BackFence Update with CEO Susan DeFife

BackFence may be the biggest laboratory out there for community networks. It reads like a newspaper written by citizens, and its hyper-local coverage features community-by-community Yellow Pages, special sections, business reviews, events calendars, classifieds, blogs and user-generated photos.

The company raised $3 million at this time last year from SAS Investors and The Omidyar Network, and has been spending it for all to see, moving beyond several suburbs in the Washington D.C. metro to similar locales in The Bay Area and now, Chicago as well. There are 13 BackFence locations in all, and more to come.

It also has been attracting some high profile talent from the social network scene, including Andy Vogel from The Journal Sentinel in Milwaukee, and Darian Patchin from Tribe Nets and Homestead. At the same time, BackFence recently lost co-founder Mark Potts, a pioneer in social nets with The Washington Post and other companies, who has gone back to consulting –although he remains on the board.

In the wake of Potts’ departure, I asked CEO Susan DeFife to update me on the company’s progress. “We set out to prove three things,” she says. “That the community will come. That they’ll buy advertising. And that the sites can scale.” Based on those criteria, the company is succeeding, says DeFife.

Usage-wise, more than 10 percent of local residents in the site’s communities are logging on, and one percent are posting. “We don’t have as many posts as we’d like to have,” but the site has made real inroads in its communities, she says.

As for sales, “We’ve been selling since April, and have 360 local advertisers,” says DeFife. The advertisers are spread among its localities, with most in the DC area, where BackFence has been operating the longest. Of the charter advertisers, 80 percent are display advertisers. The average value is $540, and the majority of these – 69 percent — have entered into long-term, 12-month contracts. Some are longer. The other 20 percent are Yellow Pages, which pay $120 per year.

By my calculations, that means the site now has 288 display advertisers, with annual revenues of $155,520; and 72 Yellow Pages advertisers bringing in $8,640. The total adds up to $164,160 – not bad for a start-up.

“Businesses have proved very receptive to the advertising. It is very affordable,” says DeFife. But the company has had important learnings along the way. One is that a hyper-local site had better be scoped along hyper-local lines. “Arlington hasn’t done as well as Bethesda because it is a bigger area,” notes DeFife. “Arlington is actually (four) communities – Clarendon, Ballston, and North and South Arlington. It shows us what (is likely to) happen when we go into counties,” and that it important to keep the hyper-local focus.

A test of a county-wide mission, in fact, is coming up, as BackFence has formed a media partnership with The Loudon Independent, a new tabloid-style newspaper serving eastern Loudon County, a fast-growing exurb of the DC area. The newspaper has a circulation of 65,000. Under terms of the deal, BackFence will feed the paper’s website with stories and services, and will receive promotion in return.

DeFife says the company is experimenting with additional forms of promotion as well. “We have search engine keyword buys, and we’re testing some things. Advertising on movie theater slides in Reston, for instance. The slides flash three times prior to feature movies. In the Bay Area, we have coffee sleeves. And in Chicago, we’re testing BackFence branded Ice Scrapers.”