Livin’ la vida local

By on April 30, 2010

Image credit: Andrew VazzanoWhat’s going on around you right now?  Where are you friends?  Where are the best places to eat in your neighborhood? Now you can know with a few clicks of the mouse or a quick glance at your phone.

With the advent of new technology and the Internet, things become more and more customized for whatever niche people may be searching for.  The latest trend on the Web is the explosion of hyper-local and location based news and services.

Social networks like Yelp, Gowalla and Brightkite allow you to broadcast to your friends and followers where you are and what you’re doing.

“We are already changing the playing field in terms of how people share news, how brands offer promotions and how social media marketers direct campaigns,” Katie Wagner, public relations and marketing consultant at Brightkite, said.  “We work with national brands to offer our users amazing local deals based on where they’ve checked in, their interests and even the temperature outside.”

Mobile technology is making it easier and easier for people to check in, check out and read up on their favorite local eateries and shops.  That’s what Yelp is trying to help.

Brightkite is a social network that allows people to check in to different locations across the globe.  You can see who has been there before, check out tips and send out a mass text to your friends.  This ability allows Brightkite to “alert users to traffic, flight delays and other important local happenings,” according to Wagner.

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Image credit: Yelp

“When more users are aware of Yelp and engaging with each other, it enriches the experience for everyone involved,” Yelp Director of East Coast Marketing Kevin Lee said. “For contributors to the site, this means more eyes are reading the great content that they’re putting out into space, and hopefully they’re being recognized by others in the community for taking the time to share their experience with the wider public.

On Yelp, users add and review businesses that they’ve visited or eaten at.

“It goes without saying that casual visitors to the site glean valuable information about reviewed businesses to help them make decisions on how to spend their hard-earned income,” Lee said.

New York City-based blog Neighborhoodr is taking a similar approach.

Hyper-local news is also booming.  Instead of reading a newspaper with news from around your state or area, now you can turn to websites that specialize in what is going on around your area only.

Anthony De Rosa, 34, and co-founder of Neighborhoodr, a user-submitted New York City news blog is taking a grassroots approach.

“We created Neighborhoodr to be an ecosystem that would have a built in community that could always tend to the site through crowd sourcing content via the massive Tumblr community,” De Rosa said. “We see tons and tons of content in our Tumblr stream relevant to even the most far off neighborhoods in NYC and bring it to the surface. Our platform is unique, nobody else uses Tumblr on the scale we do for Neighborhoodr content.”

De Rosa thinks the hyper-local news will be the wave of the future because of its personalization.

“They get very relevant information that is important to them,” De Rosa said. “More likely than not cannot get anywhere else, directly from people who also live in their neighborhood. It’s not some editor at a newspaper who doesn’t live there telling them how it is.”

“User-submitted content is the future of content,” De Rosa said. “We have editors at each neighborhood that comb through submissions to bring the most relevant user submissions to the surface to share. The top down model is the future. Having one person tell everyone about a neighborhood is a silly concept. It’s too myopic, too narrow a point of view and doesn’t truly give a full picture of what is going on. We give the entire neighborhood a chance to speak for itself.

“Our model is unique and tough to replicate, we have a vast network to draw content from, and we provide a wide variety of points of view from people direct from neighborhood residents, not newspaper editors,” he said.

Instead of having users contribute the news, AOL owned Patch.com is hiring journalists to cover very specific beat – a town.

On Patch, reporters cover everything about one town.  From school board meetings to local food joints to high school sports, the town is canvassed by one main reporter and a few freelancers.

Jennifer Connic, a 33-year-old graduate of the Quinnipiac University graduate journalism program, covers the Millburn-Short Hills, N.J., beat for Patch.com.

“I don’t know if it’s so much personalized news as its hometown, local news,” Connic said. “We tell people what’s going on in their towns and in their neighborhoods and what’s happening right now. They can’t get that many other places. When there’s some big event in town, people come looking at Millburn-Short Hills Patch. Whether it’s a fire or an important school budget vote, people are here reading to find out what’s happening now in their town.”

Millburn-Short Hills' Patch

Image of Connic's Patch website

Connic was one of the first reporters who joined Patch when they launched in 2009.

“Nearly two years ago the Patch people approached me because of my experience in online local news, and I started there before anyone even knew what Patch was and became one of the first editors,” Connic said. “I was drawn to this because it’s where my experience is and what I enjoy to do. There’s a lot to love about covering local news.

“I quibble with the term ‘hyper-local’ because what we do is no different than what local, community journalists have been doing for a long time,” Connic said. “It may be in a different package online, but the journalism itself isn’t a lot different. This is the brand of journalism I’ve been doing for more than a decade.”

De Rosa thinks they’re improving on what has been around for years.

“They [local papers] simply can’t provide the scale and variety of voices we give a platform to,” he said. “Town papers are too reliant on too few people with too narrow a point of view.”

Technology is letting more and more people have voices – speak to the public or whomever wants to read or listen.  Now, innovations like smart phones and Twitter are only making it easier to spread info, especially while on the go.

“There is definitely a switch from desktop computing with the increase in smart phones use and apps,” Wagner said. “However, the early adopter crowd is almost completely mobile; forward thinking brands are allotting more of their budgets to target these users.”

Lee agreed.

“People are becoming more and more expectant of having information and conducting transactions at their fingertips at any point in time, anywhere,” Lee said. “Mobile technology is becoming more complex to meet this need; as products and services provide greater utility, consumers and businesses are turning toward mobile for everyday commerce.”

All agreed that Twitter is a very useful tool to help advance their application and reach out to its users.  Twitter is a micro-blogging platform that allows people or companies to broadcast short messages to whoever chooses to follow them.

“For me, the biggest social network tool I use is Twitter,” Connic said. “It’s my tool to instantly publish information, especially breaking news. My account feeds straight onto the site at the top of every page. So if I want to draw someone’s attention to an article or story, I use it to do that.

“Plus posting breaking news there is incredibly important. I also answer reader questions and retweet things people bring to my attention,” she said. “One night with the school budget I received plenty of questions on Twitter, which I tried to answer best I could. I do a lot of real-time reporting, so Twitter is an important tool for that.”

Brightkite and Yelp use a different approach.

“We use Twitter in three main ways: to announce company/service news to our followers, to answer customer concerns expressed over Twitter via a direct message and to allow users on Brightkite to send their check ins & posts to Twitter and Facebook,” Wagner said.

“On a smaller, yet still impactful scale, our customer support team at Yelp HQ handles thousands of inquiries on a daily basis regarding questions and concerns from the community,” Lee said. “Not to mention our extensive interaction with the public via our Facebook page and official Twitter handle, @Yelp.”

Of the location-based social networks, Foursquare is the far and away leader.  Boasting over 1 million users, the company has recently signed deals with the New York Times, Bravo and The History Channel. Through these relationships, users are given facts or specials badges when they check in at certain locations determined by the companies.

Foursqaure was not available for comment.

“I use Foursquare to an extent,” Connic said, “I use it mainly to tell my readers where I am in case they need me because my account is connected with Twitter. We don’t have an office, so I’m out in the community working. So it’s important for people to find me. I do think there is a trend toward location-based information. We do a bit of that now with our maps, which are connected to stories, events and the directory.”

De Rosa agreed that it’s what the new users want.

Neighborhoodr

Neighborhoodr

“I think they are very much the future because people want to know what is going on, where their friends are and where are the cool places to go,” De Rosa said.

But is this as personal as it’s going to get?

“It is one step closer, but we are constantly looking at ways we can make it even more personalized,” De Rosa said. “We may add filters in the future so people can look specifically at types of content they want to read about in a particular neighborhood, like say the best pet stores in the Astoria, Queens and the experiences people have had there.”

Connic, though, thinks this is as zoomed-in as we can get.

“I think what I do is as local as it can get. We get contributions from readers about youth soccer and Little League,” she said. “You don’t see a lot of places doing that sort of thing.”

Lee and Wagner shared a different outlook.

“It’s still an exciting and developing frontier, offering a lot of opportunities for consumers and local businesses that didn’t previously exist,” Lee said. “We’ll likely continue to see a proliferation of new products as technology improves, offering timelier, localized services to the public.”

“Pretty soon everything can be pulled out of the cloud from anywhere and posted, shared and exchanged on hyper-local networks,” Wagner said. “I think the future holds a lot more instant gratification from anywhere.”

De Rosa put the power in the hands of the contributors.

“Content, as always, is king and we have the best content out there,” De Rosa said.

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About Andrew Vazzano

The general manager and publisher of The Quinnipiac Chronicle.