Hyper-local is the latest buzzword making the rounds. Reduced to its essence it describes an intensely detailed focus on specific, small, local market areas. The term may have originated with newspapers, who have apparently decided that their new niche should be reporting news of their local communities rather than reporting the international news that everyone else is reporting. The logic is simple and sound: readers value coverage of their local communities, and in many cases, nobody else is providing that coverage. Eureka!

Not surprisingly, a number of entrepreneurs have rushed in with websites to exploit the hyper-local opportunity as well. These online, hyper-local publishing ventures draw on every trendy new concept there is: community, blogs, user-contributed content, tags, the list goes on and on. The potential revenue streams are just as varied. Two companies getting a lot of attention right now are backfence.com and outside.in.

There is merit to the hyper-local concept. But it can't succeed without significant investment and a lot of hard work, and that's where a lot of these online ventures come up short. They've designed themselves to take the path of least investment and energy because they want their businesses to be intensely local yet scalable, something they can replicate nationwide. And that's the rub.

The more ambitious the business plan, perhaps ironically, the more compromised the offering. Operators of hyper-local sites, by choice or necessity, end up supplying little more than a platform that they expect people to engage with and pour content into. Some have tried to short-circuit the "chicken and egg" aspect of user-contributed content by supplying aggregated local news and business listings and classified ads. It all looks neat and cool, but at the end of the day, it's content readily available elsewhere with little value-add (do I really need to see Google maps of my own town? I already know how to find Main Street, thank you very much).

Many of these sites represent virtuoso programming efforts, but they are just tools, platforms devoid of personality and soul. Nobody is organizing or focusing the conversation. Imagine a local newspaper entirely composed of whatever people sent into it that week. That's about what you get with these online sites, and the result is anything but compelling.

Success in hyper-local really depends on "becoming one with your market," and that's hard to do when your real goal is to be in 100 markets as quickly as possible. This is as true for local consumer markets as it is for vertical B2B markets, and should you doubt this, just think back to a little start-up called VerticalNet. You can't build a sturdy national empire off a shaky local base.

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