Patch.com’s Asynchronous Problem


August 6, 2010

After months of build up and anticipation, Patch.com is opening dozens of hyperlocal news sites in Illinois, Massachusetts and around Washington, D.C. Predictably, operators of smaller, locally-owned hyperlocal sites are beginning to squawk.

I don’t think things are as bad it may seem for the non-Patchers because Patch.com has a problem with
asyncronicity. I’ll explain what I mean about that in a moment.

Understandably, smaller hyperlocal operators are cowed by Patch.com’s significant marketing muscle. Gangs of sprightly 24-year olds in matching t-shirts and visors at commuter stops can be intimidating. So can a legion of paid freelancers guided by well-paid full-time local editors.

The Patch.com machine is hitting mom-and-pop hyperlocals on the ground by flooding the local zone with lots of
reporters, covering every last donut shop. And then Patch.com bombs neighborhoods from the air with the matching t-shirts and national marketing buzz.

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Shock And Awe phase of Patch.com’s plan to take control of hyperlocal news.

We should anticipate a great deal more of this from Patch.com. They will expend a tremendous amount of
effort and treasure to demonstrate their dominance. For instance, a friend running the Patch in Oak Park, Illinois posted a Craigslist ad offering $12.50 for every brief write-up on local businesses submitted. The unstated goal? To create Oak Park’s first complete business directory – a great way to snag search traffic. Every Patch.com site is doing this sort of thing.

Their plan is pretty darn good. Get quality editors. Make them live locally. Flood the zone with news. Hype each Patch launch with lots of marketing. Repeat.

But Patch.com has a significant chink in its plan: They are creating a synchronous operation in an environment that interacts asynchronously.

For those of you without a military or programming background, let me provide an example of what I mean.

When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, our military created then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s “Shock and Awe”. Enormous bomb tonnage was dropped on Iraqi Army positions and hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops poured into the country, often rushing past fractured and immobilized Iraqi units in a coordinated rush to secure important military objectives: airports, fuel dumps, government offices and broadcast stations.

The U.S. military smashed every regular Iraqi unit that dared oppose it. These were synchronous engagements. Two opposing forces encountered one another under similar operating conditions and objectives. In this case they were both uniformed regular military and they both aimed to control land, buildings or whatever other geographic objectives. Because it was better trained and equipped, every time the U.S. military could find its opposition, they used overwhelming firepower and resources to destroy the enemy.

Years later, long after the Iraqi military was disbanded, the occupying U.S. military was pulled into conflict with guerrilla forces. Now the enemy no longer wore uniforms. They didn’t fight on traditional battlefields and their objectives were not to control objectives but to harass U.S. military occupation forces.

These were asynchronous engagements. The two forces had very different operating conditions and objectives. One had traditional uniformed troops living on massive bases with top-down control. The other was composed of loosely organized groups of fighters from local communities that chose their own targets and times to engage. One drove billion-dollar tanks, the other used bombs triggered by cell phones.

On its own, one Iraqi guerrilla unit could barely harm the U.S. war machine. But thousands of cheap roadside bombs and no need to “clear and hold” – control geographic objectives – has enabled Iraqi insurgents to slowly wear down American forces and encourage them to leave Iraq. This defines “victory” for Iraqi insurgents.

On the flip side, victory for the U.S. military is more elusive: The total elimination of insurgent activity – “clear and hold”. It require unbreakable barriers and an easily punctured sense of civilian security. The American forces can expend endless treasure and lose hundreds of troops a year and never really obtain a permanent victory.

Back to hyperlocal news: Patch.com is playing the same game as the U.S. military: Clear and hold. Patch.com must use marketing muscle to build local audiences and keep them interested in their publications run by people from out-of-state. When you consider it, Patch.com has taken on a never-ending task that will eventually become boring for corporate marketers and editors alike. Patch.com content is destined to become stale.

Many locally-operated hyperlocals are already like guerrilla forces: Operating on the cheap, taking what audience they can, staying fresh and local, working to gradually erode Patch.com’s dominance. These locally-operated hyperlocals’ goal are not large profits, but to break even, have fun and engage their communities. They merely want to exist – and steal Patch.com readers. An asynchronous engagement that Patch.com will never be able to overcome.

Eventually Patch.com will run out of marketing steam, cut back on the freelancers and fold up shop where they are not making a profit. Maybe not every Patch location, but if there’s a well-run locally-operated hyperlocal, it’ll happen.