This post is the third in a series of interviews with the professionals who live at the intersection of law, the internet, and social media.

Today I’m switching gears and bringing you an interview with someone who is not lawyer, but who nonetheless can give us legal types some great insight into what it takes to be successful online. Matt McGee is a hyperlocal blogger who has been really successful in using blogging to promote his wife’s real estate business, and by doing so, has made himself a bit of an expert on hyperlocal blogging.

While some attorneys blog solely about legal issues, and while blogging about legal issues is one effective way to market a law practice, building a relationship with the community through hyperlocal blogging can also be effective. Matt was kind of enough to offer us some insight into the world of hyperlocal blogging, and how it can be used to successfully promote a business. If you’re hungering for more of Matt McGee after reading this interview, be sure to check out his site, Hyperlocal Blogger, where you can also find links to the real estate blogs he and his wife use to promote her real estate business.

GJEL: What inspired you to start hyperlocal blogs for your real estate market, and what were your initial goals for them?

Matt: The idea at the beginning was mostly to promote my wife’s real estate business, but it was also somewhat of an experiment in local blogging and a learning experience of sorts. The goal for each was to have a site for each of the main cities in our area that anyone thinking about moving here could follow along and learn about the community, while also setting up my wife as the local expert for each area. I’d love to say we started the blogs with purely altruistic, serve-the-community ideas in mind, but it was as much a business idea as anything.

GJEL: Have those changed at all as you’ve gotten into it more?

Matt: Well, the goals are still the same, but we haven’t really executed as well as I’d like. My wife is too busy to blog about real estate as much as she should, so I’ve done most of the writing about community news and events. So, I’d say the goals are still the same, but the focus has changed due to the reality of the situation. Instead of being about the town and about real estate in the town, each of the blogs is mostly about the towns … with just a little real estate in the mix. I don’t know if that’s good or bad; it’s just not what I was expecting. We’re probably about 90%-10% in terms of general content vs. real estate content. I’d prefer it to be about 70%-30%.

GJEL: How do you walk the line between blogging about your business and blogging about your community?

Matt: Well, I guess I answered this one to some degree already, but let me reply in general on the idea of self-promotion and local/community blogs. When we launched all four blogs, a reader would have had to do some digging to find out that they were, to some degree, business blogs. Sure, each has “real estate” in its name … but the content was all community-based. There was no advertising of my wife’s real estate business. Aside from a mention on the “About” pages, we downplayed the real estate connection completely.

We did that because we wanted to attract readers from across the community – not just readers who were looking to buy or sell a home. We also did it because real estate has a big spam element when it comes to online marketing, SEO, etc. So we decided to hold off on any real estate promotion for a while, to allow the blogs to build up some readership and some trust with the search engines.

I think any small biz person that’s thinking about starting a local/community blog should keep in mind that, generally speaking, if people are looking for information about your business, they’ll visit your business web site or blog. They come to a community blog looking for community information. An occasional business-related post is probably fine — say, for example, if the business is supporting some local event or charity — but general business blog posts should probably stay off the community blog.

GJEL: Tri-Cities isn’t quite as big a market as the Bay Area, obviously, but are there common types of content you look for, or places you look, when you’re trying to figure out what to write?  Do you think the size of the area where a business draws its customers from should affect any of that thinking?

Matt: Well, there are different types of local blogs. Some are very much into hard news and crime, and so in a bigger city you’ll get more opportunity to report that. We live in a fairly low-crime area, and since our blogs are mostly designed to promote the area and indirectly promote a real estate business, we generally stay away from reporting crime. That said, there was a burglar in our local mall a year or so ago, and we posted about that — and that post got a LOT of traffic.

I think in most cases, a successful hyperlocal blog will share a lot of community news and information that traditional media skips. Posts about upcoming events always seem to do well on our blogs. The newspaper might only give an event 2-3 sentences, but if the event is important to people, they’ll be looking online for more information.

GJEL: Are there any ideas for content themes, or categories, that you would recommend as a “default setting” if you were just starting a blog?

Matt: All of our blogs have a similar set of categories that seem to work well for us: Business, Events, Life, News, Real Estate, Schools, and Sights. Most of those should be self-explanatory, but maybe not Life and Sights. With the Life category, that’s where we post stuff like a trip to the local museum, or “wouldn’t it be great if we had one of these in town?” posts. And the Sights category is where we post photos from around town, like a nice sunset or a shot of people trying to cool off in 100+ degree heat. So far, everything we’ve written has fit into one of those categories.

GJEL: It seems like hyperlocal blogging would work really well for a real estate business, because getting people interested in real estate means getting them interested in the community. Do you have any advice for people who are trying to incorporate hyperlocal blogging with another type of business (i.e. law 😀 )?

Matt: It definitely is a natural fit for real estate professionals, but I think it can work in the legal industry and others, too. Again, I’d say the key to making it work is to focus on making a community/neighborhood blog, not an industry blog. It’s all about focus. If you blog about what’s happening in town — school news, new businesses opening up, local events, etc., it doesn’t matter if you’re a lawyer, plumber, shoe store owner … whatever! People are online and looking for local information, so it doesn’t matter who you are.

The problem is in turning blog visitors into customers, and that’s still a gray area for us. In the interest of building readership and trust, we held off on any promotion of my wife’s business for about the first year the blogs were online. At that point, we added a template to the bottom of each post that shows her photo and says something about “if you’re here looking for real estate help, please contact” her and gives her phone number. I’m still hesitant to push much further on self-promotion because I think it’ll turn people off.

All of which is to say that, if you asked me what the direct and certain benefit has been of our local blogs on my wife’s real estate business, I’d be hard-pressed to tell you. But I can say this: When she asks people how they found her, many clients say “You’re all over the Internet!” They may not remember which blog, web site, or PPC ad it was, but we know the visibility is good. And the blogs tend to rank well for her primary business keywords, so if nothing else they’re taking up space in the search results that a competitor might have had.

GJEL: How have you incorporated Twitter, if at all, in meeting other bloggers in your community?  Do you ever do any offline meetups in Tri-Cities?

Matt: My wife has been to about 4-5 local tweetups, but I’ve only been able to get to one, I think. They’re good, I think, for meeting people — especially that tend to be online influencers to some degree. They’re active on Twitter, Facebook, and with their own blogs, so it’s nice to be part of a local network like that. And word-of-mouth marketing is important for all small businesses, so hopefully as these people get to know you better, they might be more likely to tell a friend — “Hey, I know a real estate agent you should call.”

GJEL: HyperLocalBlogger.com is obviously THE place to go for local blog techniques and ideas. Are there any other websites or eBooks you might recommend to people who are just starting local blogs?

Matt: If you’re just starting, I think the focus should probably be on blogging in general as opposed to local blogging — I mean, in terms of reading and learning. As you learn to create a great blog, it’s pretty easy to make your focus on local content. Problogger.net and Copyblogger.com are two great ones for blog advice. Remarkablogger.com is another great one. And there’s a ton of great articles going back three years in the Blogging category of the SEMMY Awards – that would be a treasure-trove of material for a starting blogger.

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Andy Gillin

Andy Gillin received his Bachelor’s Degree from the University of California at Berkeley and his law degree from the University of Chicago. He is the managing partner of GJEL Accident Attorneys and has written and lectured in the field of plaintiffs’ personal injury law for numerous organizations. Andy is a highly recognized wrongful death lawyer in California.