A Closer Look at Topix (Plus, New Partnerships)

Matt Booth and I had the chance to meet with Topix at its Palo Alto headquarters last week to unearth some of its user data, as well as some heretofore unannounced content partnerships.

Late last year, the site redefined itself as an aggregator of ZIP code level news and community forums. As recently argued from the ups and downs in hyperlocal sites, the right formula has to be found and sometimes it’s out of your hands as a function of the direction users take it. Topix has mostly found the right formula in its new model, as evidenced by a 2x year-over-year increase in page views in March.

Meanwhile its forum posts also doubled during the same period, and the site is averaging 100,000 posts per day across 20,000 U.S. towns (see heat map below). ComScore also puts it in the top five trafficked online news brands. To further qualify this traffic, it has proved to be relatively engaged, shown by 3x page views for forum users compared with news readers, and 5x session lengths (per Google Analytics).

Local Forum Activity (Click for larger, live, map)

Quantity + Quality?

Another important qualifier is that the forum content is mostly original and non-overlapping with newspapers or other hyperlocal sites. The company now gets somewhere in the neighborhood (bad pun) of 60 percent of its total content from user-generated posts. It’s seeding this activity with sticky features like user-generated polls, of which there were almost 9,000 created in March, generating almost half a million votes.

So forums essentially amount to ad inventory with engaged local users, which on this scale is somewhat rare in the local space. Others such as Marchex and Local.com have done a good job building valuable local inventory, albeit not as focused on community forums. Meanwhile there is some debate over advertiser interest in UGC content, which CEO Chris Tolles addresses here and here.

Previously Topix’s ad revenue stream was primarily text ads via AdSense, but VP of Sales Mike Linton is on a charge to bring in more display ads from national advertisers that wish to target locally. This is a growing opportunity given the realization among some brands and agencies that conversions are taking place locally and offline. We believe more agencies will come to see this, though the majority currently don’t.

Beefing Up and Beefing Out

To further attract this advertising and grow user levels, the company is pushing hard to augment UGC content with feeds in certain classified verticals. These include autos, tickets, pets, roommates, relocation services, events, new home builders and personals.

This has been the department of VP of Business Development Dave Galvan, who in the past few months has signed on (previously unannounced) Apartments.com, Oodle (autos & tickets) White Fence (relocation services), Informa (mortgage leads) TinBu (horoscope & lottery data) and PA Sports (sports stats). These join existing content deals with Trulia, and SimplyHired, among others.

On the other end, Galvan has been working hard to find distribution partners to take in Topix’s Local news feed, and has recently landed OurTown, AccuWeather and ESPN. These join AmericanTowns, CNN, Ask, and others that have shown interest in ZIP code level news feeds that basically aren’t available on this scale from anywhere else.

Meanwhile, it’s getting a fair amount of distribution for its forums by feeding into parent sites including Tribune, MediaNews Group and NBC Universal. Some of this will be discussed next week during the Drilling Down on Local conference in Seattle, where Galvan will join a panel discussion on classifieds. Stop by if you’re at the show.

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