How to get the City talking
I was not surprised by recent news which reported online advertising spend of £5.42bn in the UK during 2012, and less so that more than half of the increase on the previous year came from spend on mobile. Mobile, however, still represents less than 10% of the overall spend. If you believe what some at Google are saying, and 96% of the content we are consuming on a desktop or laptop today really does shift to mobile in just "a couple of years" then for local media this represents a massive opportunity, and a challenge on an equal scale.
Three years ago we created The City Talking (formerly LOL! Leeds Online) in response to what we felt was a major weakness in the Leeds media scene; it wasn't speaking to young people. Leeds Guide and other credible media platforms who'd adopted a tone that resonated with younger audiences were vanishing. Simultaneously, the continued decline in circulation (61,000 copies per night in August 2006 to 33,805 in August 2012) of the Yorkshire Evening Post (YEP) led to what we perceived as a shift in editorial policy; writing stories for a loyal older audience was, unsurprisingly, the priority. At the time of writing, the YEP's core audience (75%) is over 35 years old.
By comparison The City Talking, which we created as a space for young 'Loiners' to share news and views about city life, is now a network of 60,000+ people, 80% of them between the ages of 14 and 34, engaging across Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and a dedicated website launched in May 2012. In addition, we recently launched the first issue of our monthly newspaper with 10,000 copies being distributed throughout the city. By our own estimates, we are talking to one in every four adults under 35 (ref. 2011 census). I say talking because The City Talking grew organically out of Facebook and our multimedia content continues to be shaped by the day-to-day engagement we have with our readers. We don't have journalists, just storytellers; anyone is welcome to contribute as long as what they have to share has Leeds in its DNA.
Mobile has always been a part of our plan for The City Talking but until Nesta's Destination Local programme came along the reality was that we simply didn't have the capacity to do anything about it. To explain, The City Talking began as a Hebe Media R&D project and, despite the fact that it has absorbed the time of at least one full-time equivalent in each of the three years of operation, it has not been revenue generating.
It's survived because of the passion of our team for the project and the city, and because we've continually invested income generated from the work we have done for clients, but progress was slow; in the couple of years landscape described by Google that is no small problem. Destination Local has played a role in helping us to accelerate our thinking about mobile - affording us the time to look beyond the technology and to think in detail about the nature of mobile consumption and local media - but, more importantly, it has allowed us to do something.
In the first instance, what we have done is to migrate our website to a new framework that opens up a beautiful and responsive mobile experience for our readers. We've also redesigned our layout, creating a number of spaces for standard display ads that we are now looking at ways to fill. Finally, the new website allows us to start geo-tagging all of our content, and includes an open API so that others can play with our data. With Nesta's support, we've also been working hard to build on our partnerships with organisations like Leeds City Council; community groups; Leeds based businesses; and other media producers, all of whom want to see a revived media scene in the city just as much as we do.
In the next phase we are pleased to announce that we will be launching a new mobile news service for Leeds, offering an experience that is designed to make the most of what mobile has to offer. Our service, Solomon (Social, local, mobile news), will launch, in Beta, in May and will offer an entirely new way for people to discover local media created by local storytellers, based on each reader's location.
It will provide tools that allow media producers to pour their multimedia content into a pool around which we hope a large and highly active network of people will form, working together to curate the city's story. As well as plotting content from a range of sources, as it is published, onto a map, Solomon incorporates a stunning reading experience as well as a suite of tools that will enable users to manage and share the content they care most about. A 'time-warp' feature will allow users to explore content from different periods, opening up the possibility for a news archive to be developed and helping historic assets, like the wonderful Leodis photographic archive, to be discovered by a younger audience. Pitch over, it's fair to say that we are really excited about the possibilities for this project moving forwards.
One of the other important outcomes of Destination Local is that we were challenged to consider what a "sustainable business model" for The City Talking might look like. Motivated by this question we applied to participate in Goldman Sachs' 10,000 Small Businesses a programme for high growth potential businesses and delivered in Yorkshire by Leeds University Business School. We graduated from that programme in March and now have a detailed Growth Plan that articulates our vision for The City Talking moving forwards, and the steps we will take to achieve that vision. We've added 'boutique media company' to Hebe's elevator pitch and our goal is to become just that; a company that realises the massive potential of its own media properties.
It would be too hard to squeeze into this short article all the things that we've learned since we began our Destination Local journey and we're still, in many ways, at the beginning of the process; there is a lot more for us to learn. What can be said is that creating time for that learning is fundamental to the opportunity Destination Local has provided our team. It's given us precious breathing room to test assumptions, and to work our way through to the anticipated outcome: a portfolio of local media touch points that are carefully designed for their own technological and environmental context.
Our thanks to Nesta and all the Destination Local partners, and good luck to all the projects we've had the pleasure to interact with throughout the course of the programme.