Thursday, 16 October 2008

mashup* Hyper-Local Event

On Friday 3rd October I attended the mashup* Hyper-Local event, held at Speechly Bircham in New Street Square, London. The venue (once I found it!) was excellent and the layout of the room, small groups of tables and chairs, perfect for the workshop format of this event. I arrived in time for the end of the morning sessions (travelling down from Manchester takes a couple of hours), which were being facilitated by Kevin Harris of Local Level and Simon Grice of mashup* and BeLocal.

The audience were being asked to brainstorm potential issues surrounding the publication of local content and hosting of local communities or services. Each table was allocated a different topic faced by those operating a 'media outlet' in a 'local space', these ranged from the definition of local, to usability/functionality of services and moderation of content.

After the breakout session for lunch, workshop participants were asked to join a table hosting a topic that interested them and discuss the relating issues for 30-40 minutes. The objective was to identify areas of concern relating to each topic. Key points were noted down on a flip chart in the centre of each table and the participants rotated around the room in order to join several groups during the course of the afternoon. In this way we were able to debate and build upon the notes of made by previous groups at each table.

I attended three sessions and these are my thoughts from those discussions:

Montetisation of Local Content

'Is building a sustainable business old fashioned and boring?'

Traditional directories like Yellow Pages and Thompson Directory have successfully taken their offline model and brought it online, e.g. The general consensus of our group was that these directories successfully generate revenue, by offering free one line entries and up-selling additional content and links to produce more elaborate and paid for listing entries.

In summary directories can be monetised because they are about service provision and service providers will always pay for a sales lead as it has a real monetary value to them. However, there is a concern that content of a directory nature, which is bought and paid for, is therefore considered less trustworthy. Consumers tend to favour user generated content, or personal recommendation when selecting a service provider.

Local online communities and services have content which is valued by their readers and participants, but find it more difficult to monetise their offering since there is effectively no service or commodity to sell. Advertising is the most common method of trying to generate revenue from community sites and online services, but the Web industry has seen limited success with online advertising models to date. In order for advertising in the local space to be successful it must be accurately targeted, a good example would be a local restaurant advertising on a forum discussing places to eat in that particular area. Unfortunately however, these are exactly the kind of businesses who lack the time, money, know how or online savvy to either identify these kinds of advertising opportunities or execute them effectively.

As a general rule people are starting to pay less for online advertising, however they will pay more for a qualified lead or referral. For example, employment agencies and recruiters take free space or Job advertisements but will pay a larger sum upon appointment of the right person. Here we see the advertising model starting to move back towards the the traditional model of the yellow pages, i.e. basic advertisements free, charges for enhanced listings and now payment based on results. could offer a solution to the problems being faced by advertisers and those looking to pay based on results; if potential customers were able to place a call in order to buy or book directly from the advert, then the service provider would have a real and immediate indication of the success of that ad. Generally Web users expect online services to be free, but service providers will always pay for a sales lead or an appointment provided that the complexity of the transaction is appropriate for the value of that transaction. is free to the Web user and for the advertiser it is free to setup, and calls are charged on a per minute basis, i.e. they will only pay for the calls they receive.

Marketing and Launching

This session was chaired by Walid from, who talked in detail about his experiences marketing and launching their website and this in turn sparked ideas and discussion from the rest of the group.

Trusted Places like many Internet businesses was launched virally, initially to friends and then friends of friends. In some cases users were incentivized to spread the word and work was also done in conjunction with the press and bloggers to build up public awareness of the service offered. It was unanimously agreed by the group that word of mouth and personal recommendation are the most trusted form of advertising and best of all it is free of charge!

Other methods of raising awareness and marketing products/services that were discussed included, arranging and sponsoring events. This type of activity can help you to get video or Flicker coverage from attendees and enable you to piggyback on the existing audiences of bloggers who write about their experiences at the event.

Those creative and brave enough can piggyback on the launches of large, prominent and related products/brands. For example, Trusted Places managed to piggyback on the UK launch of the iPhone and EasyJet hijacked the launch of a competitor airline.

It is also important to make sure that once someone has heard about you that they can then find you, so Google Indexing and SEO remains important and works particularly well on longtail or detailed search terms.

Finally every business should consider how they will retain their users and keep the community once your launch and marketing has successfully built it. It was discussed how users appreciate rewards, even something as simple as giving away free coffee and muffins in turn for user feedback. But most importantly we need to retain a mix of real world and Web based activity, because online activity and content creation increases after an offline event. For example, adding photos on FaceBook, creating reviews on Trusted Places and making contacts on LinkedIn.


The last group I joined discussed how to engage users, the group agreed that to become successfully engaged the user must either trust the person inviting them or the provider of the service/content. If the business is large or established enough the user may consider the brand to be trustworthy enough, but for smaller unknown content or service providers engagement is essentially achieved through communities with friendship systems. In these virtual environments users can build a personal profile, invite real world friends and make online friends with the sole objective of connecting and joining together to create, share and exchange content/services.

The group concluded that inviting friends is the key to user engagement, if you are invited to join by someone you know, then you are much more likely to sign up than if the invite was from a stranger or from an advertisement. However the question still remains, how do we motivate people to invite their friends? It is possible to insensitivize users to invite their friends, some methods tried by members of the group with varying degrees of success included; online points systems, real world rewards and competitions or prize draws.

Even if the user is successfully encouraged to invite their friends and their friends accept the invitation, then the challenge will be to keep all users active and engaged as part of the community. This is more likely to happen if the community member was originally invited by someone who genuinely thought that the site could offer their friend something they actually wanted. However, users will also be encourage to return to the site if it successfully delivers new, quality and up-to-date content or innovative and effective services. The key to ongoing engagement is providing the community with what they want and expect; just enough to ensure they want more and return to the site time and again in order to find it!

There are problems for businesses trying to engage with these communities, especially since advertising products/services is frowned upon. As a result businesses can be tempted to talk about their commercial offering in the third person, businesses should be encourage to participate within the community, but in a legitimate manner. It is important for the businesses to contribute whilst also being up front about who they are, particularly as forums tend to name and shame for bad behaviour!

My Conclusions

I found the Marketing and Engagement sessions of particular interest because are looking to gain users virally, specifically when we are working in community spaces. We currently have a FaceBook application in beta that allows users of this social network to verbally communicate or speak with their online friends, whilst remaining within the context of FaceBook. As the application moves into a full release we will be looking to implement some of the ideas raised in these sessions, incentivizing users to invite their friends and ensuring that the service/content of the app is enough to ensure our users return time and again.

Finally, I noticed recurring themes from each of the sessions I attended, predominantly these revolve around trust and engagement. I believe that has something of value to contribute in both these areas as it enables the Web users to connect directly with the service provider or community member allowing them to speak to each other instantly and without the need to surrender any personal information. Speech enables us to convey so much more than text based communication, including tone and inflection, making it the perfect medium for debate, negotiation, socialising and even learning. In order for any of these activities to be effective they require the users sustained interest and trust, which are potentially both by-products of talking to people.

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