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I created whyleaveastoria.com nearly two years ago as a means for young adults to connect with their neighborhood. During this time, the site has become the most trafficked in the entire borough of Queens and one of the most heavily trafficked in all of New York City. Members have made countless new friends, businesses have prospered, and as we approach our second birthday and 4,000th member, our page rank keeps getting better and better.

However, we've now grown to a point where we have an exceptionally deep penetration into the target market of 25-35 year olds in Astoria. So now the challenge has become, rather than making the network bigger and not necessarily serve our target market as well as we could, lets make it better. In case you're curious, to us, better means:
1) More time spent on the site by users
2) More traffic via search (both of these equating to more advertiser dollars)

Over the course of the last two years, moderately tech savvy businesses have created user profiles for their restaurants, boutiques, dog walking services, etc. However, the issue here is, standard profiles often don't adequately address the needs of a brick-and-morter business.

Additionally, there is no effective way to filter or categorize proprietors from standard users in a generic site search. This is why I have created a new ranked business directory that will help my users identify the best establishments that meet their needs.

It's been a major challenge integrating this functionality into Ning--as the API can be a little frustrating at times when trying to access dynamic content and pull user information. However, after a year of planning (and mostly failing) my small development team and I were able to roll out a creative solution to allow users to create Business Pages featuring dynamic data pulled from my site, while still maintaining a direct URL that can be crawled by Google and deeply linked from other sources.

The first challenge to overcome here was creating a way to determine the logged in user. Once we could identify the user, we then needed to create the ability for them to build a new page on my Ning network. Once this functionality was created, we built in the ability for someone to become a fan of a page--giving us a database of users. Next, we built a form that could be embedded in an iframe that will allow the user to input a business name, address, photos, category, tags, and various other parameters. We also built in a conflict detector that will determine if a similar business is already in the directory. Once the information is submitted, it's sent to my database which then runs a chron job to post the new page to Ning.

Once a new page is created, users are able to rate and review any establishment, become a fan, add a tag, submit photos, request an edit, and even use the default Ning sharing utility to reach beyond the Ningosphere!

Now, business owners logged in as members of the site are able to "Claim this business", giving them the ability to attach their RSS feed to the business page (Twitter, blog, whatever), correspond with the page's fans, and view some simplified page metrics.

Coming up:

  • When a member becomes a fan of a page, we know they like the business. When they rate an establishment four or five stars, we know they like it, too. This gives us the ability to make recommendations of other establishments they should also consider--based on peer review.
  • Members of my site have actual membership cards that feature a magnetic stripe on the back uniquely identifying each person. When they make a purchase at a partner business in Astoria, the proprietor swipes the card--which hits my database to determine who the cardholder is, allowing the proprietor to issue a discount and us to track offline user activity. The discounts accrued over time (and nights spent on the town) are stored in my database and will be displayed on business and member pages--allowing our community to find out where was last night's most popular venue and also which members are saving the most money by staying local.
  • Since we know certain categories and tags for business pages, we can target page advertisements to keywords like "brunch" or umbrella categories like "Restaurants"--giving us a much deeper ad inventory. Additionally, businesses we choose to feature will appear more prominently in search results and be recommended more highly in the suggestions.

The directory is still very much a work in progress, but was a very important first step in our growth--as now users will be maintaining and growing the site while we focus on making it better.

We launched this new feature on Friday and by Sunday had over 150 new pages submitted by users. In the last week, we've seen an approximately 50% increase in pageviews and anticipate this will continue to climb as more pages get indexed. This was a big win for my network and I look forward to adding even more creative solutions like this throughout the spring and summer.

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