Case Study: Online Marketing In a Small Town

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When Todd Kuhns opened Pickler’s Famous earlier this year, he hoped to save money on advertising by creating buzz online. Unfortunately, the Kirksville, Mo., ice cream parlor owner has found that many residents of his small town are reluctant to use tools like Foursquare and Twitter. So, he’s developed a blended approach to advertising that combines hyperlocal tools with in-person networking and printed flyers.

What are the biggest advertising challenges you’ve faced in the four months since Pickler’s Famous opened?
We are in a small town market, but we actually have two universities here in town. So, we have a number of constituencies to advertise to. We have the younger college student population, but we are in a rural isolated area, so we have a lot of seniors. We have a number of longtime residents here, and transients. It’s a challenge to find a marketing strategy that’s going to hit all of them. We can’t rely solely on things like Twitter or Foursquare, because we are finding that there is a significant population that doesn’t know what that is or doesn’t have access to technology to be able to use it.

These technologies are becoming more mobile, and even people without computers or high-speed Internet connections at home still have cell phones. So, we’re able to introduce people to technology that they didn’t know they had access to. We have some decals on the window that say, “Foursquare, check-in here for deals.” We have a first-time visitor deal, and then a check-in deal. If [a customer] checks-in so many times they get a free ice cream cone. But some people still ask us, “What’s Foursquare?” Most definitely, it’s the students and the younger group that is latching on to these technologies, although I’m surprised every day at some of the people who say, “Hey, we saw you on Twitter,” or “We saw your special on Facebook!” It’s definitely catching on.

We’re finding that we need to blend more traditional advertising with social media, which has been disappointing for me. I’m a web professional—I also work at Truman State University in the web department—and it’s my job to keep on top of these technologies. I really had high hopes for being able to save lots of dollars by exclusively using our email list and social media connections. We have a very active Facebook page; we have a very active Twitter account. I have alerts set up, so I’m alerted whenever someone mentions Pickler’s Famous, or me, or certain keywords. As active as they are, solely by themselves they won’t cut the mustard.

Is there anything that technology companies could do to make the experience better for merchants?
I’ve found Foursquare very intuitive and friendly. Honestly, I think that for their sake, and our sake too, just being able to get out the message about Foursquare [is important]. There’s a very large segment of the population that is somewhat scared of these technologies, that is reluctant to jump into them, and is skeptical. So, that is a public awareness thing to overcome. I think it’s going to take time for some of these technologies to solidify themselves and gain a name for themselves.

When compared to Facebook, Foursquare is still pretty new. They’ve proven that they will be around for a while. Foursquare is not that way, and you have a number of different competing technologies that are trying to beat Foursquare. Foursquare seems to be coming out on top, but only time will tell. I think better integration with Facebook and better partnerships with Google will speed that along. I know that Foursquare is integrated with Facebook now, but it’s confusing to me and I’ve been frustrated as a businessperson.

I’ll tell you another thing that’s frustrating about these services that they could help with. I’m constantly trying to maintain the multitude of online profiles that we have with different groups. If a person Google’s us, it might pull up a Google Places page, it might pull up a Twitter page, it might pull up a Foursquare page, and on every one of those I have to go in and say, “Here’s what our hours are, here’s where we are located, here’s where we’re at.” If we change any of that, I have to go back through and I have to hit all those places and change it. If some of these companies wouldn’t be as insular—if they’d be willing to pull that data from a common source—boy that would help.

How else have you tried advertising, besides using social media and encouraging check-ins on Foursquare?
We’re a very new business, so it’s been a real eye-opening experience. People like takeaways. People like to have things in their hands that they leave us with. Even though we have a giant menu in the wall, people want menus they can take out. I’m trying to figure out some ways to get a pamphlet that explains some of these technologies, like “Check-in on Foursquare, and here is step-by-step how to do it.” It was very handy that Foursquare sent us decals we could stick on our windows. It would be nice if they could give us more. They do have a poster that you can download that explains things to your customers. So, things are moving in that direction. That’s been very helpful; that was a good move on their part.

We find word of mouth is as good as anything. But, it’s pamphlets and going out into the community [that works]. Sometimes I think we forget that there’s more to it than [technology]. Maybe a complete definition of hyperlocal would be talking to your neighbors, you know? [Instead of] bouncing off a webserver in California and seeing information about a place you’re sitting right in front of, actually interacting with the chamber of commerce and doing networking activities.

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Stephanie Miles is a journalist who covers personal finance, technology, and real estate. As Street Fight’s senior editor, she is particularly interested in how local merchants and national brands are utilizing hyperlocal technology to reach consumers. She has written for FHM, the Daily News, Working World, Gawker, Cityfile, and Recessionwire.