NeighbourNet reveals key to hyperlocal success

In the first of a series of case studies looking at commercial hyperlocals, NMJ visits NeighbourNet.

Started in 2000, NeighbourNet claims to be the only fully commercial hyperlocal operation in the UK.

Its network of ten sites – all in London, and bearing the strapline ‘local intelligence for intelligent locals’ – use the same proprietary software developed by the company. Each site is run by a home-based editor and, once profitable, profits are split fifty-fifty between the two parties. Flagship site Chiswickw4, now in its eighth year, generates enough revenue to support a full-time editor.

The main source of revenue is advertising, which is sold and posted from the NeighbourNet office. Visitors to the site are encouraged to become members, a free service which entitles them to the weekly newsletter and participation in the discussion forums. Getting subscribers are part of the building of reputation essential for selling advertising.

Founder-director Sean Kelly says that as most advertising is sold to independent local businesses, familiarity with the site is key to the model. ‘It’s very difficult to sell ad space to people who are not familiar with the site – almost impossible,’ he says.

The other key to success is the right editor. ‘We look for the best possible person, someone we think is going to make a great site,’ says Kelly. They also need to have staying power – developing a site to the point where it’s making money takes ‘a long, long time – say three to four years.’

It’s important, but not vital, that the editor have journalism skills. ‘We’re now finding that more and more people who approach us have a high level of journalism skills, but we’re always willing to consider people who don’t,’ he adds. NeighbourNet editors must live in the local area, though: ‘They have to be fairly active in the community, so that they have their ear to the ground.’

With most of the technical side taken care of, and advertising sold centrally, it’s a formula that encourages individuals with good local knowledge and a bent for journalism to take the plunge. Editor of Fulhamsw6 Sheila Prophet says she ‘knows every street’ of her local area. She started the site in early 2009 with decades on Fleet Street and magazines behind her, but no experience of online journalism.

Sources for news include the local hack’s staples of releases from the council, hospitals, police, schools and clubs, plus keeping an eye out for what’s going on. ‘A big part of it is just walking round and seeing what’s happening in the streets,’ says Prophet.

‘There’s no shortage of stories – there’s always a queue of stuff waiting to go on,’ she adds. ‘Hyperlocal could even more hyper if you wanted. I sometimes think I could do a website for my block of flats.’

Fulhamsw6 has yet to go into profit, but meanwhile NeighbourNet pay Prophet a retainer of ‘a few hundred a month’. ‘It’s an interesting sideline’ – you’re not going to make your fortune,’ she says. Combining the editorship with her other freelance work, she estimates that the site takes between and third and half of her time.

In NeighbourNet part 2, which will follow later, founder-director Kelly surveys how the hyperlocal landscape has changed over the past decade

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