I'm delighted to be publishing a great guest post from Darren Cronian. Many readers will know him as the publisher of the highly successful Travel Rants blog. But he's also got other projects on the go. One in I'm really interested in is called MylifeinLeeds. It's a local blog about things to do and see in Leeds, Darren's home city:

Interesting times for local content publishers
This time last year I launched a local guide called My Life in Leeds. It's written by local people who are passionate about the city. The writers feature attractions, restaurants – in fact anything useful to locals and tourists about Leeds and its surrounding towns.

Consumers trust local content
Whenever I travel to a new destination I search for a blog or guide written by local people. I trust the content written from a local much more than travel writer who may have visited the place once or twice and does not know the restaurants, bars, attractions that a local recommends, and regularly visits.

Do you trust local content over an ‘expert’ or professional travel writer?

The love for local deals
I have been amazed at the love for local deals, and you can understand why the likes of Groupon have been so successful. (It's rumoured that Google is looking to acquite it for $6billion dollars.) In the space of eight months I’ve seen over 3,000 people subscribe to my Leeds deals email updates which are sent out twice a month – these are the most profitable emails I’ve ever sent.

Local check-in services
Foursquare is like Marmite (US readers - a strongly flavoured spread that Brits put on toast!) – people love it and hate it in equal measures. Personally, I think it is a great tool to find places close to where you are – I’ve frequently visited restaurants and bars because friends have been there and left a tip or recommended it. I have left tips (with links to individual guides) on Foursquare and I have seen traffic come from these tips. Facebook Places is another service that I can see becoming extremely popular, and I am looking at ways that we can use this to promote our content and interact with new readers.

Hyperlocal news
Around the same time that I launched My Life in Leeds, the Guardian launched their local news blogs for Leeds, Cardiff and Edinburgh. What I have witnessed is that local community groups, charities and so on are getting much more coverage because regional media like the Yorkshire Evening Post focus on news that sells newspapers. Smaller hyperlocal news sites are emerging all over the place. Just this week the South Leeds Life blog launched to highlight news, events and information in towns like Beeston which has over the last ten years received a lot of negative media exposure. I love reading news and content written by locals – not London-based journalists who know nothing about my home city.

The local Google effect
One of the biggest challenges that local guides like mine face is that search is radically changing – search for ‘Japanese restaurants in Leeds’ in Google and you’ll see my guide 6th in the natural search results – the guide used to receive a few hundred unique visitors a week, since Google added in the local business listings, I’ve seen a 30% reduction in traffic to that guide. On the flip side, traffic from social networks like Twitter and Facebook has drastically increased in recent months. I think local content (be it deals, guides or news) is going to emerge in a new era for search in 2011 and I think it is a great opportunity for bloggers and writers to make money from local content. Dare I even say that I even think paywalls could even work in local content?

I’m interested to hear your thoughts on the future of search and local content.

17 thoughts on “Local content – the future for online travel guides?

  1. Hi Jeremy/Darren,

    Cheap tech and social media, both recent, make high quality local content possible at volume for the first time. IMO, local content will be a massive growth area and will expand the market but is still only one part of the jigsaw puzzle. As an aside, there's undoubtedly a market demand for local content as well for the people who say the last thing that's needed is yet more travel content.


  2. Darren, great points. I couldn't agree with you more that localisation is key, which is exactly why earlier this year at Groupon we launched our blog, the Groupon City Blog. http://blog.groupon.co.uk

    We are slowly and carefully working our way up the country finding and reaching out to the best bloggers from every city to contribute both as local experts, and real people. We're grateful to receive their coverage on everything from upcoming events, restaurant openings, and their own experiences, to reading their niche guides to their city (vintage shops in east london etc.). They also review or preview Groupon deals, which is of course invaluable for both Groupon as a business, and our users too.

    Without banging on about it, we think of Groupon as a guide to your city; a way to discover new businesses in your neighbourhood (without breaking the bank). Local content is simply KEY to this, and you're right that local writers should and can make money from this. Hence: http://blog.groupon.co.uk/guest-blogging-for-groupon/

  3. MO, local content will be a massive growth area and will expand the market but is still only one part of the jigsaw puzzle

    Hi James.

    I agree that it is only one part of the "jigsaw puzzle" which is probably why I've see hotel search companies enquiring about writing them some local content. Some guidebooks have terrible content when it comes to cities like Leeds. I wrote about it on Travel Rants - photos of Leeds castle, some 200 miles away, and listings on restaurants that had closed a while back.

    While most of my time is spent marketing it - I am also looking at collaborating with travel companies who want local content.

    As Jemima (Hi!) mentioned even hugely profitable companies like Groupon are looking towards locals, for the content and to work with local businesses on the deals.

    Interesting times!

  4. Sure, people like it when you can provide first-hand news/deals/tips/stories from living right in a place or having very strong connection to it. The other part of the equation that inevitably comes up though is what's in it for the teller, and not just the reader - meaning, how am I being compensated? Fine for anyone in a traditional flat-rate payment contract of some kind who's blogging for a tourism board, hotel site, other area-specific site, but - not so great when it's a more nebulous deal based on clicks, ad commission end formulas, etc. This past year I actually had someone in Australia tell me I must not only provide him free content for his global city site start-up but also provide targeted advertising. Then "maybe" he could provide a commission in about 6 months. There is no incentive in telling consistently and with quality insightful blogs about a place just based on building a "following" - my mortgage lender will laugh at me, at the end of the month and I don't blame him. The real challenge is searching your regional market for a decent online travel presence that doesn't want to yank your chain in doing the deal.

    1. Hal - I would not waste my time writing for a company if it was based on some hope that I might generate revenue in a few months time. You cannot run a business on the revenue share business model.

      I don't know where you live Hal, or how good of a writer you are (I know I am not that good, which is why I pay local writers) but I would be contacting local businesses and telling them WHY your writing can improve their business.

      Give it 12 months and the Lonely Planet, Frommer's and all of the other large travel publishers will be knocking on my door for local content.

      1. A good blog and an interesting topic. My immediate thought though is one of bias and the commercial drivers behind content. Looking at the Leeds blog - which looks great - every hotel, restaurant or bar is written about positively. Sso how do I know which are genuinely the good ones and which ones are just paying the bills?

        Interesting concept though - plus as an ex-Leeds resident big thumbs up to West Yorks!

      2. Darren - I was only citing that example about the Australian start-up because it seems to be one extreme that's out there as a bait to writers naive enough to think that's the route to generate some revenue. Of course I ignored it. On the other hand....when you state flat-out "You cannot run a business on the revenue share business model," I'd take exception to that to some degree. You can indeed have an agreement for content that stipulates a flat-fee and then in later years some residual fees that could be based on the revenue share business model for the continued use of the content. As long as a blogger gets the upfront amount for use, the rest is just part of the future income stream - and some stream is always better than no stream. There are many variations within the realm of "further use". Anyway, that's part of my view of the so-called "backlist" for writers - understanding the long-term rights and potential of your content. I don't define "backlist" the way one subset of travelbloggers you deal with does - namely, posting verbal high-five comments once a day on each other's blog posts to create the illusion of it being highly trafficked. The hotel operator or publicist might be fooled for a while -- but not forever.

  5. Hello all
    Thanks for a great post Darren.
    I agree with Hal and Nick a bit. I am sure readers/traveller really do value quality content written by locals. But how does the blog owner (ie you Darren) monetize it successfully? I considered setting something very similar up for Brighton but decided that ad revenues would be paltry and hence the only way to make money would be to set up deals with hotels/restaurants etc - payment for referrals etc. But that would necessitate becoming a sales person, visiting hotels etc to sign them up. Working out the technology to make that work, tracking and reporting it all. Invoicing and so on. Suddenly I'd be running a marketing business with content just there to support it. Not what I wanted to do.
    And like Nick I then wonder how impartial reviews would be - if you were depending on click throughs or a percentage of a booking to make money. I have similar issues with Simonseeks which works using a similar model.

  6. While well-written, accurate and helpful local content has obvious appeal, there are a few challenges that spring to mind.

    The publisher will face challenges of scale. Because they're just covering one place, they'll struggle to get the volume of traffic (especially given Google's approach to travel) required to gain enough profit to make the whole kit and caboodle worthwhile.

    The reader will face challenges of discovery (ie niche, local sites like Darren's don't get the profile that perhaps they should) and convenience (if I'm going to Leeds, London and Manchester, do I really have to troll to find three suitable local quality sites?). Also, as Nick suggests, advertorial can become an issue.

    Darren's off on the right foot though. The newsletter sounds like a great idea and the great thing about newsletters is you're operating outside of Google's realm and there are numerous ways to monetise a newsletter. Likewise social stuff like Twitter/Facebook show great promise as can Foursquare and Gowalla etal. Time consuming, but certainly worthwhile.

    If Darren has got to the point where he's able to pay the writers and still make dosh then that's a good base to work on. The Leeds concept can be fine tuned, try and test different revenue streams (hotels/insurance/car hire etc) and see what works best. Once you've nailed it, replicate it to another city and build.

    There's no easy moolah routes on online travel. Start small, figure out something that works for you that shows the potential to generate an income you're happy with, and use that as a base to grow from.

    1. Hi Stuart,

      Local spend/visitor levels are still very high. Clearly, the financial return is relative but, for example, I live in a National Park in the UK which attracts 3.3million visitor days a year and £123million spend. From memory, Leeds was at £750million spend (Darren?). Dartmoor covers an area of 365 square miles so is diddy and is a very small part of a very small country, ie England.

      The replicate/build comment is perhaps where real value lies in the local market. A network of local sites with consistent tech should scale. Tech's cheap these days.


  7. Hi James
    I agree with you. I think the way Darren makes good cash is actually by creating a simple(?) vehicle/concept that others can replicate in other cities. He offers his advice/wordpress layout/business plan and then takes a percentage of each business. By doing this he also creates a network of sites - the 'mylifein' network - so finding them becomes less of an issue. Spottedbylocals is a good example.http://www.spottedbylocals.com/

    1. Yes, exactly. We're doing the same with bespoke tech but that seems to be the opportunity in local travel content that a number of people are exploring.

  8. Yup agreed. My point, albeit waffly, was that Darren can get the framework and cashflow sorted out built around Leeds, and then replicate - tis a good model, but scalability is important to get the eyeballs in -- if the spend is high, all the better!

  9. Great discussion as I knew it would be on Travel Blather!

    I will respond to the comments later tonight, but the plan is to roll it out to other cities next year. I had planned to roll out to one other city in 2010 but technical problems scuppered that plan. Will reply to your comments better soon.

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