How the Vancouver Winter Olympics (and other big stories) can help a hyperlocal news website grow

Hyperlocal sites, by definition, are focused on their local community. However, periodically something happens in your community that has national significance that can draw some broader attention. More important is how it can accelerate your reach within your community by exposing your site to a new set of local people. This latter form of traffic is the most sustainable.

The reality for most communities is that their neighborhoods either never received coverage from local media or that coverage has pulled back as budgets have tightened. This has left a big opportunity for hyperlocal sites to get a marketing boost like no other. I will share how that has worked tremendously well for my local site — — so that you can take these experiences and apply it into your own site. I will also share how we are being proactive with the upcoming Olympics to draw more audience. Our site has a local connection with the most prominent snowboarders on the U.S. Olympic team — Lindsey Jacobellis, Seth Wescott, Shaun White, Nate Holland and Graham Watanabe — that we are going to utilize to provide our community with a perspective they won’t get from NBC.

Curtis Bacca is a local the top snowboard/ski technician in the world with a small shop in town called The Waxroom that tunes skis and snowboards. No one has done the tech work for more gold medalists at the Olympics or X Games in the last decade. He had three athletes (Jacobellis, Holland & Wescott) competing in two events at the recently completed X Games and they came in first, first and second. He shared some pics after the event and was profiled by ESPN. He also provided his updates on the Waxroom page. Afterwards, he told me he was blown away with all people from our community and around the country who saw what he was doing and was psyched to do more at the Olympics.

At the time I’m writing this, he’s in Vancouver, well before the Olympics start, to do his reconnaissance and testing the boards to ensure the boards are riding at their maximum velocity, as every 1/1000th of a second can matter. In fact, he’s been at an “undisclosed location” that he calls the “Secret Squirrel Test Facility” and has had some mystery shots of a Boeing test facility honing the boards for the unique conditions of the misty, foggy, wet snow of the Cascades that his athletes will encounter. We’re setting him up with a helmet cam as they recon the course. After the events, he’s going heli-skiing/riding with Wescott and will share that, as well as being able to liveblog from his Blackberry while shooting pics (we have a feature that allows you to email pics/stories directly to the site), giving us the inside scoop, etc. If you know anyone who has interest in snowboarding, in particular, send them to the Waxroom page. They’ll get a perspective like none other.

Listed below are items on how we hope to turn a first-time visitor into a repeat visitor (something that would Jeff Jarvis would probably recommend to Rupert Murdoch surrounding the whole paywall kerfuffle). I should give a shout-out to Neighborlogs for providing us with a Content Management System (CMS) that enables what I outline below. In an earlier piece on OJR, I highlighted why I selected their platform over WordPress, despite having worked extensively with WordPress. The items below were brain-dead simple, which wouldn’t be the case with most CMSs I have worked with.

  • Nearby Stories module. Most of our stories are geo-tagged. Chances are if someone is reading a story about a topic, they’ll be interested in stories that are about that same location.
  • Featured Stories module. These are our editorial picks of the most interesting stuff on the site that we hope draw them in.
  • Featured Photos module. Some people are more visual so we highlight some of the best pics that come in to the site. Hopefully some will grab their attention. Those pics, in turn, have links to the articles they are associated with.
  • Events module. We highlight the upcoming events happening in the area and encourage them to post their own events.
  • At the bottom of the article, we give them ways to sign-up for our email newsletter or follow us on Twitter (as well as some recent tweets).
  • Finally, if none of that grabbed their attention, at the bottom of the page we have teasers for our Most Viewed Articles.

The following are some other examples of the sorts of stories that give a hyperlocal site a boost to ts visibility that we have seen work very well (some obvious, others less so):

  • Natural disasters of local significance: We have had a flood and mudslides. At the time we had the flood, our community paper only updated its website once a week. Conditions were changing by the hour, so our updates, including pulling data from federal data sources, were invaluable for our community.
  • Natural disasters of local and national significance: We had a major wildfire that became the number-one priority fire in the country. With people being evacuated and many local people either traveling or being second homeowners, the local newspaper and radio didn’t do them any good as those sources don’t reach beyond our community. We turned our classified system into a resource for people needing housing, places to board animals and more. Even though the local newspaper has 30 times more resources than us, we had the most comprehensive coverage because we tapped our community.

    They were shooting pictures, sharing stories, taking video and more. In part they were inspired by my limited videography skills (my only real skill is I don’t mind running up 3000-foot peaks to get a good view, as you can see here and here), knowing they could do better. Some of the video ended up getting picked up by CNN and by CBS’ 60 Minutes (see footage here). The video is from a member of SunValleyOnline’s community that happens to be a professional videographer but contributed his video to us for free though later was paid by CNN & CBS for his footage. You can see more of the footage that we posted on YouTube to see the range of video from low to high production value. By the time the fire was done, we’d had site visitors from all 50 states and 42 different countries. To this day, many of those people still visit the site as they have some connection to our area (friends, family, second homes, etc.). On an even more gratifying note, to this day people will stop me on the street and thank me for how connected they felt even though they were hundreds or thousands of miles away, as they’d been evacuated or were second homeowners.

  • Locals hitting the big time in their sphere: Whether it is a Little League team going to the World Series, a local athlete going to the Olympics or someone in the arts hitting the big time, locals are deeply interested in their experience and proud of their connection with those individuals. Some subset of those people are willing to blog and share their behind-the-scenes perspective that you don’t get in a traditional media outlet. Even if it is raw, people love it.

Around the time of‘s 10-year anniversary, I visited its newsroom and noticed what looked like an EKG reading (i.e., a line graph with spikes up and a plateau followed by more of the same). The only difference was each plateau on the graph was a little higher than the next as you moved left to right. As I got closer, I realized that this graph was actually MSNBC’s traffic growth over 10 years. Each of the spikes was labeled with the associated news event — OJ verdict, Princess Di’s death, elections, tsunami, 9/11 and so on. Little did I know that there would be a correlation between that graph and growing a hyperlocal site’s traffic.

Not unlike MSNBC, we have experienced the same dynamic. That is, when there’s a big story we will see a spike in traffic followed by a higher plateau of traffic. That plateau is what has the greatest value. If we did a good job when people visited for the first time by giving them a good experience, they will come back. Better yet, we get some to subscribe to our newsletter or RSS feed and are in a coveted spot to remind them of our site. Our site has gotten progressively better at increasing the length of time people spend on our site as we have added modules on the page to expose them to what else we have. Let me give a recent example. We had an unfortunate avalanche tragedy at the local ski area that defines our area. [As fate would have it, it happened at the same time we were doing a complete platform shift that I wrote about on OJR, but that’s a different story.]

SunValleyOnline has not spent a penny on marketing, in the traditional sense, to build its audience. Instead it has used tactics such as what I outlined above to build itself into a top site in its area. This kind of resourcefulness is what has enabled SunValleyOnline to be one of the early profitable hyperlocal sites supporting a small team.

About Dave Chase

I am the owner/publisher of and co-founder of Avado's mission is empower the healthcare partnership.


  1. You are absolutely right and the same principle applies here in the UK with the summer Olympics in 2012. This is a global event that will bring together the entire country and not just London and this brings a whole range of opportunity for many people.

  2. Postscript: The tech, Curtis Bacca, I mentioned who is blogging from Vancouver had his first athlete (Seth Wescott) successfully defend his Olympic title. Check out our site for more details. Let’s hope his other athlete (Lindsey Jacobellis) does as well.