Sunday, 3 April 2011

Talk About Local 2011 #TAL11 conference: how to get started with a hyperlocal blog

I have set up a blog for the road I live on. Why? Because we have a residents' association, I didn't know what they were doing and I thought it would be useful to have a local notice board of sorts. I was also inspired by the hyperlocal journalists and bloggers I've met while working at Skillset. And so was born.

But what about the content? What are my neighbours really interested in? Rather than make assumptions, I created a survey to find out. With 200 properties on the road, I was chuffed with 71 responses, the majority of whom were positive about the idea (you can see the full results here). Plenty of people were interested in being kept informed and provided an email address. It got me thinking: could I turn any of them into contributors?

The Talk About Local (TAL) conference in Cardiff last weekend was an ideal opportunity to pick the brains of the best and brightest hyperlocal journalists and bloggers. TAL is run as an 'unconference' format. There's no agenda. All the delegates turn up and volunteer ideas for sessions they want to lead. There was some interest in how to get started and promote your site so I got stuck in.

As we introduced ourselves, the following themes emerged:

  • How do you turn readers into writers?

  • What ideas are there to launch a site and where do you start?

  • What ways are there to grow subscribers?
There were some brilliant practical tips on what to do and how to get started. I've the top ten below for anyone new to the hyperlocal game.

  1. Keep it simple: have a simple name and repeat it all the time

  2. Email: set up a subscription feedburner, think about junk mail and be aware of spam-tastic words (sale, viagra etc); sign up for all emails so you can distribute this out to your local community (mailchimp for particularly recommended for newsletters)

  3. Once upon a time: find and write about good stories

  4. Social media: set up Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc - use all media channels

  5. Conversations: talk to people, pop in and talk to the shop keepers - they can tell you about sales and events, attend events, be seen face to face: from online to offline.

  6. Linking: develop links to/from other sites, think about what stuff comes through the letterbox - can you do deals or link up with them? Link up with local bloggers - interact with them, share ideas/stories, link and acknowledge them

  7. Comments: get your friends to comment to kick things off

  8. Paperwork: produce leaflets, business cards and take them everywhere you go - shops, restaurants, bars

  9. Quality not quantity: keep it in perspective and understand that you can’t do everything straight away, focus on quality. Remember, people aren’t checking hour in hour out so you can stagger and stage things

  10. Shopping: many sites have experienced big spikes in interest when including Tesco opening times at Xmas, Bank Holidays etc (general consensus was this is sad, but true)
We discuss a number of issues in more depth.

Contributors: the hardest thing of all Getting contributors is one of the hardest things to do. You need an editorial disclaimer and have to keep an eye on the quality. Equally, you have to make it meaningful to people so don’t ask them to cover something that doesn’t interest them. Push people in the right direction and don’t overburden them. Check for propaganda and make it clear that they are contributors (you can do this by italicising their text).

Forums: who, what, why, how There were sobering and wise words from Simon at the Ventnor blog on the Isle of Wight. It took them a year to establish their forum and now it runs itself. It was tough at times. You need to remember that it’s a conversation. A robust discussion is a good thing, but it can be difficult to ride out online rows, but you have to take the rough with the smooth. Oliver from The Silhillian blog recommended not moderating comments. If you do pre-moderate, you are approving that comment and will be liable to claims of libel or defamation. You need to be aware of the law.

Other tips included think about what locals will google about e.g. local school becomes academy and there are concerns about admissions. You need to remember that you don’t create a community. They are already there. You happen to stumble upon them and provide an outlet for them.

From online to offline: make your site personal Joseph at BlogPreston recommends using events as well. Be at heart of the event (set up a tweet-up) so people get to know you as a real person. You can use these face to face meetings to consolidate the relationship with the reader and/or contributor.

Thanks go to everyone who attended the session. If I’ve missed anyone make sure you comment!

@jonathanlloyd @josephstash @nw3news @rlwjones @saddleworthnews @SteveVbrewer @the_silhillian @ventnorblog @WHampstead