Mark Potts – Backfence

Posted on 19. Sep, 2007 by in Citizen Network, Hyperlocal

Introduction and Narrative: Mark Potts began sketching the idea for Backfence while working for Washingtonpost.com. Potts was trying to imagine what a local newspaper product would look like on the web. “Newspapers have trouble doing news down to the town level or below that, they are too big, and it is too expensive to staff,” says Potts. Backfence, however, would eventually use citizen journalism to cover that kind of minutia by creating sites for individual towns, where the knowledge from within the community would provide all the journalism. The company was formed in August of 2004 and launched in May of 2005. By October that year Backfence raised around $3 million in capital. Fast-forward to 2006 and there were 13 Backfence communities centered around three metropolitan areas (Chicago, Washington D.C. and San Francisco) and organized into a network. But by January of 2007 internal issues that Potts cannot discuss resulted in a 2/3rds staff layoff followed by an announcement in July of Backfence’s eventual shutdown.

During its run, however, Backfence was poised to form the largest network of hyperlocal news blogs in the United States.

Main Goal of Backfence: To create a national network of sites that would allow people to talk about their towns and learn about what was going around them. The kind of information you see exchanged over the literal backyard fence.

Integral to the operation was to build this network as a business, says Potts. Many hyerplocal sites can cover server costs and a few expenses, but the objective of Backfence was to scale nationally and create a strong business around it.

Notable Achievements: During the height of its operation, Backfence had over 400 advertisers in three metropolitan areas. “It was a real accomplishment, it proved local advertisers were looking for a space in online media,” says Potts. Backfence was able to raise money and establish itself in 13 cities. Its fall was not from a lack of interest or advertisers, but from internal turmoil.

A Surprising Realization: First, how difficult it was to market the site to a new community. “The hardest thing is getting the word out and getting the communities to know you exist,” said Potts.

On a positive note, the quality of stuff that Backfence received was terrific, says Potts. Journalists often think that user generated content will be sub par, but the quality of discourse and content produced on Backfence was very high. It was consistently thoughtful and never fell into “finger-pointing nastiness.” People genuinely cared about their towns and wanted to share what they knew with their neighbors. “That’s a surprise to people who come from a traditional background,” says Potts.

Biggest Practical Lesson/Mistake: Before a site can be successful you really have to infiltrate the communities. “You can’t just build it and expect them to come. You have to work the community. We did that, but not as well as we could have,” says Potts. Toward the end, Backfence started to learn what it took to get the attention of the local community, but it was too late, says Potts. To successfully market the site you have to hire people who really know the communities and get them talking to local groups, leaders and flyer. “At some point word off mouth takes over, but you got to get to that point.” That is the hardest part, says Potts. People who work on community sites say that it takes at least a year to get critical mass.

Money: The aim was to be sustainable and while Backfence hadn’t reached that goal, with 400 advertisers, it was about a year away, Potts estimates.The display advertising model focused on local business’s, charging $100-200 for an add which could be a “cash register decision” said Potts. An owner could reach into the cash register and get the money needed to advertise on Backfence right away.

An interesting discovery was that local business’s weren’t just buying advertising one month at a time, but for an entire year. Even plumbers, businesses that rarely use online advertising, were using Backfence to promote their services. “Nobody is really sophisticated about small advertising, but the pizza place still needs to an online venue to get new customers,” says Potts.

Future Goals: Since the demise of Backfence from internal struggles, Potts has begun consulting to big media companies and small start ups on user-generated content and hyperlocal coverage. He is currently working on another start up that he may be able to talk about at the conference. “It’s taking what we learned at Backfence and twisting it a whole new way,” says Potts. He actively blogs at Recovering Journalist.
What do you hope to get from people attending this conference?

“I’d be interested in hearing what people say about stuff that I’ve watched but not played with, like crowdsourcing. There are a broad mix of things I’m interested in and I look forward to hearing what people have to share.”

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