Hundreds of local bloggers, news sites and newspapers are no doubt having the same reaction. Patch, the local news project of AOL, has launched nine sites recently in the Washington area: Wheaton (the site that first reported the police search Thursday of a home where they believe James J. Lee lived), College Park, Hyattsville, Riverdale Park, Silver Spring and Takoma Park in Maryland and Burke, Reston and Woodbridge in Virginia.
By the end of the year, Patch plans to launch sites in 500 communities in more than 20 states. The main Patch website lists about 20 more in Maryland and Virginia and one in Georgetown, but Patch’s Beth Lawton tweets that the the Baltimore and Washington areas combined will have about 75 Patches total.
What’s the small local blogger to do? “I’m trying to build page views and won’t be able to compete against a major corporation,” our network member wrote. “What do you think I should do differently?”
My response (edited and expanded, mostly to remove references to the actual community):
I don’t know that Patch being in your community is necessarily a bad thing because I don’t see the news business as a zero-sum game. In the same way that competing stores in a mall or a historic shopping district actually benefit from each other’s presence because together they attract more business, a more robust news and advertising ecosystem in your community might be better for everyone.
I hope you’re already seeing a bump in your traffic from TBD’s links, and you might be able to find a way for Patch’s entry into the market to help you as well. I don’t know whether you have another job or whether your blog is a part-time passion or a full-time business. Some of the details of my response might vary depending on those answers, but I will answer from the standpoint of regarding your blog as a business, because I think your questions reflect a clear business orientation, whether it’s full- or part-time.
I don’t mean to minimize the threats and possibilities of competition, but I do see every potential competitor as a potential collaborator and/or customer. I would invite the Patch editor to lunch and discuss whether any of these might be a possibility:
- Would Patch link to your site the same way TBD does, giving your traffic a further boost and giving its audience the excellent local content you are already providing?
- Could you do some freelance writing for Patch? (Perhaps if they don’t link to you, they would buy non-exclusive rights to post on their site the content you are writing anyway)?
- Would they buy an ad on your blog (what better way to get word of their new site to local readers?)?
- Could you sell ads for Patch while you’re calling on local merchants for your blog? That way you have more advertising inventory to sell and earn extra commissions.
I don’t know what the answers to any of those questions are, but you should ask. If the answers to all of those questions are “no,” then you are probably in direct competition. And if some of the answers are “yes,” you still may be in a blend of competition and cooperation. So, though my first response is that the situation may not be as competitive as you think, I will share some thoughts on competition:
- Unique, compelling, useful local content is the core of any competitive strategy. If you are the place to turn for information about your community, you set the bar high for any competitor.
- Being local is an advantage. You live in your community, know the community and have a longstanding commitment to it. Patch is based in New York and is a branch of AOL, an international company. The local Patch editor will live in or near your community, but may not have been there as long as you have. In your about-us page, on sales calls, in appearances around the community and in promotional material on your site, you need to hammer that you are the truly local source of news. (Obviously, you tailor the approach to the facts; if they hire someone with deep roots in the community, or if you’re fairly new yourself, this pitch is somewhat different.)
- You might want to do some marketing. I think you can count on Patch spending some marketing money, but you can do some free marketing. You could swap ads with any other local bloggers (or bloggers covering neighboring communities). You could attend some community events, passing out business cards or fliers promoting your blog. Or you could spend some money, advertising in a community newspaper, buying some t-shirts or other swag promoting your blog, etc. (A good idea, with or without new competition.)
- You need to help search engines find you. Study SEO techniques (TBD will probably offer an SEO workshop for network members this fall). You could buy some ads (when I Google “[community name] news,” I don’t see you on the first page of results; a Google ad would ensure your place in those results).
- Link lots. I see that you are linking, but you could link more. Linking boosts your SEO, but it also helps people find you and link to you, which helps more people find you. Scott Rosenberg explains the value of links better than I’ve ever seen anyone explain it.
- Comment on other blogs. If you see stories and blog posts elsewhere (such as on Patch) on topics that you have written about, comment on those blogs, with links to your related blog posts (but not spam links; sometimes you should comment on community issues without linking, if you haven’t written on the topic). This way the competition helps feed you traffic and you become part of the community conversation, wherever that conversation is taking place. This will build your brand.
- Use social media aggressively. I see that you are posting links to your blog on the community’s Facebook page. Very smart. You also should consider using Twitter more. Follow people from the community that you find on Twitter (most will follow you back). Then check out those people’s followers and follow them if they’re local. If someone retweets you on a local issue, check their Twitter stream and see if they are interacting with some more local people you should follow. And don’t just tweet links to your blog. Engage in the Twitter conversation about your community. Be fun to follow and more people will follow you (and retweet links to your blog posts).
- I saw you on the list of people working with GrowthSpur on local advertising. I think they will be a valuable partner in helping you develop relationships with local advertisers.
I shared a draft of this post with Tim Windsor, editorial director — South for Patch. His response: “Your words should be burned into rawhide and gifted to every person hoping to cover news at the local level. Great advice.”
Competition is a fact of life in the news business. Gannett also is intensifying local competition, with its plans for more than 100 local high school sports sites and community-focused sites in 10 markets in a local-news project with DataSphere (both projects will cover Washington-area communities). Since TBD was announced and launched, much has been made of the competition between us and the Washington Post. We do feel competitive and enjoy competition. We basked in the praise we received from people who noticed that we excelled in coverage of this week’s hostage crisis in Silver Spring.
But here are some facts about the Post/TBD competition: We link to them every day, sending traffic their way; their coverage of our launch has helped build our traffic and our brand recognition; their reporters appear regularly on TBD on TV; we have an agreement for them to use our video feed on their website, displaying our branding.
Don’t let competition blind you to the possibilities of collaboration.