Businesses Await Word on the Fate of Patch

Hyperlocal sites filled unique niche for small business

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Harriet Jones
Businesses Await Word on the Fate of Patch
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Businesses Await Word on the Fate of Patch

What’s up with Patch? That question seems to be on the lips of many small business owners who rely on the hyperlocal news sites to get the word out about sales, events and promotions. As Patch’s corporate parent AOL threatens closures and consolidations, some are wondering if it will ever be the same again. WNPR's Harriet Jones reports.

 

At the Branford River Resort and Spa, manager Doreen Bastian is creating just the right relaxed atmosphere for her guests.

“We’re a full service spa, we’ve been in business many, many years. We do everything from massages to a private hair salon. We do spa pedicures and spa manicures; we offer Bare Minerals make-up application and we do weddings.”

Last year the spa got a boost from its local Patch site – and she says her customers took notice.

“We won the Patch award for Branford, for best spa in Branford. I’ve gotten many responses just through the Patch stating that they’re very happy we won the award, so they too were looking at the Patch to read about it.”

After the award she bought some advertising on Patch and was pleased with the results. She wanted to do the same this year for a special Mother’s Day promotion…

“We tried to advertise again and for some reason never got a contact back for the last 8 months. I was shocked when they haven’t called me back.”

That was Bastian’s first inkling that all may not be well at Patch.

“I mean you’re willing to pay for advertisement and they’re supposed to call you back, and it’s funny that you have to track them down and they’re not tracking you down.”

Along the shoreline in Stonington, Wendy Bury was an early adopter of her local Patch site.

“I was an immediate supporter, immediate advocate for this. It’s easy, user friendly, this is a “you can do it yourself” approach. And we didn’t know who we were going to hit with it, but we knew it was within the community, which is what we wanted. And the cost was very reasonable at that point to advertise on it.”

At the time, Bury was starting up a new community arts space, the La Grua Center. She says her early enthusiasm for the Patch model was well placed.

“We definitely saw there was a response to Patch presence. As Patch was growing we were able to see that our presence was growing in the community through Patch. So we had an immediate success with Patch, and I just firmly believe that that was a niche that had not been tapped into yet.”

She says Patch’s integration with social media like Facebook and Twitter made it the go-to resource for local information.

“For businesses especially during the hurricane that was exactly the only way they could get information out. We’re closed, we’re open, we might have power, we have power, we have gas, we have batteries.”

But for all the enthusiasm in the small communities supported by Patch sites, its corporate parent, AOL, doesn’t seem to have been able to make it work financially. This week, AOL CEO Tim Anderson said that 400 of almost 1,000 Patch sites will be either closed or consolidated, and layoffs are inevitable.

“Patch does seem to be circling the drain at this point.”

Dan Kennedy is an assistant professor of journalism at Northeastern University. He contends it’s not the concept of hyperlocal that’s at fault, it’s AOL’s business model.

“I think the problem is that you have this massive corporate structure laid on top of what might have been some healthy grassroots individually-owned hyperlocal sites.”

That sense of local ownership needs to go hand in hand with local content, and seemingly AOL’s talk of ad quotas and revenue/cost equations hasn’t been an adequate substitute.

“If you go to any of the Patch sites, there really is not an awful lot in the way of advertising on them. You need that local ownership invested in the community, willing to pound the pavement and go to every pizza shop, every tattoo parlor, every little business you can think of, trying to sell advertising.”

For the businesses who still do form an intimate part of Patch’s local network, the end result will be an intangible, but real loss. In Stonington, Wendy Bury says she’d be sad to see a consolidation or a closure in her town.

“It wouldn’t be devastating to the business community but it certainly – there would be a void, absolutely be a void in our community in how to reach our community.”

For WNPR, I'm Harriet Jones.