Expert Interview: How to Build a Local Blog with Jennifer Auer

Today, I’m sharing my interview with friend and fellow blogger, Jennifer Auer who runs Jersey Family Fun. Started in 2010, Jersey Family Fun now has over 100,000 monthly page views and more than 10,000 Facebook fans. I talked with Jennifer to learn the secrets of her blog’s success and what bloggers can learn about building a hyperlocal blog.

Interview with Successful Blogger Jennifer Auer

Q: How did you get started with Jersey Family Fun and how did you establish it as the go-to resource for New Jersey families?

Five years ago, I was seeking activities to do with my children but discovered that it was hard to find a list of activities all in one spot. For example, you would only know if Home Depot was hosting a kid’s workshop if you were in the store. I wanted a listing all in one place, so I created it. I started by listing events on Facebook but that confused my audience since they thought I was hosting the events. And since Facebook has no calendar function, it was difficult to manage, so I created the blog. Initially it was a regular mom blog with calendar events listed, but then it grew to a resource covering family friendly events all over New Jersey.

Q: Did you position your blog for local search? If not, how did you grow your blog with SEO?

No I did not. Certain posts did very well and came up in the search engines – like major holiday events: Halloween trick or treat times, Easter egg hunt listings. Visitors also came to find out what do with their kids on a Saturday morning. I’ve been repetitive with posts – I think that helps – like the annual statewide listing of fireworks events for the 4th of July, which is listed by town. I didn’t really do anything special with search engine optimization; it just grew organically.

Q: What key tasks or changes did you make to really grow your local traffic?

The biggest change was a redesign we did last year to make the site more mobile friendly. Before that, visitors had to zoom in on their smart phones to see event listings and descriptions. Now the design adjusts for the device and that’s been a huge help because a lot of our traffic comes from smart phones. It has tripled or quadrupled our traffic since that change.

Q: Was there a key “aha” moment that made your hyperlocal blog as success full as it is?

There’s no one “aha” moment. You have to be able to grow and adjust along the way, like learning things to make our work easier. Building a team of moms to work with was a big help, but mostly the site has benefited from trying small tweaks and constant learning. You see improvement over long stretches of time, not instantly. Some key changes, like testing different calendars software, have made the overall site easier to manage. For example, we allow organizations to enter their own events and approve them, and that has greatly reduced our workload. Entering all the events ourselves was extremely time consuming but now we have a more efficient [method] that’s allowed us to put out more information and resources.

Q: I see you have a lot of resources on your blog detailing local events, everything from Discounted Admission Days to when kids can eat free. How do you manage all that information?

Anyone doing a blog like this needs a team because you can’t go to every event or area yourself. It’s given those writers a chance to visit places they normally would not have been able to. Having a mom cover each county was my first idea, but that’s 21 writers and it gets difficult to manage and pay. The largest team I’ve had was 13 or 14 writers and at that size, you get into politics like who wants to do what. I also need to balance the size of the team with monetization aspects so I can pay my writers.

I’m still trying to find that balance of the right sized team, but I have fewer writers now that cover topics that appeal to multiple counties, for example, national parks. We also manage our newsletters so that [users] can sign up to get posts specific to their county. Since I cover a large area, it’s important to target my readers this way.

Q: What software and services do you need keep your site running?

Technical Support and Web Hosting:

If you’re successful, you’ll need to invest money and hire help – not just writers! For me, it was critical to hire a tech support person that I could trust so I didn’t have to worry about the site’s technical issues. Plus, a large site cannot use $5 a month hosting. When you’re picking a web host, it’s important to talk to them about the future growth of your site and their customer service. I prefer live, 24/7 service. At one time, I used a company that did not have live service and my site was down for 2 weeks at Halloween one year – which, you can imagine, is a high traffic season for me. You don’t want to make a mistake like that.

Additionally, some hosting companies are vague about telling you what you need to maintain a growing site. And if your host cannot accommodate that growth, your site will crash. That means you need to monetize because the more your site grows, the more you will need to invest in support and hosting. You don’t want to keep changing web hosts, like I did at first. You should hire a company that can grow with you. Basically, you get what you pay for – you can only go so far by having everything for free.

Calendar Software:

Jersey Family Fun was pretty quickly overwhelmed with email requests from places that wanted their events listed, so we needed a flexible calendar app that would allow places to list their own events. We currently use Time.ly plugin software, which emails me when an [event] is added so I can approve or decline it. It’s very SEO friendly and also allows you to easily create repeat events and leave out days, for example, if you have an event every Thursday but you want to leave out Thanksgiving. Finding the right calendar app is important for anyone listing events.

Q: What advice would you give to bloggers who are interested in creating a hyperlocal blog?

Do your research first – take a look at what other hyperlocal sites are covering and what is missing. Also consider how big an area you want to cover. Had I considered the bulk of how much information it would be, I would have started with a smaller region of New Jersey, like a county, rather than the whole state. I believe there is more income potential for hyperlocal blogs that cover a smaller area because you can get advertising from local businesses, which is not an option for a statewide resource. It’s also been difficult to monetize Jersey Family Fun with big businesses that do have a statewide reach because their advertising process is too complex for us. Sales and ads have not worked well to monetize the site, despite its size.

I also recommend you set guidelines for your events. We’ve had local vendors put in events that are not family friendly or that cost over $5, which is our limit. You need reliable web hosting but the more local you are and more guidelines you have, the less memory you’ll need to store events. And if you niche finely, that will help you craft more relevant blog post topics.

Finally, always consider your own schedule. Running a site like Jersey Family Fun involves a big time commitment and I couldn’t do it without help. Before starting, think about what you are willing to invest in time, help and money if your site takes off.

Thank you, Jennifer, for sharing your insight with us on how to build a hyperlocal blog! There are many different ways you could cover local issues on your own blog. This is one successful example that you can build on based on your interests and your community’s needs.