Titus touts community engagement as 'key to digital media'
"Hyperlocal" is a buzzword…and also a tempting new market for media groups eager to reap a little profit. Richard Titus, chief executive of AND (Associated Northcliffe Digital), explains why community engagement is the way forward for digital media.
“Your Place. Your People”. Associated Northcliffe Digital (part of The Daily Mail group, the United Kingdom's second largest publishing group) has launched dozens of hyperlocal websites in recent months. It defines itself as "a website for people to get together and discuss local issues, find and talk to people with similar interests, find and review local businesses, read and write local news stories, and see what’s going on locally."
By its own estimates, in the UK the local ad market (off and online) has reached almost 3 billion pounds. So why not find a way to get a slice of the pie?
France 24: What was the original idea of the Local People project (hyperlocal websites) launched last summer?
Richard Titus: When Roland Bryan (Associated Northcliffe Digital strategy director), was loooking at "ThisIs" sites and at social networks, he saw an untapped need. Basically, the "ThisIs" concept is about broadcast journalism, i.e. communicating to a larger community. ThisisLondon, for example, caters for a very large community. But in fact, small communities are where the untapped need is.
There was no place on the Internet for local communities to discuss various issues that are all very interesting and useful to them. If, say, the playground where my kids go has a safety problem...
More importantly, there was no mechanism to put an advert for, say, my local butcher, who is really only interested in people in his specific neighborhood.
So the idea was to build an open platform, which is connected to other popular social networks.
All these places with a population of 10,000 to 50,000... It is not that there is no need for local media, but the cost of production and distribution will prevent traditional newspapers from investing. Whereas thanks to the lower cost structure on the Web, we can now set up a platform for people to create content.
France 24: Your platforms mix original content and aggregated one… So far, what is the ratio between the two on your sites? And how can you make sure to get enough regular data supply?
R.T.: We don’t know yet. The ratio depends from one community to another. But, so far, much of the data we have is user-generated content (ICG). From a commercial standpoint, of course, we have a lot of jobs, properties, dating, travels - all of the offers that we already have because we own the leading portals for those businesses in the UK. The challenge today is rather how to aggregate more and more content and filter it to make sure it is relevant to people of the community. People will be unforgiving about irrelevant content.
France 24: Local People is as an ad-funded 'local community publishing platform'. More generally, how would you explain the term "hyper-local"?
R.T.: One of the powerful things about this platform is that we can aggregate advertising opportunities for small or medium-sized businesses and supply those to larger platforms that they would probably not be engaging with otherwise. You know, my butcher doesn't advertise on Google, why would he? It eventually drives more value into local retail, and into local market places, which is a very valuable thing, for us and for the environment.
France 24: Do you believe that news websites will disappear and such platforms as LocalPeople will replace them?
R.T.: No, because news websites and sites such as LocalPeople have different purposes. People go to a news website such as the Daily Mail because it has a very strong point of view and it has specialist content. Particularly, the Mail has phenomenal content about celebrity news. I think the aggregation of content around scarcity will always exist. We’re simply aggregating on a different vector: that of space, geography and community.
France 24: Last August, the Washington Post shut down the Loudoun extra, a hyperlocal project launched two years ago. How can you explain this failure?
R.T.: There are a lot of people in the hyperlocal space, with a variety of cost structures and engagement models. I think the first priority has to be engaging with communities. But many still focus on broadcast information sharing, as opposed to two-way interaction. Engagement is not a major of traditional media, but it has to be for digital media.
France 24: You are still in the launching process. Since last summer, 30 local platforms have been tested (in beta version), each of them with only one community manager paid to work on it.
R.T.: Today we have almost 50 sites in the UK. Tiverton is a great example, and a very successful one. People are passionate there. It is a place where the local community manager is really great and that person drives the quality of the environment. And there's always someone like that in every town. Sometimes they are students, sometimes it is someone who has retired. He’s like the virtual mayor of the virtual community.