Hyperlocal Lessons From The Huffpost Deal

Arianna Huffington

Arianna Huffington

On Monday, AOL announced that it had agreed to buy the Huffington Post for $315 million. The deal is worth watching for hyperlocal editors, if only because there’s a new boss at Patch.com, the most ambitious corporate version of hyperlocal news in the country. Patch runs about 800 hyperlocal sites across the country, including some in New York (mostly in Queens and Brooklyn).

With Arianna in charge, Patch is likely to get some buzz, although it’s unclear whether the Huffington Post voice and strategy will be superimposed onto the local sites. In her announcement of the deal, Arianna mentioned Patch once: “AOL’s Patch.com covers 800 towns across America, providing an incredible infrastructure for citizen journalism in time for the 2012 election.” The statement appears to have political implications, which is making some conservatives nervous. A commenter on one right-wing website surmised that Patch.com will offer Arianna a perfect platform to spread her liberal empire to the small suburban communities that Patch serves, and steal the soccer mom vote in 2012. Let a million farmer’s markets flourish!

Hyperlocal editors who compete with Patch sites tend to see the sites as interlopers, run by a corporation without real ties to the community. That perception may not change with Huffington in charge. But what could change is the marketing for the sites. With a well-known global brand behind the sites, Huffington can let more people know about Patch and give it some cache — of course, if the writing is mediocre and no one’s breaking stories, the sites may still have trouble finding am audience (that said, so-so writing and rehashed content hasn’t seemed to stop Huffington Post in the past).

All interesting issues to watch. But the deal also offers some other lessons for people looking to build an audience and grow traffic. Arianna succeeded in part because she invited people to write for her, and then treated the site like an onlineĀ  community. Once enough people felt like they were part of the community, the comments started pouring in, and the comments section began to serve essentially as content. That kind of community engagement is key for hyperlocal sites, but it’s still rare to see Patch sites with comments — as opposed to extremely engaged hyperlocal sites like BushwickBK.com.

The other lessons of the deal just make me feel cynical: celebrity sells; SEO-gaming will make you rich; original content is a money-loser. Let’s just ignore those for the moment.

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