Loudoun Extra - Welcome to the Neighborhood
A very interesting and well-debated story popped up at the Wall Street Journal last week, concerning the "Flop" (as they called it) of the Washington Post's foray into hyperlocal journalism, i.e. Loudounextra.com.
The story quotes, "Almost a year later, however, the Web site is still searching for an audience. Its chief architect has left for another venture in Las Vegas, and his team went with him. And while Post executives say they remain committed to providing so-called hyperlocal news coverage, they are re-evaluating their approach."
The article does reach one right conclusion - "Mr. Curley's (the chief architect) crew was trying to reach a much different audience than they were used to. Unlike Lawrence, Kan., which had a small populace linked by an easily identifiable set of interests, Loudoun County is a 520 square-mile area with seven towns whose residents share little else besides a county government."
We'd like to point out that both the WSJ and Washington Post really missed the mark with respect to connecting with Loudoun County online. For one, Loudoun County isn't only "7 towns" - a tremendous number of residents actually live in HOA-controlled subdivisions and developments, or "interstitial" areas between (is that redundant?). Secondly, residents share quite a lot, not only many variations of regional affiliations, but also vicarious interests as experienced through their children, jobs and sports teams. Third, LoudounExtra decided to "overlay" its unique brand and method of online journalism on top of the County and its constituent readers, rather than "integrate" and "socialize" it. Here's why.
In the experience of what turns out to be very astute local journalists, Internet
professionals and marketing practitioners, marketing online to Loudoun County, and in fact to all of Northern Virginia (NOVA), has very little to do with zipcodes, high tech and explicit data, and everything to do with user-defined neighborhoods, relationships and conversation.
While Loudoun may appear to outsiders as the bastion of high-tech (with AOL, for example), in practice, the majority of residents actually aren't either well-versed or "time-enabled" to turn to the Internet and Web 2.0 capabilities for much local information or news. These are the residents who enable the persistence of at least 5 local print newspapers, who communicate primarily by email, who talk on their cellphones a lot, who really refuse to discuss education online (it's simply too sensitive), and who drive many hours a day in "offline" activities related to families or jobs. These are also the residents who are either fiercely loyal to their area of the County or NOVA (which may have little do with zipcode or township affiliation, and more to do with their children-driven activities and jobs), or are part of the transient melee of government-related workers who haven't, or won't, stay long enough to grow roots. Fundamentally, if you're not communicating, interacting and conducting business together offline in this County, chances are high you're not doing it online. You can't easily browse a website in your car, or on the soccer field, after all - nor should you want to.
The successful purveyor of online information to Loudoun will also understand that, in order to actually meet readers online, you'll need to get engaged in the neighborhood or focused-interest forums that already exist. Well-read discussion forums like the Brambletonian, heavy-hitting comment threads over at Leesburg Today, the enthusiastic Blog stable at Loudoun Times, the Myspace crowd of South Riding, the neighborhood email lists of Ashburn, very notable and recognized niche blogs like Too Conservative and our own Gateway to Loudoun County (and the "original" Living in LOCO), "Mommy" sites and forums like I Am Modern, Yahoo Groups, regional portals like Dulles South Online, local wikis like Loudounpedia, etc., etc.
In short, Loudoun County actually had a very well-established online "social media" presence before LoudounExtra hit the wire, that was basically ignored both online and off. Except, perhaps, for the daily highlights of local blogs at "Linked Up in Loudoun" - note that this "blog" area of Loudoun Extra was habitually underserved, with persistent links to old or inactive blogs, and not much outreach or "share in advertising revenue options" for blogging enthusiasts.
The last major area of stumble for the site has to do with the power of the Search Engine. Simply visit Google for example, and search for phrases like "loudoun news", "loudoun restaurants", "loudoun schools", "loudoun businesses" "loudoun politics", etc. What do you find? In nearly all cases, the first entries in Google's search results are local newspapers, portals, businesses, etc. (many of our sites, in fact!). It's even more pronounced in MSN's Live Search. Sure, LoudounExtra shows up in the top 10 some of the time - but with its budget, clout, WAPO heritage and seemingly invincible technology capacity, LoudounExtra should have been "search engine optimized and marketed" (SEO/SEM) to the hilt, and showing up first on all these searches. It wasn't.
Perhaps the most telling example of corporate policies impacting marketing/SEO practices is in the "Title Tag" (what you see at the top of your browser window) of the main site - it simply gives the name of the site and sponser - vs. describing what it actually is (how about "Loudoun County Local News, Information and Sports"?). Even though the site itself was technically first-class, it was a digital content "silo" - content simply wasn't reused, distributed or marketed enough elsewhere on the web (i.e. search engine or social media marketing). For example, visit Google Videos and search on "Loudoun Politics". You'll get some great and ground-breaking Loudoun County political videos from the Loudoun Independent newspaper, along with other user submissions. Zilch from LoudounExtra.
It's also important to note that the local online establishment didn't exactly ignore LoudounExtra. Much effort and expense went into upgrading local websites, adding social media functions, increasing hyperlocal internet marketing activities, and altogether responding actively online to such an imposing and sudden threat to readership, traffic and ultimately advertising dollars. Even the offline, print content around county improved in response (which wasn't matched by the respective offline county section of the Washington Post). In fact, there existed before, and now even more, quite a bit of respectable, coordinated and word-of-mouth activity among the local information merchants (who are also neighbors) regarding protecting their "turf" against out-of-county agents.
In all, the story WSJ tells isn't unsurprising, to the Internet denizens of Loudoun County. It's also a good lesson to both Large Media Organizations and to those who might be subsumed (listen up, Vegas!).