In early 2008 I was searching the web for information on lakes around the Dallas/Fort Worth area. What information I found was sparse and outdated. I knew other users were having the same issue so I partnered with a friend to develop LakeHub.com, a network of sites focused on information including real estate, rentals, marinas, fishing guide and camping details for lakes around the DFW area. I didn’t realize it at the time but this was the beginning of a fairly significant network of over a dozen hyperlocal sites and facebook communities.
I acquired the CedarCreekLake.com domain from a local guy using it to promote his vacation rental and we launched the first site in December of 2008. Initially the site included lake information, marinas, campgrounds, fishing guides, real estate and vacation rental listings. I didn’t plan on monetizing the site until I was able to generate significant value for local business owners so all the listings were free. Even so, many real estate agents and vacation rental owners were skeptical so it took some begging to post their listings. The site launched on the 3rd page of google search results for “cedar creek lake” but quickly moved up the ranks. By the end the first full year in 2009, CedarCreekLake.com had generated 566,000 page views from 56,000 visits.
When I realized site was generating quality leads for vacation rental owners and real estate agents I knew it was a viable business. We moved forward to acquire the domains and launched sites for Lake Bridgeport, Lake Bob Sandlin, Lake Sam Rayburn and Possum Kingdom Lake. We also created facebook pages for each of the lakes and integrated them to the sites.
The Monetization Test
By 2010, CedarCreekLake.com was the top search result for most keywords at Cedar Creek Lake and generating a ton of quality leads for vacation rentals and real estate listings. We decided to test the water on monetization so we built a fully-automated subscription ecommerce engine that accrues listing charges each day and processes the transactions at the end of the month. The goal was to fully automate the billing and give users the ability to self-service their account to minimize our overhead.
We followed the freemium model and allowed users to upgrade their standard (free) real estate or vacation rental listing to a premium listing for $25/mo which generated much higher visibility for the listing. Each week we sent an automated email with the views for each listing as well as the “top 10” listings. Ultimately all the top 10 listings were premium listings but a small percentage of listings were ultimately upgraded.
In 2010 we launched a handful of new sites including Lake Fork, Lake Granbury, Lake Palestine and Lake Texoma, our most expensive domain purchase at a low five-figure price tag. We also started experimenting with Facebook ads and created some relatively large facebook communities of 20,000+ fans. I wasn’t sure how we’d monetize the facebook fans but I knew these communities would be useful at some point.
For 2010, our traffic for CedarCreekLake.com ended with 88,000 visits, 56,000 visitors and 1,022,000 page views, up 100% from 2009.
Monetization Phase 2
I wasn’t satisfied with the results of our initial monetization test so the spring of 2011 brought a new strategy as we started charging for standard listings at CedarCreekLake.com. Users could post one real estate listing for free but but we’d require a $25/mo professional real estate subscription for unlimited real estate listings. We also began charging $25/mo for each standard vacation rental listing and $50/mo for premium listings.
As you’d expect there was plenty of grumbling and complaining when switching from free to paid. However we’d already proven the value by delivering valuable leads as a free service. Our positioning that we were focusing on the agents and vacation owners who are most interested on growing their business. Eventually most everyone bought into the new model.
In early 2011 we started offering banner advertisements for businesses looking for higher visibility. At CedarCreekLake.com, these were $100/mo and rotated a maximum of 5 ads. We also started selling business listings for fishing guide listings at LakeTexoma.com at $25/mo per listing. We were ranking highly for that keyword and noticed there were over 100 fishing guides on the lake so the 10-15 we found were eager to find new marketing channels.
Expansion to News, Weather and Lake Levels
In November of 2011 we launched pages for local weather and current lake levels for all lakes. With the 2011 Texas drought and low lake levels this quickly became a very popular feature. We also launched a community news and events section at CedarCreekLake.com where local writers can post stories and events related to the area. A retired local news editor, several local business owners and fishing guides we were publishing 3-5 stories per week. Each of these were posted on the Cedar Creek Lake facebook page with 10,000+ fans which generated a great deal of traffic to the site. Our trial of citizen journalism had changed the face of news in the CCL area as were distributing information more quickly and efficiently than the local news sources.
Traffic for CedarCreekLake.com ended 2011 with 101,000 visits, 68,000 visitors and 851,000 page views. LakeTexoma, now our most highly-trafficked site was listing very well for nearly every Lake Texoma keyword and generated 1,000,000 page views from 158,000 visits and 121,000 unique visitors – up over 500% from the year before.
Where to Next?
For 2012, we started charging for real estate listings and vacation rentals on a handful of the lake sites. We launched a lower-cost “badge” advertising option for small businesses at CedarCreeLake.com and LakeTexoma.com. We also acquired the domain and launched GrandLake.com to officially expand into Oklahoma.
In September of 2012 I left my full-time job to focus on growing LakeHub as well as a few other ventures. I’ll be spending more time at the lakes to get involved in the communities and launching a number of cool new features. I’ll also have the opportunity to work from locations with views like this one from Possum Kingdom Lake.
If you are interested in hyperlocal sites then you may want to follow me on twitter as I’ll be discussing it frequently.