Monday, August 15, 2011

Is ICPSR more like craigslist or more like a newspaper?

Every year on the first Saturday in August our neighborhood association sponsors a subdivision-wide garage sale.  This has been going on for about ten years or so.

When we first sponsored this event we placed ads in the classified section of area newspapers (Ann Arbor News, Detroit Free Press, Detroit News), placed "sandwich board" signs at the entrances of the subdivision to catch casual shoppers, and distributed balloons that people could use to "flag" their house as a participant.  We also collected a list of participants and their merchandise (via email) and then redistributed that within the neighborhood (again via email) since residents seemed to like getting a "sneak preview."

A few years later we started using a Google Form instead of email to build a roster of participating households.  Neighbors enter their address and a block of text about their stuff.  It's just a paragraph text box, and so within a certain size limit they can write whatever they want.  A few of us monitor the roster collected by the form in case someone has entered a duplicate by mistake, or has entered a new listing that should replace an early one.  We also add the original neighborhood lot number. We make this roster world-readable, and we share it with anyone who is interested via a shortened Tiny URL version of the longer Google Forms URL.

We make an announcement about the annual garage sale on our Facebook page and on our neighborhood web site (a Google Site).  And we include a link to this URL too.  That helps search engines find and index it, which is a Good Thing.  We also include a link to a neighborhood map that shows all of the homes and their lot number.  (There isn't enough room to show the address nicely.)  At this point in the process, we've collected a lot of good information and published it on the Internet in a way that makes it likely to get indexed (and found).  But we still haven't done much active promotion.

And "promotion" is where I have seen the biggest change take place.

We posted an ad for the garage sale on craigslist late on a Friday night.  The ad was free, and it was easy to add pictures.  Adding links to our roster and map was not so easy (I had to write the HTML directly rather than using a nice widget), but the URLs worked.  By the next day I could tell from Google Analytics that traffic to our neighborhood web site (particularly the page with the map) went up 30-fold!

We wanted to post an ad in one of the local papers too, but that required a phone call.  We tried the number listed, and learned that we couldn't place the ad until Monday.  When we called on Monday we found that text was acceptable, but pictures were not, and the price was $40.  We included the URLs to the roster and map, mostly so that they would appear in the online version of the newspaper ad.  (They did appear, but the links were broken - spaces had been inserted - and the URLs weren't clickable; they were just text.)  The on-line ad also included a map showing the location of the garage sale, but the location shown was in a different city.  The newspaper people couldn't fix the location on the map, and so they offered to delete the map instead.  We accepted.

So as a data provider I had two (non-exclusive) choices:  One was free, flexible, highly functional, and demonstrably effective.  The other was none of those, but offered the promise of reaching an audience I might not reach with the first choice.  And it seems pretty clear that most people aren't even considering this second choice any more.  I don't know that we'll bother placing an ad next year in the local paper.  I don't know that I'd do it even if it was free.

This got me thinking about ICPSR and its relationship with data providers.  How do they perceive us as a place to host their content and reach their audience?  Do they see ICPSR as craigslist or as the newspaper classified section?

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