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We are a society that lives more and more in our technology-induced bubbles. When we go outside, we wear an iPod; we talk on cell phones while driving. In urban areas, we might never meet our neighbors unless there’s a fire or earthquake. But can technology also help bring us together in our physical communities, and help us get to know our neighbors?

Front Porch Forum (FPF) is making a valiant effort to do just that, offering up closed email forums that are strictly limited to people living within each physical neighborhood in Chittenden County, Vermont. Rather than being free-wheeling, anything-goes forums, FPF has been able to build more civil discussions by having people include their full name, street name and email address with each post. And users rave about how the site helps them connect with neighbors, find a lost pet or a good landlord, and even complain directly to local government officials.

But while the service has flourished, gaining more than 8,800 subscribers by word of mouth alone, Front Porch Forum has had trouble figuring out how to make the business profitable. Fifty local businesses have signed on as sponsors, and some municipal departments pay a monthly subscription fee of $99 to reach constituents, but FPF hasn’t been able to find the steady stream of revenue needed to expand into other Vermont counties and beyond.

Michael Wood-Lewis started FPF as a way to meet neighbors in Burlington, Vermont, after he had moved there from Washington, DC. He ran one neighborhood email list starting in 2000 as a hobby, and then decided to make it a full-time business about 18 months ago, expanding it into the entire county, with 130 forums. The idea was to give people a simple way to get to know their neighbors, a lost art in much of the country where the bake sales and lemonade stands of yore are uncommon occurences.

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Michael Wood-Lewis

“The surprising thing was the degree to which people were using it,” Wood-Lewis told me. “And we kept an open source attitude toward the rules of engagement. We ceded ownership over to the neighborhood. Someone said, ‘You really should remove anonymous postings,’ so we required first names. After awhile, people said, ‘First names are fine, but I don’t know who Bill is.’ So bit by bit, we got to using first and last name, the street you live on and your email address on every post. And we had this clear vision of folks using this to get to know each other better. It’s not about news or classifieds or politics — all that happens, but it’s secondary to getting to know your neighbors.”

The people who use FPF can’t get enough of it. Vermont-based novelist and blogger Philip Baruth told me he was surprised no one had thought of something like Front Porch Forum before.

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Philip Baruth

“It’s great,” he said. “It puts the power of the Internet at the extreme local level where you’re not used to using it. If you have a homespun blog, and you have readers in your city, you never get down to the level where you could target the people around you. It proves endlessly useful…I might walk my dog past a house but never know who lived there. But then I see that address on the forum and I start to fill in the blanks on who lives in all these houses.”

Local publicist Rachel Carter has been on three different forums on FPF, and told me that everything isn’t peaches and cream. “The forum has a lot of complaining, and people wanting to post political nonsense, and sometimes some fighting,” she said. “Some of the postings can be negative, but there’s positive in that people are discussing things. I think it’s a factor of the people that are here and the anger in the community and has nothing to do with the forum.”

Carter told me the ads from sponsors run at the bottom of the email roundups, and that they might work better if one sponsor was highlighted per email, with more relevant messages. “The best way to do advertising would be if it was more personalized,” she said. “One advertiser per day, who’s tied to the community, and was more personally targeted to that community. ‘We’re a store in this neighborhood, come in and get a special discount.’ That would go over big.”

Wood-Lewis is currently trying to win a funding contest from the Case Foundation (started by former AOL chief Steve Case and his wife Jean), which has already netted FPF $10,000 as a finalist. If FPF gets enough online votes, Wood-Lewis will get another $25,000, which he says is a lot of money for a bootstrapped startup company run by one person, himself. The following is an edited transcript of my recent phone chat with Wood-Lewis.

Tell me when you first started Front Porch Forum, and why you did it, and also why you decided to expand it into more towns.

Michael Wood-Lewis: Back in 2000, my wife and I had moved here to Burlington from Washington, DC, a couple years before, hoping to leave the big city to a place where we could fit in to a smaller city and find community. And we landed in a neighborhood that was known for being great that way, but we still hadn’t met the neighbors. My wife is a public school teacher and decided to take the bull by the horns. She baked cookies and took them over to [the neighbors], and used china plates instead of paper plates so that they would have a chance to bring them back and we could interact again. We never saw the plates again.

It wasn’t that they were bad folks, it’s that everyone is busy and cultural expectations have shifted in this generation. We were just strangers who lived next door. There’s no social contract there. Maybe if our house was on fire, it would have kicked in. Our second attempt was to build what was a precursor to a Yahoo Group for the neighborhood. And we used fairly primitive tools to build it, and made fliers and dropped them in 300 front doors. And in short order, 25, 50, 75 households signed up and people started using it. Now that kind of thing is old news, but at the time it was fairly unusual.

The evidence was overwhelming that we had something that was worth sharing. And at the same time I was leaving my job [in 2006], I thought I could try to make this work. I hired a web developer I knew to put together a website and just put it out there so people could sign up. And now, after a year and a half, we host 130 neighborhood forums across the metro area. So anyone in this area can put in their physical address and it will land in a pre-existing forum. And now we’re at 8,808 total subscribers in Chittenden County, and about 4,600 subscribers in the City of Burlington. Some neighborhoods are as high as 90% [participation].

How do you differentiate what you do from the simple Yahoo Groups or Google Groups that anyone can set up?

Wood-Lewis: In several ways. People sometimes miss what we’re doing from a distance. We’ve banished the term listserve or Yahoo Groups in comparing this, because people generally have a bad experience with them. My wife, for example, is on her computer every day and sometimes she gets into a Yahoo Group, and says, ‘I get too much junk, and someone just replied to a 10-page message and didn’t erase it when they replied, and why doesn’t someone put a headline on this?’ It’s a hard-to-use interface, and forget about customer service. It’s typically a frustrating experience for most people.

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Front Porch Forum headlines

We designed our service to be as unobtrusive as possible. It arrives in your in-box because that’s where you find everyone. We’re trying to get just about everyone in the neighborhood and nearly everyone uses email. Plus, it’s moderated and restricted to only nearby neighbors and it’s not anonymous…There are people who can cut across multiple forums, and there’s interesting things that happen with that. Certain public officials can do that for their jurisdiction. So the representative for Ward 5 can get access into the nine forums that they represent. The same for school board members or police or other neighborhood officials.

The public officials take a lot away because they listen in and tune in quite a bit. My initial thought was that these guys would be inundated with lost-cat messages and their eyes would glaze over. But what I found was that most of the local public officials are very interested in reading these because it’s a way to have their ear to the ground with constituents. And they can post announcements about issues, about car break-ins or Wal-Mart plans, or whatever, to get feedback.

A lot of people talk about how the Internet can help public officials stay in touch with constituents. I guess you’re seeing that happening.

Wood-Lewis: Definitely. And it’s not all smooth sailing. There are challenges and occasionally the citizens are unreasonable and some officials don’t always do well with engagement. There’s a bit of a learning curve but eventually it’s a positive experience.

We also have Neighborhood Volunteers, and anyone can sign up to do that and be a booster. And by doing that, they have access to a forum of all the volunteers across the county. And there are now 250 to 300 volunteers. So for anyone who does community organizing, they can use this to reach other active organizers, who then have access to dozens of their neighbors. So if you’re trying to organize something, a charity drive, you can post it to the volunteer forum, and then reach thousands of people.

Do the volunteers moderate the forums? Have they blocked messages from going through?

Wood-Lewis: No. I don’t think we’ve ever forbidden a message. Front Porch Forum does have a moderator, and that’s me. We’re looking to make our first hire and have someone take off some of the load. We don’t run into too many issues with content because everyone’s clearly identified, and you’re talking with your neighbors and you have your street address on it. On the other hand, our local newspaper opened up comments on its articles and there’s been some nasty stuff on there.

Do you have any way to protect yourself from someone going on and posing as someone else?

Wood-Lewis: We have some basic precautionary measures. If someone posts something in a neighborhood of 300 households and says he’s Dan Smith, that’s going to be flushed out pretty quickly. I had one guy sign up like that and his automated welcome message went through, which triggered three people calling me saying there was no such address and they didn’t know the name. So I contacted him and never heard back. The only mischief we see is people want to get into the neighbordhood forums. We’re not trying to be jerks but what gives them their power is that it’s just their neighbors on each forum.

Every time we ask people about opening up the content — and there’s terrific content on there — the reaction we get is, ‘Yeah, I’d like to see those, but as far as posting, I would cut posting in half and not post on many subjects.’ Posting a letter to nearby neighbors is like talking at a block party. Posting something more broadly is more like a letter to the editor. Those are fundamentally two different things. I’m trying to keep that block party vibe, so we need to keep it segregated.

Tell me about the business model. You have some sponsorships and advertisements. Is that where you see your main revenues?

Wood-Lewis: We went for our first year without attempting to generate any revenue. We just wanted to get the technology going and see if there was a demand for the service first. For the last six months, we’ve been working to get some revenues, and it’s promising, but we’re not there yet. The primary source is advertising and getting sponsors. We’ve had 50 or so local businesses in our county come to us, and it’s just me. We don’t have any investment capital to date or sales staff. Businesses come to us asking if they can advertise, and we now can say, ‘yes.’

We also are selling subscriptions to municipal departments. We have constituents talking about municipal issues, and it’s worth it for them to monitor that. We provided it for free for a year and then started charging, and most of the departments have signed on for that. They have full access to all the neighborhood forums in the city and can read and post to all the forums.

We have six or seven departments participating out of 10, including schools, parks & recreation, police, telecom, electric. It’s $99 per month for each department. They can engage with an individual neighborhood or forum as much as they want. If they’re going to fix a playground, they can interact as much as they want. But if they’re going to post a public service announcement, then we limit it to a couple per month. If they want more than that, they can pay an additional fee. Elected officials still get free access, because it makes sense to me, they are the elected representatives for the people and we’re helping both parties talk.

How do the advertisements work? Are they text or graphical?

Wood-Lewis: We’re low tech, we’re email, our emails are plain text. Nothing’s anonymous, and it’s not instantaneous. When people submit a message, it doesn’t get published except in the daily publication. When heavy Web 2.0 users sign up, I usually hear from them in frustration a day later, because they want a Facebook experience where they can push buttons and upload 20 widgets. I tell them to slow down, that this is a different experience. The ads are delivered in plain text emails. We sell them on a per-day basis. Over a three-day period, we hit everybody. It starts at $78 per day and the price drops with volume.

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Would you consider getting outside funding?

Wood-Lewis: We are up for a grant from the Case Foundation, which is not a huge amount of money but would be a huge shot in the arm for us…I was involved in a startup in 1999 called ForestWorld.com, a portal for forest products with a sustainable forestry twist. We got a million in investment money, hired 40 people, put up a site and then the bubble burst and the party was over. It was interesting and I learned a lot, but this is a different endeavor.

I want to grow [FPF] carefully. We want to benefit our town, and I’d love to see us grow this across our state and beyond with natural growth out. There might be a chance to grow that significantly, but not yet. I don’t want to get ahead of ourselves. I would take venture capital money at the right time, but we’re not there yet. It could happen later this year. I don’t want this endeavor to be led by the money. We have had some interested parties but we need to stick to our path, but when we need money to accomplish something, then we’ll look for the money. I’m pretty optimistic that we’ll be able to raise funds when we need them.

What are the challenges with getting revenues with hyper-local sites? Can you do it in a scaled way or is it limited to your own community?

Wood-Lewis: It’s a good question and I don’t know the answer. My experience in going around to small businesses, they either don’t know anything or they’re very aggressive and are bidding for Google AdWords. What I’ve decided with our approach is that we have no marketing budget, it’s all been word of mouth. It’s been incredibly successful.

I hope we can do the same thing to attract advertisers. We’ve had 500 local businesses contact us, and 10% of them have put money down. That’s all been because they’ve seen this, and a light bulb went off over their head. It’s not like a florist who doesn’t get the Internet and needs a consultant to help them figure out how to run Google ads.

My gut feeling is that as the web gets more crowded, especially in “local” served up by Yahoo and Google, genuinely local stuff has got to be increasingly valuable. How do you find it? By living there, by word of mouth. That’s why we want to grow it from our neighborhood up to our county, and then to adjacent counties. If we were to parachute into Phoenix right now, it would be tough sledding.

If there is one part of your service that you think you can monetize, what would that be?

Wood-Lewis: I once did a survey about our flagship neighborhood here, after they had the service for five years. I asked how many would be willing to pay a subscription fee. And two-thirds said they would at an average of $40 per year. I was surprised by that. Since then, I added a PayPal button so they can give money voluntarily. Some people came through, and a very small number was OK with paying a regular subscription.

But it’s a real bear. People will say they love the service, that it’s more valuable than the local newspaper or their Newsweek subscription. But then they’ll stop and think about the web, and say it’s more valuable than Craigslist, but Craigslist is free. So the web makes people think that everything should be free. So maybe we could give them the first year free and then start charging a subscription. After a year, people are hooked. But that’s all to be explored.

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What do you think about Front Porch Forum? Do you think there’s a way to make it into a successful business? How? And if you use FPF, what do you like about it and what could be improved? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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