January 27th, 2010
On a sunny, warm Wednesday afternoon in Newport Beach, Calif., surfers took in some waves in the cold Pacific Ocean waters, people shopped along the boardwalks and the lone content producer for Hookem.com was combing the beach for University of Texas Longhorn fans.
Thousands of people decked out in the distinctive burnt orange clothing were in Southern California for the BCS championship game, and Hookem’s Dave Behr was on a mission to find, talk to, video and photograph as many of them as possible. He was to be the eyes and ears for the fans who couldn’t make the 1,400-mile trek from Austin to California. Along the way, he rode in an RV full of rabid UT fans, got Darth Vader to flash a “hook’em” sign in Hollywood, posted blog entries about his first taste of In-N-Out burgers and met tons of tailgaters.
Some forward-thinking Statesman employee had reserved the domain name “hookem” more than a decade ago. All it needed was a purpose. This past summer, we gave it one when we launched the niche site just before the Horns football team started 2-a-day practices.
The Statesman had a Longhorns forum for more than a decade, but it was built in old software and wasn’t actively managed. Without oversight, the forum was a place for racial bashing, threats, expletives and everything else that happens when you let the mice play. In March of this year, the Statesman started the transformation to the new site by re-launching the forum under the hookem.com umbrella, using new software and moderation. To ease the workload of moderation, we deputized some good board members and gave them the power to delete posts and put other community members in timeout.
We then proceeded to build the site in WordPress. Building it in WordPress instead of our paper’s CMS allowed some flexibility and speed in design and implementation. WP is also a very easy system to push content through, no matter where you log in.
From the beginning, Hookem was planned as a site that leans heavily on aggregation (an editor choosing stories from dozens of sources and linking off to them from our site). Our guy in California, Behr, has been curating the Longhorns sports news all season long. He also finds photos, videos and more from all over the Web to link to from the site. There is some original content, in the form of blog entries by Behr and the content produced in the forum by our community.
We also wanted to use social media to help market and distribute Hookem’s content. During Longhorns games, I personally ran the @HookemFans Twitter account, and we often update our Facebook page. Both accounts actively engage the community. The Twitter account has more than 1,800 followers, and the Facebook fan page has about 700 fans.
The site is distinctly different than the Statesman’s coverage in a few ways. For one, since the information is curated from all across the Web, it does not rely on staff reports. Another big difference is that there’s a little license to have more fun than we can have when publishing material at the Statesman. The name of the site itself, “Hookem,” infers some bias. We run with that, and had no shame in having a good time in California with the rest of the fans.
We think that Hookem.com provides a one-stop shop for Texas fans, and the traffic has increased solidly in each month of the site’s existence. We’ve been very happy with the site’s financial success in its first year as well. We’ve had no problem selling ads on the site, even during an obviously difficult advertising period.
Although Behr didn’t get to see the game from inside the Rose Bowl (he spent it in the stadium’s parking lot with the people who run a rival site, Hornfans.com), he did have a great time, and he gave our site some great exposure. He told me he handed out tons of marketing cards to fans at the game. Although the Horns lost a heart-breaker, the site has been a winner all year long.
I’m surprised more newspapers haven’t done something like this: it’s relatively easy to build a niche site, and not hard to maintain it if you use aggregation and social media to their full effect.
Have you created a vertical site for your news organization? Please leave your thoughts, comments and war stories here!
NOTE: This piece originally appeared on Media Bullseye.