As the owner of Urban Ashes, a home furnishings company in Michigan that uses salvaged wood from local yards, parks and urban areas, Paul Hickman believes strongly in supporting local businesses and causes. This carries over to the way he markets his business. Hickman regularly advertises on hyperlocal news sites like The Ann Arbor Chronicle to connect with residents who are well-educated and want to support local enterprises like his.
How did you get started advertising on The Ann Arbor Chronicle site?
I know [Chronicle publisher] Mary Morgan relatively well. I read the Chronicle, and I’m very aware that their readers are the type of people that I would sell to. I don’t sell retail, so people go from [the Chronicle] to my website, which then directs them to local retailers.
How are the readers on a hyperlocal site different from those of a local print publication?
We don’t really have a newspaper anymore in Ann Arbor, so it’s hard to compare. I think what Mary really focuses on that I like is old school news. She [reports on] all the city council meetings, the county council meetings. If you really want to know what’s going on in Ann Arbor beyond the fluff, that’s where you go. She doesn’t write three-paragraph articles. They are long, in-depth articles. So, I would believe that her readers and subscribers are on a higher level of education and higher level of interest in what’s going on in Ann Arbor and Southeast Michigan.
How do you measure the success of advertising, whether it’s online or offline?
That’s a tough one because I don’t sell directly to the public. With my main retailer, I do have a survey, but it hasn’t proved to be very fruitful. People are not terribly inclined to fill out surveys—which I understand, because I’m not inclined to either. But it’s really difficult. The Chronicle [ad] is new and it has only been [up for] a month and a half. I’ve been advertising on 107.1, which is technically not a local radio station, but they have a pretty hyperlocal focus. There really isn’t a truly local radio station [in Ann Arbor]. So, back to your question, I don’t have a good way of [measuring]. I wish people would fill out the surveys more and tell me how they heard about us. I would say after about three months [of advertising on the radio] I started hearing a lot of people—friends, colleagues, or people I’d never met—saying, “Oh, I heard your ad on the radio.” Now I’m starting to hear about that through the Chronicle. The more I start to hear that, the more I know it’s getting out there.
What are the differences between how you advertise on local news sites or the radio, versus national publications?
I do advertise a little bit in some national publications, particularly the Museum Store, an industry magazine. Since they are not specific to here, I lose pretty much all chance of hearing through the grapevine that [somebody] saw the ad unless [they] contact me directly. What’s better about [local advertising] is that I do have a direct response from whoever is viewing it. When [an ad] goes out statewide, nationally or internationally, that’s gone. Let’s say on Facebook or even my website, when I look at all of the hits that I have on my webpage, those don’t really mean anything to me. When you [see] that you’ve got 10,000 hits in a month, that sounds great. But I know I don’t have any specific sales directly related to that. Word of mouth has a much stronger connection on a human scale. It’s not just a number.
It’s harder for me to gauge right now because my business is evolving. Ideally, what I’d like to do is create a model where there are five manufacturers for Urban Ashes around the country. I’d like to have a resource in the southwestern United States that utilizes southwestern woods and southwestern labor. In the case of my frames, my glass, my backers, my paper inserts, all the wood, all of that is Michigan-based now, but I could take that and do it in Seattle or do it in Arizona. If I could expand it further there would be a totally different set of woods for Colorado, Washington or South Florida. Pick your state. That keeps the transportation costs down and helps support that local economy on a much greater basis. One of the big things with design—well, anything for that matter — is we’ve lost so much of the colloquial design. People don’t know where anything comes from anymore.
It seems like you could draw a lot of parallels between your interest in local design and your interest in hyperlocal blogs.
It goes down to foods and everything: they [should] have a unique flavor. I love picking up local newspapers when I’m driving through wherever I happen to be. There’s a place for the New York Times and USA Today, but I do appreciate the level of the awareness that is changing back to local resources and local communities that have been washed away by globalization. [That is] a lot of what it comes down to [when] I choose to advertise in the Chronicle over USA Today.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.