Strong Growth for Local Web Sites
2004 sees a big increase in traffic for West London's on-line media
The early part of 2004 has seen a strong upsurge in growth in local community web sites confirming that this is one new media that is here to stay.
The Neighbour Net group has recently released figures showing strong traffic numbers, not just for its established sites in Putney and Chiswick, but for newer sites in West London. ActonW3.com achieved 2,000 visits late last year and now BrentfordTW8.com and HammersmithToday.co.uk have passed that milestone. They still have a way to go before they reach the traffic levels on the Chiswick and Putney sites but at current growth rates it might not be that long. ChiswickW4.com gets over 15,000 visitors in a week and PutneySW15.com which gets up to 4,000 visitors is still one of the largest and most active on-line local communities in the UK.
This is in advance of a major promotional effort that is planned for the sites over the next few months and a target of doubling traffic and membership by June has been set.
A spokesperson for the Neighbour Net Group said,"We are delighted to see these traffic numbers which show that people in Brentford, Acton and Hammersmith are becoming more and more aware of the great local sites in their area. We are hoping for similar levels of explosive growth from these sites over the next few months"
The growth from the newer sites is all the more impressive in that it has been achieved with virtually nothing spent on promotion. In Chiswick a leaflet drop and a poster campaign was used to boost traffic. The next generation of sites had a running start because residents of those areas were already active users of the Chiswick site and spread the word to their neighbours. Better traffic for the sites allows them to enter a virtuous circle with increased participation for users ensuring better and more up to date content on the sites.
Commercially the sites have a long way to go to generate the kind of revenue seen in the more established sites. The Chiswick site owes its survival mainly to the locally owned businesses that backed it in the early days and that pattern is being repeated elsewhere. In the early period of operation of a site the more enterprising and community focused of the local business people will generally be in contact but for most businesses it is only when they consistently hear from their customers about a site that they want to get involved.
The group has about 20 projects which it is currently considering with Ealing and Fulham likely to be the next sites to be launched. They get several proposals for sites every week but are concentrating efforts on areas adjacent to where sites have already been launched and a strong local partner has been found. The biggest challenge that is likely to be faced in 2004 is expansion into areas which are less economically blessed than the ones in which they currently operate. From a purely commercial perspective the profitability of sites in more deprived areas might not be as great but, as there is no clear link between how proud people are of their community and their income, there is every reason to think that, in terms of grass roots participation, such sites could be a roaring success.
There is a recognition that growth will mean new challenges for the company which has recently moved to larger offices. The massive amount of feedback that comes from members of the sites is what makes them so dynamic and informative. However, manually updating this information is starting to become increasingly time consuming. Major investments are being made in new applications that will allow members to update and maintain more and more information on the site. There has been significant work behind the scences recently to enable the group to handle this expansion giving the sites the platform to develop further and 2004 should see the implementation of new applications on the site that encourage even more community activity.
Looking to the future the main threat ironically does not appear to come from the multi-national media groups that currently dominate the local press. This part of the industry continues to consolidate and shows little interest in moving into the digital sphere after many media groups badly mismanaged their investment there in the late nineties internet boom. It is the public sector that is spending most heavily in this area with the concept of community web portal currently in vogue and significant funding available for anything that can be said to contribute to 'e-government'.
The danger is not so much that state funded sites will become a viable alternative to existing community web sites - they owe their vibrancy to the platform they give people to criticise their lords and masters something which an official site is never going to allow to occur without too much restraint. Rather the problem is that some in local government circles will see the existence of an official site as a reason not to participate in the community based alternative. Luckily this attitude is far from universal and many of the better rated Councils in London are already seeing the advantages of working with their own local on-line media. Democracy isn't possible without a thriving and free press; e-democracy won't work without a thriving and free e-media.
March 11, 2004