Looking at Local: Judy’s Book, Backfence and the hand-crafted cigar

Talking to a fellow Yahoo! yesterday, we agreed that local was one of those fascinating categories that keeps evolving as user behavior changes–hard to commoditize, linked to high-performing, targeted ad revenue, and challenging to scale. The enduring value of local–and the efforts of online newspaper businesses, *community* sites, local placeblog networks, and enhanced directories to build value in the vertical has been fascinating to watch.
20 months ago, when I was consulting with various newspaper chains and media companies, we talked alot about citizen journalism and questions of audience sustainability and business(read revenuer) models. The backdrop of these discussions–almost 2 years later–is what makes the recent shifts and struggles of Backfence and Insider Pages so interesting, and the shift in direction by Judy’s Book that Mike Arrington describes worth a look.
Backfence has lost co-founder Susan DeFife and laid off staffers, amid reports of both a “ghost town” of content in some sites and faltering ad revenue. Frank Barnako says the flaw is that these sites are just “too bland” and “corporate”, and Matt Ingram notes “a local site has to live and breathe the area it covers, and have lively personalities and content.” Fred Wilson’s placeblogging (aka hyperlocal) take is that the big thing is aggregation and rolling up feeds and services and that a business based on getting people to post can be iffy.
Judy’s Book, as described by Mike and by founder Andy Sack on his blog, met these challenges this year by moving from a community media model–local reviews–to an ecommerce/deal model where sharing and getting the best deals online is the focus. (That’s a kinda different sort of participation than news posts, for sure, but perhaps a more sustainable model.)
Susan sez: One thing it’s hard not to mention when we get into this hyperlocal, sustainable business question is the issue of scale. Most of the really good–and viable–hyperlocal sites–are small businesses that serve a focused audience, with decent ad revenues but nothing like the big numbers VCs need for their $5 to $13 MM investments. Sites like Jonathan Weber’s New West Network, George Johnson’s Buffalo Rising, Jarah Euston’s recently sold Fresno Famous and Deb Galant’s Baristanet–as well as Lisa William’s H20town–work because they are small and focused, because they have the same focus and value as hand-crafted cigars–they’re not meant to be big networks creating tons of shareholder value–they’re services for a specific time and place–built by a participant.
(And no, I don’t think that means there isn’t an opportunity to derive more large-scale value from local-I just think no one’s gone in there and built the next good thing–yet.)

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  1. Howell Jones says:

    Everything you said is hard to disagree with…but has anyone tried http://www.DiscoverOurTown.com? We call it DOT for short…We have over 2000 US cities and I think that you will find it is what BackFence and Judysbok want to be…profitable and informational

  2. sean bonner says:

    Hi Susan – as you know this is a topic very interesting to me as well. I’m still reading everything that has been said about it but I think the issue isn’t so much keeping it small, rather not biting off more than you can chew in any one step. Or something.

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