Interview: My Life in Leeds – How Social Media has helped business growth

In this series of blog posts we are interviewing leaders in their businesses and talking about how social media has helped grow their businesses.

I caught up with Darren Cronian who runs MyLifeinLeeds and MyLifeinYorkshire


You can  listen to ‘Optimum Exposure: MyLifeinLeeds Interview’ on Audioboo or continue reading below for the written interview.

If you want to kick off and tell me,  a little bit more ‘My Life in Leeds’ and where it’s come from and where you are going to?

D: ‘My Life in Leeds’ started in 2009, simply because I was looking for places to go to with my nephew. I think he was about 13 years old at the time and I really struggled to find content on the internet which would help us discover places to go. When you live in a certain place, you live in a little bubble and you don’t really explore and we wanted to do a bit of exploring around Leeds. A lot of the content we looked at was out of date. It was inaccurate, so I got the idea of creating ‘My Life in Leeds’ from that really.

At the time we just had the one writer and that kind of built up using Twitter, kind of a crowd sourcing tool initially just to find local people who were freelance writers. And so 2010 was a bit of a transactional year, building a business model and trying to think of ways of monetising the content and that kind of thing.

2011 was a fantastic year. We kind of attracted over 500,000 visitors to the website and 2011 was a kind of 50 / 50 split between tourists and locals. The majority coming from Google. Obviously a little bit of trying to increase the traffic from Twitter and using the social media side.

2012 it’s been a bit of a tough year, simply because the companies haven’t got money to spend on advertising. I think to some degree as an online guide you get not treat the same as if you were a publishing magazine or a newspaper. It seems to be a lot more difficult to get local companies realising that there is a large amount of people that are visiting a site and subscribing to a newsletter.

From June it’s really starting to come around. We’ve got Granary Wharf been promoted on the site, we did some work with British Waterways for the Leeds waterfront festival and hopefully a few more companies are going to come back with regards to helping promote them and get more people through the door. And that’s the challenge really, getting local businesses involved.

The content is written from recommendations as local people. That is the kind of area that we have stuck to the fact that we are locals. There is no point in reading the guide by the Lonely Planet, you know somebody is going to be coming into Leeds for a day or two, when you can read content written by local people who have spent all their life in the city.

Going forward, we created ‘My Life in Yorkshire’ in February. That is slow going but it’s like anything else, it’s building the content up. The content is critical, it’s the content that gets people onto your site. I’ve got a newsletter for ‘My Life in Leeds’ which has got 6100 subscribers. They are local people predominantly and they are looking for deals and events and obviously I’m going to continue the same kind of business model as ‘My Life in Yorkshire’.

I am really passionate about Leeds and living in Leeds and I don’t think it’s promoted as well as it could be. And I think that’s partly because of budgets and cuts and that kind of thing. We are here to help promote the city and get more tourists in and make more people aware of what a great city it is. I am probably rambling on a bit here.

You mentioned that you use WordPress as a platform. What made you decide to use WordPress and how do you think it’s helped you with your business?

D: To be completely honest, without WordPress I wouldn’t have a business because I don’t come from a developing or a coding background, so I would have to create my own website which would be a huge cost. If you get quotes for websites you get quoted incredible amounts of money really. So with WordPress, it’s a content management system and it’s allowed me to create a platform to get people onto the website and publish content. It’s very search engine friendly and it’s just a great tool to use. It’s very easy to use once you get it set up and there’s a huge community out there that help you with plugins and themes. I bought a theme for £30-£40 and it looks completely different to how a theme looked. We bought it and it had just been changed with the CSS and a few other changes that had been made to it. WordPress has been fantastic for a small local publisher like I am.

Tell me more about how you use have used Twitter. You said you have used it to actually get your writers on board?

D: Yes, I’ve used it for so many different things. Crowd source is probably one of the things that has really helped. I initially started with one writer and then started to build up a bit of an audience on Twitter and asked people on Twitter if they were interested in writing on the site. We’ve gone through quote a few writers. You know, some writers are just not the kind of style of writers that you really want on the site so you go through writers and they might write one or two pieces, but over time, you kind of get the right people on board.

I’ve got five writers who write on there fairly regular. Not as regular as I would like, so yes it’s a fantastic tool for crowd sourcing and other ways of getting so many people emailing asking for recommendations for places to shop, places to visit, stay, that kind of thing. So, I’ve been able to recommend them some places that I can recommend, but then ask Twitter for their recommendations and then send that information on to the reader. It’s been really good and the Twitter communities been really helpful around that.

Another thing is, which has just started working on really, is to generate money from Twitter. Obviously it builds up that audience and you know you build up a trust and you get them on board with regards to what you are doing and what you are trying to in Leeds and then I’m trying to think of ways of how I can actually generate revenue from that community that I’ve created on Twitter.

So, things like deals. If you find a deal for a restaurant in Leeds that’s on somewhere like Living Social, you can promote that kind of thing. I always make sure that it stands out as an advert so I put the word ‘Ad’ in a bracket so that people can see straight away that it’s an advertisement. And that has generated revenue in very early days. I try not to push it too much, obviously just being continuously personal, rather than coming across as a business and just interacting with people, asking people questions, that sort of thing.

I suppose its editorial integrity isn’t it?

D: It is yes, and I am very conscious. I want people to trust what we publish and I want people to trust what we say on Twitter and social media networks because that is a huge thing when you are promoting and recommending places, you want people to take what you are saying on board and treat you seriously as a local publisher.

It’s early days with regards to trying to generate revenue and another thing that I do is that I search on Twitter for people looking for hotels in Leeds. So, someone will say ‘help, I’m looking for a hotel in Leeds’, and not forcefully, but I jump in there and say, ‘if you need any help, let me know, I live in Leeds’, and then what I can then do is get a bit more information about why they are coming to Leeds and recommend hotels near where they are going to a gig at the O2 Academy, I can recommend hotels nearby and generate revenue from that as well. It’s obviously the affiliate side so you’ve got Late Rooms and and other sites that we use as partners. So, that’s the kind of thing that we do on Twitter.

What about Facebook, do you use that much?

D: Facebook is a bit of nightmare to be honest. I think we’ve got just short of 1000 people liking ‘My Life’ on Facebook and that’s taken two years.

How do you think it feels or fairs compared to Twitter? Is it the place where the audience is?

D: It’s interesting. I think you find people much more interactive on Twitter and that’s what I love about it. You know, someone just sent me a message on Twitter now, ‘Can you tell me a really nice place to go for tea and a cake?’ So, I recommended a few places to them. And they were so appreciative and they made me feel good that I was able to help. They weren’t from Leeds, they were outside of the city. Yeah, I find the interaction is really good there but Facebook doesn’t seem to be as much interaction. You ask questions and I don’t receive responses and I think what really works with Facebook is photos. I post a photo of Leeds Town Hall when it was summer and I’ve got something like 40 or 50 likes. But then I post something about a deal, I might get two likes, something like that. So, it’s much tougher is Facebook.

Do you think there are a lot more lurkers there? Some people that will passively read the content than engage with it?

D: I don’t know. I don’t think people are on there to interact with businesses and brands. I think they are there more for friends to keep in touch with friends and that kind of thing. I think if they see something in the stream that is interesting, like a photo that really does stand out when you are looking through your stream, or maybe some text and a link doesn’t stand out as much. I don’t know, it’s a strange audience to kind of get to grips with.

With stuff like Google, I did something over the weekend and relates to Leeds Festival. I’ve got a survival guide for Leeds Festival that’s coming up. People do leave it to the last minute to book hotels so there are some last minute concert tickets and that kind of thing. I probably pay about £30 just looking at the results from that analysis really to see how effective it’s been.

What do you use for photo sharing

D: I use Instagram which is doing fantastically well and what I love about Instagram is that I can take a really rubbish photograph and make it look fantastic.

Sharing photos on Instagram. I’m building a community on Instagram. So, I’ve got just short of 1000 people following me on Instagram which is quite good and it’s amazing how many people will come up to you and say, ‘I didn’t realise Leeds was so pretty. I didn’t realise Leeds was so nice, I didn’t realise that café existing in Leeds, I’m going to go there next week.’ And even people from the US see the photos and say, ‘Where’s Leeds?. I tell them where it is and they follow you and they keep liking your photos and yeah, it does seem to build a bit of a photo community there and a great destination marketing tool.

And what about the Pinterest? Are you interested in that at all?

D: I think the problem is, ‘My Life in Leeds’ and ‘My Life in Yorkshire’ are run by myself and I’ve got freelance people doing the graphic design and the writing, so I am really limited to the time I can spend and there is just so many social networks, initially it was just to concentrating on Twitter and Facebook and now it’s Instagram. I am on Pinterest. I created a page with all the links of all the Leeds blogs which was really popular and I did promote the content on there but I’ve not really seen a great deal of click-through or much of a community build there. But I think that’s probably because I’m not putting the same amount of time in that I am putting into Instagram and Facebook and Twitter.

I do get involved in anything social media and anything that I think is going to potentially market Leeds as a destination or the content that will publish. I spend a lot of time on the social media and it’s really kind of got to the point where you need to start looking at if you get any return on investment and your time. Facebook, I’m not too sure about but I think Twitter does, definitely. You do get some return on the investment in time you put into that.

Where do you think it’s all going for ‘My Life in Leeds and Yorkshire’? Do you think there are key trends coming through?

D: I think the regional tourist boards are struggling with budgets at the moment and publishing in general if you look at the changes that are happening with Johnson Press and the Evening Post, the Leeds Guide magazine closing down, there’s definitely potential there for ‘My Life in Leeds’ to generate revenue through advertising but when people mention advertising, people they get hooked into putting a banner on here and people click on the banner. It’s more than that.

We’ve got a newsletter which has got over 6000 people subscribed to that, it’s becoming a real popular tool to generate revenue from. Local businesses are wanting to promote their deals. For the last three issues we’ve sold out on advertising space in the newsletter and I’m hoping to do the same again in the next issue and it’s also looking at the social media side with regards to the Leeds Waterfront Festival and I was there with my nephew taking photos and we had people saying that they didn’t know that was going on and we’ll go down to the waterfront. And it’s really working with businesses to see what they want to get out of it, and it’s not just as simple as putting a banner up. They want a lot more than that now a days and I am putting a package together and offering a package to businesses and that seems to be going down quite well at the moment. I’ve been speaking to a few businesses today that seem really keen to be working with us. It looks promising but it’s getting that business model and tweaking the business model and changes with any trends that change and that kind of thing.

It’s just a bit unfortunate that the local tourism, I don’t like this word, but I’ll use it, ‘Staycations’. Last year more people tend of holiday at home rather than going abroad, with all the hassles with the ash clouds in previous years and that kind of thing. But unfortunately with the weather this year, more people are tending to go aboard and maybe not spend as much time in Yorkshire. There is so much going on in Leeds if you look at the Leeds Arena, we are going to have a lot of people coming to Leeds for that, we’ve got the Rugby League World Cup in Headingley next year, again, writing a lot of Headingley based content coming up to get those visitors up.

So, yeah I think that’s the plan, just to continue with adding new content, making it interesting, inspiring people, and getting people to discover what’s on their doorstep and that kind of thing really.

If a new business was embarking on their journey in social media, what three top tips would you give them?

D: I think the main tip is, be personal, don’t come across as being corporate or business like. Just be yourself. I tweet about all sorts of stuff and I mix in stuff that’s going on in my life, places I’m visiting along with promoting what I’m doing on ‘My Life In Leeds’ and the content so that would be one of my first tips – be personal and use Twitter for crowd sourcing and Facebook for crowd sourcing, they make a really good tool for that kind of thing. Have a plan, don’t just jump in there head first without really thinking what you want to do.

I think what a lot of companies do, is they create a Twitter account because it’s cool and everybody is doing it but they don’t have any thoughts behind it and if people start finding your brand on Twitter and they want to interact with it but you are not interacting back, then that causes problems. I won’t mention the airline, but I had an issue last year where I was stranded in Holland. Not last year but the year before with the ash clouds. I was asking them questions on Twitter but they weren’t responding and that kind of thing really annoys people. If people have got to complain, the last thing you want to be is on all these social media networks and not interact with them because that’s going to make the situation even worse.

So, yes it’s the crowd sourcing, be personal and have a plan of what you want to do and what you want to get out of the social networks and monitor the effectiveness of what you are doing as well. There is no point in just putting a link up, you know how many people are clicking on that link, is the amount of time you are spending on there worth it? You know return of investment in time. They are the main tips I would give.

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