The hyperlocal Web site's new president sees a much bigger footprint in its future. Wed. July 13, 2011
By Andrew Damstedt
When EveryBlock was launched in Chicago in 2007, the much-ballyhooed Web site's mission was to fill people in on pretty much everything going on in their individual neighborhoods.
Andrew Damstedt (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an AJR editorial assistant.
Revamping the Web site earlier this year to allow visitors to start discussions and respond to posts positions the company to ascend to an entirely new level, according to its new president.
"The community news piece is the secret sauce developed from a technical standpoint," Brian Addison says. "The community news piece I would describe as EveryBlock 1.0... [Now we're] referring to it as EveryBlock 2.0, which on top of that news experience added a community layer. So all of the sudden the site has evolved. Users can not only comment on the content that's available to them, they can also post their own content."
Addison joined the company in June, a few months after it added the social component. He says he came aboard because he feels the company, now in 16 cities, is ready to expand to a national audience. The company doesn't know which ones it's adding next but does ask visitors to suggest locations.
Expansion was one reason Addison was hired, according to site founder Adrian Holovaty. "We needed someone to focus on the business side of things, marketing and audience building and all this stuff that none of us are particularly qualified to do."
Dan Mucha, vice president of msnbc.com, which acquired EveryBlock in 2009, agrees. "We felt like we needed someone at the helm who would think much more of it as a business," he says. "Adrian had done a good job of kind of living in both worlds, being on the technical product side, but also thinking about it as an organization overall. His bias is on the product and technology side, and he kind of raised his hands to me months ago and said, 'Look, as we make this thing into a business, I think we should bring in a business person to lead it.' "
And, Mucha says, Addison fit in with the start-up culture of the seven-person EveryBlock team, bringing skills that the rest of the squad didn't have.
"He's just what we wanted," Mucha says. "And he's funny, by the way. I don't know if he'll like me telling this story: When he showed up at the EveryBlock office for his interview, he'd already met Adrian and already spoken to me, but he showed up to meet the whole team, and he brought a box of donuts. And when the team opened up the box, the donuts were organized with colors in a way that looked like the EveryBlock logo. It was hilarious. That's not why we hired him, but it spoke to the fact that he fits the team, which likes to have fun."
Addison's experience has been in traditional and digital marketing, working at places such as advertising agencies Foote Cone & Belding and Ogilvy & Mather as well as Beam Global Spirits & Wine, where he worked as brand manager.
Expanding EveryBlock to even more cities in the United States and perhaps other countries is the next step, says Holovaty, who has worked at washingtonpost.com and helped developed Django, an open source framework designed to aid newsrooms build Web applications. The social aspect, Holovaty says, will help EveryBlock accomplish that goal, as will having someone focused on business.
To help spur growth, the company plans to hire another programmer and a second community coordinator, who'll be based in New York City and whose main responsibility will be to spur discussion on the site about New York City neighborhoods. (The first coordinator is in Chicago.) How the company will look a year from now is yet to be determined, Mucha says when asked whether the company plans on adding community coordinators for each city that EveryBlock covers.
"The one thing we do know though is that communities are looking for this solution, they're responding to it, and they have a huge role to play in defining EveryBlock in each of the markets," Mucha says. "We learned that the site will not be defined by the datasets that are in there, but by the communities that are participating on the sites."
But regardless of expansion, the site's purpose will continue to reflect the reason it was created: to make people better informed about their neighborhoods.
"There was no way of keeping track of everything happening right in your neighborhood. It's as simple as that," Holovaty says of why he started the site. "You could go to the city newspaper to see everything happening in the city, and maybe once in a while they'll talk about your neighborhood. But there's a lot of stuff that happens right around your house, if you live in a big city, that you probably didn't know about and you maybe want to discuss with neighbors--like new businesses coming in, the stuff that's not necessarily sexy or newsworthy enough to be covered by the main metro, like a new dry cleaner's coming in on your block or a new pizza place. That's very much news to people who live by it."
Before he became the company's president, the 37-year-old Addison was an EveryBlock visitor. "It won me over the minute that I realized that it worked into my daily online routine," Addison says. "You get online, whether first thing in the morning or later in the day. Some people check Facebook or they'd check their homepage, which might be iGoogle or MyYahoo! You have your routine of how you start your online experience. EveryBlock magically worked its way into my routine. That showed the power and unique approach that EveryBlock was taking."
Addison, a graduate of Northwestern University with an economics degree and a master's in marketing finance and nonprofit management from the university's Kellogg Graduate School of Management, says he wants to ignite EveryBlock's growth, and he expects his experiences in the advertising world to help him.
"I think what the company has is a fantastic product in terms of the Web experience it provides," Addison says. "It's just a matter of generating additional awareness about that product."
That branding will start with the slogan, "Make your block a better place," which Addison says happens every day at EveryBlock. One example he shared from his native Chicago was how one user wanted to see whether there was support for a farmer's market in his neighborhood and started a discussion about it. Now, Addison says, there is a farmer's market in the Jefferson Park neighborhood.
He also cites the time EveryBlock users helped apprehend a flasher in a Chicago neighborhood after a user posted a question: "Has anyone else been stopped by or reported this man?" A discussion by neighbors followed, providing tips to police such as a vehicle's license plate number. The end result was the arrest of a 42-year-old man, according to a post by reporter Mike Schipper of the local News-Star newsweekly.
Addison says social media have changed journalism into a two-way dialogue, and EveryBlock is a tool that puts the power of journalism into the hands of local residents.
"I think it represents a paradigm shift in the definition of local news. I think that we're seeing as the role of digital grows in people's lives that editorial content is really starting to suffer at the local level," Addison says. "And so what EveryBlock is able to do is to harness the best of locally available content..as well as neighborhood people contributing to that content."
That's why msnbc.com acquired EveryBlock in the first place, Mucha says. "EveryBlock is our bet on kind of a local news and community platform. They provide a service that is different than what we traditionally provide at msnbc, and they're extremely focused on doing that."
The very local content comes from a variety of sources, such as local blogs, Yelp, local media outlets, crime reports, business permits and restaurant inspections. The sites don't include original stories.
Holovaty says traffic has grown "significantly" since the Web site was redesigned in March to add the social element. He says he can't reveal any Web traffic numbers, but Web site traffic analyzer Alexa.com shows that EveryBlock is the U.S.' 11,117th most visited Web site.
Addison says he's still trying to figure out how best to market the site but says he will focus on who stands to benefit the most from the EveryBlock user experience.
"Aside from figuring out how to best craft our story to those audiences, there's the issue of how we expand into other markets, and so that's going to be a big task for me moving forward is scaling this up to a truly national brand," Addison says.
Mucha says he sees a lot of potential in EveryBlock's growth: "I hope EveryBlock becomes bigger than msnbc, and we're far away from that, but that would be a great outcome."###