Editor’s note: More Web users today are creating their own content and uploading it to the Internet for the world to see, and the trend is catching on in real estate. In this three-part series, Inman News digs into the user-created content trend to explore consumer feedback on property listings, the emergence of new local user-created community sites, and the latest in user-created online video content. (Read Part 1 and Part 2.)
Wondering about local open houses this weekend, a review of a new restaurant down the street or recommendations for a plumber or babysitter? A new interactive local Web site is in town that promises to bring members of your community together to answer these types of questions.
“Do-it-yourself local news” is the tagline for a series of “hyperlocal” Web sites called Backfence that are spreading throughout the country. Backfence sites are set up as a place where community residents can talk to each other about what’s important down the street.
The sites feature user-contributed local news, blogs, photographs, event listings, local business reviews and ratings, and free classifieds, and there are plans to enable video sharing. Everything is written and contributed by readers and members of the community.
The sites are not real estate-focused, but many already have real estate content, including local real estate blogs and classified listings of homes for sale from local Realtors, as well as advertisements from local brokers.
“What you’re seeing is a reflection of the community itself,” said Susan DeFife, president, CEO and co-founder of Backfence, which has its headquarters in Vienna, Va.
Backfence entered the Internet just as people were becoming more comfortable with creating their own Web content and at the same time local businesses were starting to move advertising dollars online, but without many options of sites where they could target local consumers, DeFife said.
There was clearly a large gap in local online content, DeFife said. People could read about the war in Iraq or national election issues or even regional news stories, but not much about what was happening down the street in their own communities. That’s when DeFife and co-founder Mark Potts, who serves as the company’s executive vice president, spotted a “perfect storm” of opportunity.
Backfence launched its first sites in McLean and Reston, Va., in May 2005 and has since added sites in Bethesda, Md., and Arlington, Ashburn, Chantilly and Sterling, Va. The company has also expanded to Palo Alto, San Mateo and Sunnyvale, Calif., and launched a site in Evanston, Ill., at the end of September.
Backfence expects to launch sites in 16 metropolitan markets in three years, DeFife said.
When deciding where to launch, she said, “The key for us is building in communities that are about 50,000-80,000 in population and where the communities strongly identify with that area so you’re really getting down to these local issues.” The company also considers Internet and broadband usage and how many locally owned businesses operate there.
“At the end of the day it’s about where you live, your house, quality of life in your area — that’s what it all boils down to,” DeFife said. “We’re giving people the ability to share these things.”
So far, in its first market, McLean, the company has attracted about 10 percent of the local population as site visitors, she said. Backfence aims to land about 2-3 percent of the local population in each area as regular content contributors and 10-15 percent as site visitors.
A glance at the sites in Backfence’s current three metro areas shows that real estate companies and agents have been early adopters of advertising on the sites. That’s no surprise given the focus on local content. But DeFife says there are a number of reasons real estate agents find this appealing, with a major one being that it costs less than many traditional print options.
Also, agents can interact with their communities on the sites by posting dialogues on how to buy a house or choose an agent, or by letting people know about upcoming open houses, she said. “Everyone is looking for ways to differentiate themselves … the Web allows Realtors to interact with the community.” Plus, agents “are really looking for local business.”
Some agents have posted for-sale property listings in the classifieds sections, and a few sites list local housing blogs that discuss local market conditions.
While anyone can post content to Backfence.com, the company does not allow anonymous posting. Contributors first must register at the site, and provide a name, year of birth and ZIP code. The registration process, which is free, helps Backfence monitor the sites for misconduct or inappropriate content, DeFife said, though it’s rare for company officials to have to intervene.
“Disagreements are absolutely welcome, but we also want to treat people civilly,” she said. “We have a spam filter and profanity filter. We’ve done a lot to keep this a friendly environment.” In the 18 months the first site has been up and running, she said, they’ve only had to remove five or six total posts from all the communities.
What happens when sites that rely on user-contributed content run dry of contributions? So far, that is not much of a problem. To keep people engaged, Backfence employees hit the pavement, introducing themselves to community leaders at homeowners associations, parent-teacher associations and others, DeFife said. Once the leaders communicate the idea to their groups, word of mouth usually carries the message through the ranks and more people become engaged.
The executive said that sometimes employees will add content to the sites based on things they see or hear that are relevant, “but for the most part it’s community generated.”
In some markets, visitors have compiled some of the most comprehensive listings of local events, she added.
Backfence relies on the communities themselves for suggestions on changing the site or adding functionality, and DeFife said it’s interesting to note the differences in what communities value most. For instance, she said, in Palo Alto, Calif. — home to many Silicon Valley high-tech workers — most of the suggestions have to do with technology, whereas in Washington, D.C., site users tend to focus their feedback more on how users interact with each other.
Backfence earlier this year acquired Bayosphere, a site co-founded by citizen media pioneer Dan Gillmor. The move marked the company’s expansion into the San Francisco Bay Area. Gillmor, a former technology columnist for the San Jose Mercury News, continues to blog about the San Francisco Bay Area for Backfence.
The company raised $3 million in funding in October 2005 from SAS Investors of New York, Omidyar Network of Silicon Valley and a group of Washington-area private investors. Backfence has 30 employees.
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