What I learned from running a hyperlocal website

On 31 December 2012 I published the last post on Walthamstow Scene, the hyperlocal website that I’ve run for just over two years in Walthamstow, E17. This post attempts to capture some of the things I’ve learned about hyperlocal websites over that time, and hopefully will give a few tips to other hyperlocal bloggers.

Finding my Walthamstow voice

Finding my Walthamstow voice

My blog stats

I ran Walthamstow Scene from 27 November 2010 until 31 December 2012. In this 25 months, I put 219 posts up, an average of nearly 9 per month. If only it were that consistent – in the final six months, I only managed 6 posts (for reasons I’ll talk about later).

My site was hosted on Tumblr for a couple of weeks, before I moved to WordPress.com, and then to the self-hosted WordPress.org platform in March 2011. Over the whole 25 months, I had 117,215 hits on the website. The Google Analytics data I have (from March 2011) tells me that there were 35,832 unique visitors to the site between March 2011 and today. To put that in context, Walthamstow has a population of 90,000 (according to the 2001 Census), of whom around 69,000 are over the age of 15 (my site wasn’t really aimed at children).

If you run, or are thinking of setting up, a hyperlocal site, here are a few tips. I’ve also posted some links to other posts you may find useful at the end. If you’ve got any other advice from your own experiences, please do use the comments section below.

Local band Nightfires playing in E17

Local band Nightfires playing in E17

Be clear about your purpose

A good hyperlocal site knows what it wants to do, and does it well. When I set Walthamstow Scene up, I wanted it to be a place where people could find out about local music and entertainment. I mixed that in with a bit of council and political news, to try and increase awareness of some of the council happenings (planning applications in particular generate a lot of interest).

Walthamstow is a curious place, culturally. It’s easy to find out about craft and vintage fairs in the posh bit of Walthamstow (the Village), but much more difficult to find out which bands were playing at the Duke’s Head pub in Wood Street (not the posh bit, with all due respect to Wood Street) or at The Standard music venue at Blackhorse Road. I wanted my site to give these areas a bit of a publicity boost. However, I soon got inundated with requests to feature all manner of events on the site, and the purpose of the site got diluted. I ran a calendar, but writing previews of regular events quickly becomes repetitive, and I ended up occasionally basically regurgitating press releases.

Which brings me to another lesson – if you’re running an event and ask someone to promote it on their site, please write about it on your own website first! The amount of times I got asked to write about an event by someone who a) hadn’t featured it on their own site and b) obviously hadn’t really looked at mine to think about where it might go was staggering.

 

Know where your traffic comes from

An obvious one for any website, but particularly when you’re trying to build up an online community. 63% of my traffic came from search terms, 23% from referrals and 14% was direct traffic.  Of the 23% that were referrals, 42% of that was from Facebook and 24% was from Twitter (with the rest being links from other sites and social media).

The Facebook and Twitter numbers are important. I have half the number of people “liking” the Facebook page (950 likes) as I do followers on Twitter (2,060 followers), yet I get nearly twice the amount of traffic from Facebook. No doubt that many people follow on both, but the communities work in different ways. For me, Twitter was more about a discussion and interaction – often people asked me for a retweet if they were looking for recommendations for a local plumber, builder, restaurant or similar, and the Twitter community were always ready to help out. If you’re running a hyperlocal site, it will help you to understand the dynamics of the different communities you build up on different platforms.

 

Hang out in the area

The three key outlets for Walthamstow Scene were the website, Facebook and Twitter. However, don’t be fooled into thinking that the online community is your only audience. As a hyperlocal blogger, make sure you hang out locally – drink in the local pubs (but not just your local), buy your milk in the local shop, visit the local library and go to see local bands. It helps you get a flavour of the area, and it’s usually really good fun. When I got out and talked to people, I was always amazed at how many people had heard of the site. I also got some great feedback – several times, people said to me “Oh, you never post about such and such though”. This was usually because I wasn’t aware of “such and such”, and it helped me broaden my content.

Twitter in particular can slightly distort the sense of what people are talking about locally. I had 2,060 followers on Twitter, which I don’t think is bad, but that means 67,000 adults in Walthamstow don’t remotely care what I tweet.  It’s worth remembering that there’s a world out there beyond Twitter.

 

Be a critical friend (or, Find your voice)

As your hyperlocal site is established, you’ll no doubt get to know the organisers of various local activities, who will probably want you to help promote their events. There’s nothing wrong with that, but keep your critical voice, and don’t be afraid to say ‘no’. In the early days of my blog, I certainly posted about events that I wasn’t particularly interested in. That indifference came across in the way I wrote about them, and it created an expectation that I would feature whatever anyone would send me with a positive slant.

Luckily in Walthamstow there is an alternative to my sunny disposition – another local blog called Archipelago of Truth. This takes a critical look at local happenings. Whilst I don’t always agree with the author, I enjoy reading it, and respect the fact that the strong brand perception means most people in Walthamstow who read blogs probably know what to expect from the Archipelago.

 

Build relationships with local politicians

If you’re writing about local issues, sooner or later you’ll come into contact with the local councillors and the local MP. It’s a good idea to build a relationship with them, as you might want a quote from them on local issues, depending on how newsy you are. In the run-up to elections, you could run interviews with the candidates. This works especially well if your hyperlocal site has a particular focus, such as culture, or youth, or local environmental issues – sending a Q&A on your issue to election candidates will provide you with some great original content.

Local politicians can also help bring your site to a wider audience. Once your site is established, and credible, it’s likely that it will get onto the radar of local politicians, and they’ll start mentioning it, which re-inforces your brand.

 

Do your research and post blogs of substance…

It can sometimes be easy to get sucked into posting details of local events quickly to keep the site updated, especially if you haven’t got much spare time. However, make sure that you make time to research and write more substantial pieces. Longer pieces have three advantages: 1) They enhance your reputation as an authoritative voice in the local area, 2) They are much more likely to generate comments and interest over a longer period, and 3) They are more interesting for you and for your readers.

The two posts that I most enjoyed writing (and that got the most comments) were two longer pieces: one about the new ownership of three pubs in the area and what it meant for Walthamstow’s nightlife, and one about proposed changes to the Walthamstow political constituency boundary. Both pieces were shared far more widely than my usual fare, and I have no doubt that they enhanced the credibility of the whole site.

The fire in Walthamstow was big news

The fire in Walthamstow was big news

…but don’t underestimate the power of news

You probably won’t have the resources to compete with the local newspaper, but you can be responsive and blog ‘on the go’. My third most popular post was an account of a fire in Walthamstow. I posted a couple of pictures taken on my phone on the afternoon of the fire, and it got over 2,000 hits in a two-day period. Running a blog meant that I could put quick details up, link to other pictures or videos people had posted, and I got it on the site before the local newspaper had put anything online about it.

Similarly, the most popular post on my site (over 4,500 views and counting) was about the fact that a local swingers club had turned into a dance music club. It wasn’t a particularly insightful post – I hadn’t visited the new club, nor indeed the swingers club (not even in the name of research, honest!) – but I get a consistent flow of people searching for information about the swingers club, and various swingers messageboards have linked to the post. On a hyperlocal site, you should look out for events with a niche-yet-highly-engaged audience.

The What’s In Wapping? site is a good example of including news in a hyperlocal site.

 

No story is too local

Don’t underestimate the public interest in the minutiae of local life. The aforementioned Archipelago of Truth blog in Walthamstow has an annual comparison of the price of tinned tomatoes in various Walthamstow shops. This post on on the Wansteadium site about a new local shop is along a similar theme. Not every post on your site needs to be full of insightful political analysis – sometimes people just want to know where to buy the cheapest tin of tomatoes.

Working with the new music festival in E17

Working with the new music festival in E17

You can’t be poacher and gamekeeper

As the reputation of your site builds, you may well be asked to join or endorse local events. These  can be great opportunities, but you should consider how it might affect your ability to present an impartial voice on your site. For me, I was approached to join the organising committee of a new music festival in Walthamstow, the Stow Festival. The partnership between my site and the festival was successful, to the point where we won a TalkTalk Digital Heroes award for it in 2011, and it continued through to the 2012 Stow Festival. However, I was conscious that the identity of my site and the event (in this case, the festival) were becoming blurred into one. I also had less time to blog on my own site due to the other commitments, hence the frequency of new posts dwindling towards the end of 2012.

This really goes back to being clear about your purpose. If you’re to maintain critical integrity, you need to pick and choose what events or other organisations you endorse or become involved with, so your content cannot be perceived to be skewed towards promoting a particular viewpoint, organisation or event.

 

Create a hashtag

If tweeters in your local area don’t have a consistent hashtag to use on Twitter, try creating one. I used the phrase “awesomestow” in a tweet, and it was picked up and is used regularly for Walthamstow-related tweets. It’s cheesy, but it’s a good hashtag if you’re looking for neighbourly recommendations. Once your hashtag enters common parlance, don’t worry too much about owning it – just use it as part of the community conversation.

 

It won’t make you millions

I have mixed feelings about advertising on hyperlocal sites.

Since I started, other sites have sprung up in Walthamstow promising local listings and information. A couple of these look like their have been designed to basically attract adverts from local businesses, with some fairly poor quality content to accompany it. I don’t know how much traffic they get, but I’m guessing not much.

On the other hand, I know lots of hyperlocal sites that do host adverts, either from local businesses, or ads via WordPress.com. Yeah! Hackney does it well. If you’ve got the time to chase the advertising and can incorporate the ads into your site design, then it makes sense for you. Sadly, I won’t be setting up Barbados Scene with the money I’ve made in Walthamstow just yet, though.

 

Have fun

If you’re running the site in your spare time, like I was, remember that it should be fun. I learned a lot about running a website and social media through doing the site. I also met a lot of creative and interesting people in Walthamstow, I’ve made a lot of friends and had a lot of fun.

If it starts to feel like a chore, then stop and change something to keep it fresh. You could do some interviews, get some guest posts to provide a new voice on the site, or try producing video or audio posts. Whatever it is, if you keep it fresh and interesting for you, it’s likely to be fresh and interesting for the readers too.

Winning awards is good

Winning awards is good

Win an award

I’ve included this half-jokingly – I was lucky enough to win an award for the collaboration between my blog and the Stow Festival. The point is that there are lots of different awards out there, whether they be run by the Local Authority, the local newspaper, or on more national scale like mine was. Getting nominated for the award can help publicise your site to a new audience, and it also provides an opportunity for some good content. And it’s nice to win things!

 

I hope you’ve found at least some of that useful. I’d recommend reading this post from Richard Jones on his experiences of running the Saddleworth News website. I found it an inspiring post, and I’ve actually come up with the sane number of tips as Richard. This post by Ian Mellett is also worth a read.

If you’ve got any other tips or experiences of running a hyperlocal website, please do share them below.

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