your online presence among your customers — the main goal of any online effort.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.