You want local? The Swift Street Courtyard is local.
Amid all the many abstractions about local and hyperlocal, Patch and reader/ad match, print migration and monetization, the institution of the Swift Street Courtyard whispered something to me about “local” last week.
The Swift Street Courtyard is a small, commercial development on the west side of Santa Cruz, my new hometown. It’s the brainchild of bakers Kelly and Mark Sanchez, who developed and own the two-acre complex overall and run Kelly’s French Bakery, the courtyard’s hub. It sprung out of a fallen-down light industrial area (packing Brussels sprouts in the old days), opening in 2003. Now it’s a cool destination, a tiny slice of post-industrial paradise, housewares and lighting stores, salons and yoga studios, gift, silk, and knitting shops and a just-opened, direct-from-the-ranch butcher. People regularly use the courtyard, a “playpen” as Kelly Sanchez calls it, as a meeting and chatting spot. It’s on the mental map of Santa Cruzans, drawing 20,000 people or so a month. Across an alley, another developer has matched the Courtyard style, building a burgeoning center of wine tasting, so now the more than half dozen Santa Cruz Mountains wineries, an organic brewpub, and the four-star Cellar Door restaurant attract still more visitors. (There’s even a gin joint, literally a new boutique gin maker, a block or two down.)
Yet, if you look up Swift Street Courtyard on Google, you find little helpful. Of course, there are lots of links: 2.4 million without quotes around the name, a mere 436,000 if you add “Santa Cruz.” We find little helpful, useful — or indicative of why this local institution is an institution. While we get links to sites that mention the place, we don’t get a sense of the place, a feel of the place — or, really, much useful information. What we get — and my sense is this is increasingly true of online-delivered search results — is a kind of Yellow Pages 2.0. It’s not as simple as the old YP: In its mass, and clutter, there is far more information than the old YP, yet there’s little depth or breadth. I don’t need 74 sites offering me the same phone number, address, or “Map It” functions.
In the Swift Street Courtyard example, I think we see both a big, current problem of local and a huge opportunity, for readers, publishers, and marketers. If Gordon Borrell’s merry research band is close to right, there’s a cornucopia of local digital advertising spend developing: $13.5 billion in 2011, rising to $25 billion, when it could be 25 percent of the local ad spend. So let’s look at the newsonomics of the Swift Street Courtyard to see what we can learn and how the next generation of digital media can earn some of those dollars.
Let’s start with what we now find, via Google, in order, because that tells us how far local has to go:
Then, there are real estate sites, foodie sites and local wiki sites, each featuring a paragraph or two of directory-like info. Zvents follows with a map and nothing more. SFGate (the Chronicle’s website) offers the exact same non-information as the Sentinel (didn’t the Justice Department say that the Hearst-owned Chronicle and the MediaNews-owned were supposed to remain competitive?). Google Places pops up, you guessed it, more directory info.
Then, into the second page, we find some individual websites for the courtyard’s shops.
Local media? Good Times, an above-average alt weekly in print, only gives us some detail from its calendar. Its paler competitor, Santa Cruz Weekly, offers no search online, no Swift info. The same is the case for Santa Cruz’s small public radio station site, KUSP.org, and the larger KAZU.org, Central Coast public radio.
Patch shows up nowhere in the top three pages, though its page would rank as second-best to Yelp’s, with five listings of individual stores, and a ton of photos, most of them mediocre and unhelpful. (From how many angles can you shoot asphalt? Does anyone edit Patch photos?) Examiner.com puts Swift Street Courtyard on its Oakland (some 70 miles north) site.
Interestingly, the only video of the place, a self-conscious bit of a visit, can be found on TurnHere (“Short Films, Cool Places”), though I only found it because Mark Sanchez told me about it; it doesn’t turn up easily on Google.
So: Is it any surprise when we hear “local doesn’t work”? As consumers, as readers, what we get for local, largely, is what’s been repurposed from print. Local words, in text. But words and nothing more don’t fit us in 2011. Seeing is believing.
When we say local, we mean our whole local experience. Certainly, the news from City Hall and the schools and the cops report, prep sports, and the like. Community life, though, is far larger.
So, let’s return to Swift Street Courtyard. Imagine a world in which consumers can move their finger around a magic tablet surface, watching, listening, reading reviews and more? That world is here, but consumers and readers are way ahead of media. For local media, or others, the question is who, and first, will take advantage of the tablet/smartphone/visual era? Digital tools — those available cheaply today to anyone — will enable somebody to:
Sure, I may sign up for GotDailyDeals.com from the Santa Cruz Sentinel, but how cool would it be, if I could specifically select Courtyard deals and avoid offers from oil-change shops I’m not interested in? And how valuable would such segmenting be to merchants?
Take all of what local media are trying to sell and apply it to this micro-community, the Swift Street Courtyard. (Yes, you can also apply it to schools, and parks, and downtowns — some with more direct commercial opportunity than others.) The Courtyard is only a small piece of Santa Cruz, and Santa Cruz is only a tiny corner of the terrestrial and digital worlds. Yet it gives us a sense of how local could work, work differently and work profitably for merchants and for consumers. Start small, make it work and expand from there. Suddenly, local commerce — and understanding that $13.5 billion number — can look different.
What’s your Swift Street Courtyard?
So who will step up? Dailies and weeklies have such a tough time escaping their legacy of text, and seeing the world differently, though I do see some rumblings I’ll write about soon. Public radio stations understand audio, but the small ones have few staff. Patch has the benefit of several feet on the street, but they seem to be running as fast as they can. City guide sites have always stopped short, delivering templated information that now feels so ’90s. Maybe the merchants themselves, aided by smart marketers who can use today’s tools, will do it themselves, bypassing media “help”; our handcrafted charcuterie already has one impressive little site (sans video) for an a butcher shop. Maybe it’s nonprofits; the city of Santa Cruz has already engaged a WayFinding group to “to evaluate and improve upon the experience of navigating around Santa Cruz,” as a half dozen other cities are also doing.
It’s an opening, and a huge one. We may see some media grab on to the possibility, testing and developing models, which could spread through chains or franchises or simply best practice. Or we may see media further decrying the difficulty of defining and selling “local,” upping their sales attempts as their products continue to disappoint and fail to engage readers.
I’d like to believe in the former, but history has so far proven out the latter. Maybe 2012, with 50 million iPads in the U.S. — by my estimate, that means as many as 40,000 residents of Santa Cruz Country — will prove differently.