It’s time to stop investing in Edmonton Stories

Nearly three years ago the City of Edmonton launched Edmonton Stories, a new approach to marketing Edmonton. The project will be discussed by Executive Committee tomorrow, and at least one Councillor has been quite vocal about his desire to shut it down. Councillor Diotte wrote about the issue yesterday on his blog:

I argue we have no performance measures for the website. Social media gurus tell me the costs surrounding Edmontonstories are astronomically high and we can’t even gauge if it alone has drawn a single person to come live in this city.

I don’t always agree with Councillor Diotte, but in this case I think he’s right – it is time to very seriously ask if continuing to put resources into Edmonton Stories is the right thing to do. I first raised questions about the value we’re getting back in September 2009, and followed up with then Communications Branch Manager Mary Pat Barry in February 2010. My conclusion at the time was that while the cost was high, the site was starting to deliver results. The case study that was created in conjunction with the Edmonton Police Service was a really positive step.

Now, two years later, where are we? Not much further ahead. Here’s the sad reality:

  • In its first four months, EdmontonStories.ca attracted 113,979 total visits. Five months later, that number had grown to 203,685. And in the two years since, it has attracted just 358,691 more visits, bringing the total to 558,376. Most of the growth took place in the first year! Since a picture is worth a thousand words, here’s a graph to show you what the growth curve looks like (linear and logarithmic):

edmonton stories traffic

  • And remember that those numbers are total visits. There’s no word on how many are uniques. The number of people visiting from outside Edmonton is even less, especially when you consider that when an Edmontonian’s story goes up they likely share it with friends and family in the city.
  • The number of stories on the site likewise has grown very slowly. The total now sits at 339 compared to 272 in February 2010.
  • The same case study that was held up in defense of the site two years ago is the one Administration is using now (the EPS one). The report mentions just six organizations that have joined the Recruitment Campaign Partnership. Six! Out of all the organizations in Edmonton!
  • And yes, the budget is a concern. Incredibly, the report does not make it clear how much has been spent on the project. It does state that $1.5 million was allocated in the first year and that a consultant’s estimate of the “right” investment amount was about $5 million. Councillor Diotte says that with this year’s $600,000 budget factored in, a total of $3.5 million will have been spent on the site since it launched.
  • Worse than the overall budget however is the breakdown. UPDATE: The numbers have now been posted at EdmontonStories.ca. Here’s the split identified for the 2012 budget:

So, let me get this straight:

  • $180,000 is being spent to advertise the website to extend its reach, yet we know that the growth rate has declined significantly over time.
  • $144,000 is being spent on the recruitment program, which has attracted just seven partner organizations in the last two years.
  • $126,000 is being spent on “managing, maintaining, monitoring and engaging target audiences of various social media platforms.” You know, the stuff you and I do every day for free.
  • $54,000 is being spent on “research, planning & development.” I’m not exactly sure what this would refer to in the third year of a program like this.
  • $54,000 is being spent on “website development & maintenance.” I pay $90 per month total to host this site and at least half a dozen others on Amazon EC2. And I can confirm that it more than handles the kind of traffic EdmontonStories.ca has.
  • $30,000 is being spent to extend the brand into trade shows and other events.
  • $12,000 is being spent to help people write new stories, yet just 67 new stories have been posted in the last two years.

Clearly the cost is a concern. But perhaps the biggest problem is that the site’s champion is no longer driving the site forward. I don’t think it is a coincidence that after Mary Pat left the City the site received less attention. Reading the report from Administration, it certainly feels like there’s a gap from 2010 until now. It’s hard to look after someone else’s baby.

I recognize that you don’t get results over night and that developing a successful program can often take time. But three years should be enough time to decide whether or not to pull the plug. That’s an eternity in the online world! Incredibly, Administration thinks we should do the opposite by reaching out to more organizations, recruiting student partners, and enhancing the site with things like Google Maps.

I think there’s value in what has been created at EdmontonStories.ca and I believe there are ways to continue to leverage that (perhaps via EEDC, which always did seem like a more suitable home for it), but I don’t think the City should be investing any more into the project.