Hyperlocal 101 interview

hyperlocal101-interview-sshotSeveral weeks ago I chatted by phone with Shields Bialasik who, among other ventures, runs a site called Hyperlocal101 which focuses on “hyperlocal marketing and monetization.”

He followed up our phone conversation with several email questions and published my answers in a column on his site titled In the Hyperlocal Trenches with Griff Wigley.

Read the interview there or here.


Shields Bialasik introduction:

I’ve had the opportunity to speak and interview a lot of people in the hyperlocal / local marketing arena. My conversation with Griff Wigley of Locally Grown Northfield was simply enlightening.

I’ve been involved in running my own hyperlocal site LocalsGuide.com and online community NewDocs.com for more than 3.5 years. Many of the issues Griff discussed I was already familiar with but in practical terms of experience and solutions, Griff really walks the talk of having a great understanding and grasp on how this all works.


Griff, thanks for taking the time to speak with me today. Wow.. you’ve really been quite involved with hyperlocal even before the word was coined.  Can you tell us about your professional online activities?

I’ve pretty much made my living online since 1986, primarily building online communities, both topic- and geographic-based. I was project director for MIX, the McGraw-Hill Information Exchange for Teachers and Schools from 1986-90; and then I managed Utne Reader magazine’s Cafe Utne in the mid-90s. It won a Webby Award for community in May, 2000.

I co-founded Northfield Citizens Online and the Northfield.org community portal in the early 90’s and worked on it through 2006, including the citizen journalism/civic blogosphere project beginning in 2004.  That project earned us a visit from an e-government team from the UK which ultimately led to several consulting contracts on civic leadership blogging that continues to this day. I’ve been a co-host of Locally Grown Northfield, a civic-issues podcast and 3-person group blog since 2005.

Can you share a little bit about why you have been such an advocate for local?

I think much of it has been due to falling in love with the town of Northfield. My wife Robbie and I loved raising our four kids here and even though we’re now empty-nesters, we still enjoy it as much as ever and plan to live here till we croak.  Having a great deal of historical and emotional connection to a place makes it easy to be an advocate for all things local.

You have really seen and moved towards community leaders as being prime candidates for hyperlocal blogging. Can you talk a little bit about this?

I think having community leaders use social media tools like blogging can help with public engagement around important civic issues.  We’ve seen how citizens will use these tools to try to influence local politics. It’s good to see it happen but it’s not always constructive. A we-they atmosphere can easily develop.  It’s my belief that the more community leaders can use these tools to engage the citizenry, the more likely it is that a constructive online atmosphere can be fostered and real problems worked on together.

You coined the term Civic Leadership Blogging.  What it is and how does it work?

Civic leadership blogging is strategic, near real-time storytelling.

In the course of any civic leader’s week, there are literally hundreds of interactions with colleagues, constituents, staff, media and other members of community. Whether these interactions are face-to-face, phone, electronic or paper-based, they comprise the bulk of how leaders exhibit their day-to-day influence. A phone call from a constituent, a conversation with a staff member at lunch, an email exchange with a colleague, an off-topic discussion at a team meeting – all likely evaporate into thin air, for all intents and purposes, as soon as they’re concluded. Even most paper documents such as memos and reports are quickly relegated to the trash, the shredder, or the filing cabinet, never to be seen again.

With a blog, leaders can select from among this never-ending parade of interactions the ones that they deem strategically significant, and give them a longer “shelf-life.” With a posting to their blog, the story of the interaction gains immediate wider audience while making it significantly easier for that audience to pass the story around to others who they think should know about it.

Now, you are actually hired by the British government to do training in Civic Leadership blogging. What exactly are you doing?

From 2005-08, I mainly coached local elected officials – councilors at the city and county level throughout the UK – to blog.  In the past year, I’ve been coaching UK federal government staff who are leading international aid offices in foreign countries.

You also run and maintain your own hyperlocal website called Locally Grown Northfield.org. This is a really interesting site for me because you have implemented a local membership model as a means of site monetization. In return for membership individuals are enabled with the ability to have their own blogs shared with the community. Can you tell us a little more about the concept behind this model and your vision of a local membership site?

Locally Grown Northfield, both the blog and the weekly podcast, has been a labor of love for me and my two colleagues/co-hosts/co-bloggers, Tracy Davis and Ross Currier, for four years. I average about 15 hours per week of my own time working on it which I have time and the motivation to do. But that’s not really a model that’s replicable and part of my professional interest is to see how hyperlocal sites can sustain themselves financially.  Plus, I can always use some extra money for motorcycle parts.

Last year we started offering banner ads to local advertisers. But within a couple of months it because clear that in a small town like Northfield, one of us would have to put on the sales hat to compete with the other media sales people in town who were selling ads for the local newspaper, radio station, and entertainment guide. None of us had the inclination.

So after a few months of batting around ideas with each other and our vociferous site visitors, we came up with this oddball membership.

Locally Grown is a 3-person group blog, but we have hundreds of people who contribute thousands of comments over the course of a year.  This culture of conversation that permeates our blog mainly revolves around civic issues. But since our blogging also covers slice-of-community-life topics (which we euphemistically refer to as ‘fluff’), there are many ongoing conversations about businesses, non-profits, schools and community events.  Those conversations only happen if one of us creates blog posts that jumpstarts them and of course, we can’t do it all.

So we hit on the idea of creating a membership sideblog where people could author blog posts not only on civic issues but to promote something – a product, a service, an event, a cause.  These blog posts have to display the first and last name of the author, with their photo, and written in the first person tense.  The author has to agree to participate in any conversation generated by their blog post. They have an incentive to do so, as every time a new comment is added to any blog post, it elevates that post to the top of the right sidebar where the conversation threads are excerpted and highlighted, thereby giving them greater exposure.

While local businesses and organizations are always seen as part of the community fabric, their need to advertise online is sometimes experienced as an intrusion when it’s in the form of banner ads or other in-your-face promotions.

On Locally Grown, our membership sideblog effectively means that an advertiser can fit right in with the culture of the first-person authenticity and community conversations of the rest of our blog.  Their presence is experienced by others as complementary, not intrusive.  It’s the hyperlocal epitome of The Cluetrain Manifesto: “Markets are conversations.”

In the three months since we launched it, it’s been a very modest success: 8 businesses/organizations and 17 individuals/couples.  But nearly all of those are monthly or annual renewing memberships so our expectation is that we’ll gradually build this financial base.

The main challenge with the model thus far is in having members actually use their posting privileges.  

Can you talk a little bit about creating engagement in the site? Do hyperlocal sites always need to create controversy?

Creating engagement on a site like ours involves so many elements that I just can’t do it justice in a Q&A format like this. But I don’t think sites like ours need to create controversy. That’s corrosive and can be unethical. But if there are existing controversies in the community, then it can be helpful to create a place where they can be aired and discussed in a way that’s not done anywhere else.

Can you talk a little bit about setting standards of engagement for online community members?

[Shields, I don’t understand this question. It seems related to the following one.]

You shared a little bit about online conversation in community forums. You had said that you run a tight ship on how individuals dialog with one another in terms of civility and respect. What experiences have you had with this and what are some rules you maintain that others might benefit by?

As moderator, I rule with an iron fist when it comes to civility. We have two unusual rules: avoid sarcasm; and avoid addressing a person indirectly when disagreeing with them. Here is an example of both:

“Waldo seems to think that all our problems would be solved if we would only embrace his wisdom.”

These two behaviors are probably more responsible for online discussions degenerating into nasty places than outright flaming or name calling.

There are other ways that ‘tone of voice’ can inhibit good conversation, of course. Intimidation, subtle put-downs, innuendo, joking-on-the-square, etc. can all be deployed in sophisticated ways, deliberately or not.

I publicly intervene when people violate these rules so that everyone sees how we enforce them, not just the violators.  Repeat offenders get put on moderation mode for varying lengths of time.

What are your thoughts on community blogging. You had mentioned that individuals need to have their own turf. Can you say a little more on this?

I think there needs to be a range of available ways for citizens to be producers of content in their local community. 

On the demanding end of the spectrum is having one’s own blog or podcast like the three of us have with Locally Grown. It helps a great deal if there’s one community site that aggregates all the feeds of all those blogs and podcasts. We have this in our town with Northfield.org, a community site that Tracy and I co-founded and helped lead for over a decade.  A blog gives a citizen complete autonomy. But having their RSS feed aggregated by a community site means that they can ‘belong’ as much as anyone.

But there are many less demanding ‘citizen producer’ activities that are helpful, for example:

  • Being able to contribute an occasional blog post where it’s likely to be seen, much like a guest commentary in a print newspaper.  
  • Participating in conversations connected to blog posts, web forums, or live chats.
  • Submitting an occasional photo or video/audio clip
  • Participating in straw polls

You also worked to setup over 300 communities in the Community Blogs Project. (http://communityblogs.us/) How did you find and train individuals to create and maintain blogs? What was the original vision behind this?

I worked with the Northwest Area Foundation and their Horizons Program to create something called the Horizons Community Blogging Project. The idea was that community bloggers could use their blogs to reflect and report on the changes that were happening in their communities related to poverty reduction, leadership and community-building as a result of the Horizons Program.

You had shared with me that conversation is a way to get your arms around something rather than just consuming?

I learned this while running the Neighborhood Salon project for Utne Reader magazine in the 90s. We’re taught in school that first you learn something about a subject so that you can then talk about it.  The salon model is the reverse: engage in a little conversation about a topic first so that you’re then more interested and motivated to consume information related to it… and then have a group of inquiry-minded colleagues to continue to engage with to make sense of it all.

Democracy, Mass Media and the Hyperlocal Blogger… thoughts?

Being an engaged citizen is fun and satisfying. It’s easier than ever because of the inexpensive availability of social media tools. And it’s exactly what’s needed to strengthen democracy.