Backfence Shutdown Redux

On June 29, the much-publicized, well-funded network of community sites, Backfence, announced it was ceasing operations.

On July 5, PaidContent’s Rafat Ali reported that former Backfence CEO Mark Potts told him the network’s investors are “continuing to talk to potential buyers or new investors, but have decided for business and operational reasons to shut down the sites rather than operate them without sufficient support.”

As of this writing the Backfence sites are still available, but they don’t appear to be actively updated.

The demise of this ambitious startup is unfortunate, but not unexpected, I think. While Backfence’s aims were noble, the company made what turned out to be some key strategic errors early on. In my view, these were:

  • Starting too big. Backfence tried right off the bat to build a network of community sites before it had gained traction and built a good reputation and thriving online community in any one of the towns it served.

  • Not enough focus. People who aren’t accustomed to creating content about their communities need guidance. Merely providing a venue and saying “go to it” won’t be enough motivation for many folks to post, or to regularly read what’s posted. Backfence could have tried in some towns to “own” coverage and discussion of certain issues and thus attract more attention and loyalty.

  • Money problems. Many in the citizen-media field were thrilled when Backfence landed $3 million venture capital funding in 2005. But it’s possible that this wasn’t the right kind of funding. Venture capitalists typically demand large, fast returns — and they often bail quickly on ventures that don’t thrive on schedule. It seems that’s what happened here. The thing is, in my experience, it takes at least two or three years to grow a thriving and reasonably self-sustaining online community — and that’s when you’re starting small.

That said, Backfence wasn’t a complete failure. it was a model worth trying, and we all get to learn from its experience. Also, most media startups do fail — which is why pioneers are the guys with arrows in their backs. On the bright side, Backfence did have some loyal users and it sometimes yielded good-quality local content.

A recent lengthy American Journalism Review article explores the demise of Backfence in detail and in context.

The AJR story also discussed an interesting new venture: “A 10-member team at Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive …has been working since October on the first of what it hopes will be a series of ‘microsites’ covering the Post’s home circulation area. The first such site, scheduled to go up in June, will target Loudoun County, Virginia (population: 255,518), a sprawling, exurban locale about 40 miles from downtown Washington.”

…Well, today is July 11 and doesn’t appear to be live yet. (I keep getting a “page not found” error.) So I guess WPNI is still working on it. But this does sound like an intriguing venture worth watching — especially if it includes content from local residents, preferably in a more guided or focused fashion.

As far as community site networks go, I suspect the VillageSoup approach may prove more tenable in the long run. Of course, time will tell.

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