It’s Ron Blevins’ goal to help agencies help brands navigate the world of hyperlocal media. As the vice president of digital strategy for Novus, an ad agency owned by conglomerate Omnicom that is focused solely on the local space, he has seen brands move from newspapers to hyperlocal sites, where they are finding more trust and loyalty — in some cases a 20% increase in ROI over national sites. The problem? Independent publishers lack a single, common platform on which to execute buys across their sites. “Anything local publishers can do to standardize…will bode well for them.” Read more about how an agency helps national brands execute campaigns in local:
Can you tell me a little about Novus and what it does?
Novus has been around for about 25 years. [It] started out being a local newspaper strategy and buying group, and based on the realities of the marketplace it evolved digital capabilities. I lead the digital department here; we’re a full-service digital media agency focused solely on the local space. Being a subsidiary of Omnicom, we work a lot with OMD and PHD, but also media agencies around the country looking to increase their local capabilities and extend their bandwidth. Typical projects involve strategic media planning/buying on a local and hyperlocal basis for our partner agencies’ clients. The majority of our clients have local offices [or] storefronts, and they look to us to support and drive traffic to those locations. Our key client categories are retail, financial, insurance, automotive, entertainment, pharmaceutical, state agencies, and utilities.
When you talk about hyperlocal and local sites, what do you consider those to be?
The way we view it is, local can be defined in two ways. First, it’s local publishers. Local publishers can run the gamut from local newspapers to community sites to local news aggregators, like Topix or Patch. Local can also mean a person’s location in space — advertising to them based on where they happen to be accessing online content from — whether that be from a mobile phone or accessing WiFi. We consider that local as well.
National advertisers can gain a competitive edge by playing well in the local space. And there is a big difference between just playing in a local space and doing it the right way.
I know you’ve helped a number of national brands launch local campaigns. What makes hyperlocal sites so attractive to advertisers?
I think if you put yourself in any national advertiser’s shoes, the driving factor is around optimization of your [marketing/communication] programs. Having done just about everything they possibly can at the national level, the next step is to have a meaningful presence at a local level. So, it’s really about the optimization of national programs, and the next step is to be very relevant at the local level. Advertisers, and national advertisers in particular, can gain a competitive edge by playing well in the local space. And it should be noted that there is a big difference between just playing in a local space and doing it the right way.
Historically, or up until recently, there were limited ways to really have a presence in the local space from a digital standpoint. Local inventory aggregators were the only show in town. While we recognize the need for those, we’d like to take things to a more strategic level. Oftentimes, that means creating custom programs and content integration with local publishers. So historically, things that have lived at the national level we’re taking to the local level.
Can you give me examples of any of the custom programs you’ve worked on?
Yeah. I can’t give specifics about clients, but some of the things we’ve done [are], we’ve worked with local publishers to develop special sections on their sites. A lot of times, these will be a part of the site’s navigation. For example, a major theme park sought to position themselves as the destination for family entertainment within key “feeder” markets. Novus’ strategy was to build sponsored sub-channels within the entertainment sections of top local publishers PilotOnline.com and HamptonRoads.com. These sub-channels contained content supplied by the advertiser and also leveraged their social presence by including blog posts, Facebook, Flickr and YouTube feeds. A promotional package accompanied the program to supplement organic traffic.
To drive quotes for a major auto insurance advertiser, we aligned their message with auto content on Local.com. In many instances, local publishers utilize national auto websites — Autotrader.com, Cars.com, etc. — to power their auto sections. In addition to placing display units within this localized national content, we worked with local publishers to create a custom unit that lives at the header of their page. This was inventory that previously didn’t exist, but offered a great space to play.
There is a big benefit to that because local newspapers and local community sites in general are very trusted. They have a lot of brand equity with audiences. If you can insert yourself into those publications, it lends to more credibility from an advertising standpoint.
What can local publications do to be more attractive to national merchants?
I think the most difficult thing that we face today is really just the disparate nature of these local publishers. If you want to have a meaningful presence at a local level, you need to go beyond your standard media placements — your display [ads] and your banner ads — to do that at scale. Let’s say you want to do that in 15 markets, you’re often talking about upwards of 30 different publications. A lot of times, there’s not a lot of synergy between the two. So you could take a custom program with one of these publishers, and you may have to recreate the wheel every time you go from publisher to publisher. In some instances, [the publications are] owned by a conglomerate or they do have the same ownership, and that helps. But a lot of times they are all on different technology platforms and their specifications are very different. As we see consolidation within the industry, I think that will lead to more opportunities. But standardization is a real challenge. Anything local publishers can do to standardize, I think it will bode well for them in the future.
How is the value of running ads on a larger network like Topix or Patch different from running ads on an independently owned site?
One of the things that Topix and these services bring, and one of the advantages that they have in the marketplace, is that they are on a unified platform. So if you wanted to do something across multiple markets, it really is a one-stop shop. That’s a very key differentiator that they have over local publications. There are areas of the country that simply aren’t being serviced by a local publication anymore. It’s the reality of the industry. In areas like that, I think [networks] provide huge value to both the consumer and also the advertisers who are trying to reach the consumers. I think those are pretty key. The standardization is very important.
What kind of ROI do brands get when advertising on hyperlocal sites versus traditional print publications?
What we’ve seen is that the response rates, the ROI, are fairly close between the two. But what we also have seen [is] that local, in general, produces a marginally higher ROI than national sites. There’s lots of data out there, but I’ve seen something on the order of 20 percent increases in various metrics. So, trusted advertising. Are you more likely to purchase based on an ad that you saw on a local site versus a national site? I think the trust in content and brand equity and loyalty that consumers feel to these local community publications is key to driving that.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.