Buffalo Rising Finessing Online/Offline Model

Building the perfect template for hyper-local media has been the endgame for a number of companies – BackFenceAmerican Town NetworksPegasus News, and Citysquares, to name a few.

HyperLocal Media has been working at it as well, focusing on the synergies of a print/offline model to effectively sell advertising to the community. Since I profiled the company last June, it has built a custom headquarters in cheap-rent Buffalo, and continued finessing its tools and services with Buffalo Rising. In my view, the site is easily one of the best up and running.

It also made a tentative foray into online only services. But it is backing off. Cofounder George Johnson feels that the Brooklyn-based site, Until Monday, lacked some critical ingredients; namely, the synergies of print and the Web, and a “managed group” of local enthusiasts.

“It’s difficult to scale in a meaningful way, particularly given our funding structure.” he says, in retrospect. “For now we’re focused on going deep. Breadth will come later, most likely with traditional media partners.”

There have been many other lessons along the way for the company. Perhaps the most important one is that you have to keep up with technology as it evolves. New community and content delivery tools and techniques enhance the experience and need to be part of the mix.

Aggregators such as Outside.in have also emerged. Johnson says that such aggregators definitely have their pros and cons. “We benefit from the incremental traffic they send our way and they can aggregate a lot of quality local content. But at the end of the day, we need to figure out how to subsidize the efforts of bloggers who don’t have sales teams, and don’t have print, but whose efforts make aggregators like outside.in viable.”

Another lesson that has been learned the hard way: online is going to take time. “Newspaper brands didn’t get to where they are in a few months,” says Johnson. “New newspapers take from 36 months (3 years) to five years.”

Meanwhile, Johnson relies on his Buffalo Rising monthly tabloid to contribute 65 percent of his revenue. Online/offline packages contribute 25 percent, and the other 10 percent is online only. The print revenue, he feels is limited by the monthly frequency. That’s why the online version of Buffalo Rising is such a help. “Monthly is good for co-op advertising, but it isn’t good for (promotional) sales.” So he’ll be relying on the online service to roll out job and auto classifieds.

Johnson and his team have also refocused on registering users. He‘s currently got 5,000 registrants. Anyone can use the site, but registration has its privileges (posting, voting etc.). Johnson contends that membership really increases the quality of the conversation as commenters are obligated to have some “ownership” and responsibility for what they say.

The addition of online video has also been instrumental in boosting the average time a user spends on a page which he feels is a much more accurate metric to gauge relevance with a user. “Page views are rapidly becoming less meaningful as next generation site tools that rely on technologies like AJAX are broadly implemented.”

But Johnson feels strongly that video, podcasting and other tools shouldn’t be overused. Not everything needs a video, he says. “And people don’t expect media offerings like ours to present the same type of video that a local television station would. We want to use video as a way to extend the conversation with our community and to do that, we need contributors to be able to go from idea to execution in as little time as possible.”