Case Study: How One Agency Helps National Brands Go Hyperlocal

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.

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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  1. November 15, 2011

    But, isn’t the point of a hyperlocal blog to be, well, *local*? Are hyperlocals missing out on big national ad spends? Sure. But that’s not the point. The point is to be local, to embrace the local businesses. Rather than running an ad for pepsi, they’d run an ad for the local grocery store who might want to highlight they are selling pepsi.

    I won’t say that there isn’t a hint of an idea in this. Thinking about Seattle, there are numerous local retailers who would want to publish to our well maintained local blog ecosystem and if all the local blogs were coordinated under a single platform, or, at the least, under a single ad size, it would allow the jewelry shop to post to the three neighborhood blogs that surround it with a single format, as opposed to having to *gasp* work with the individual blog owners to find the ad that works best for those local blog’s readerships.

    1. Ron Blevins
      November 15, 2011

      Good point John.

      However the question remains can hyperlocal blogs be sustained by local ad dollars alone? If they can, then great; but I think local blog/pub owners would love to have a piece of the national advertising $$ pie – and national advertisers would love to have an authentic local presence.

      Also, as a point of clarity – the term local publiscations  can be applied to many types of sites – I was referring mostly to localnewspaper.coms in regards to needing more standardization.

      1. November 16, 2011

        You need to add the word ‘some’ to “I think local blog/pub owners would love to have a piece of the national advertising $$ pie”. Because of course some owners would love to make more money (and some would like to make *any* money). But some are truly looking to provide insight and promotion for the local community. Coca Cola (in Seattle), is not local. Volvo (in Seattle), is not local. Bob Byers Volvo is, however, a local business and would be one that could be courted for advertising. I would argue that most hyperlocal blogs that take on a national ad campaign aren’t truly focused on the local.

        A national company *can’t* have an authentic local presence unless they are authentically present locally (which sort of tumbles out of the mouth). They can want it all they want, but, simply putting up an ad doesn’t do it. Just because Coca-Cola puts up a billboard in West Seattle doesn’t give them a local presence, and neither would putting an ad up on a blog based in West Seattle. (Coke doesn’t even have a physical presence in Washington state, near as I can tell. They do, however, have an airport in Corvalis, OR.)

        You are mistaking ‘Advertise in’ for ‘presence’. Do I think that a national Mega-lo-Mart would love to be seen as a local business? Of course. Look at Wal*Mart’s attempts to seem ‘local.’ But do advertisers want to put up ads in sites whose eyeball numbers don’t even match up to ESPN late night. And have you looked at the ad buy that happens on ESPN at 2am Pacific? I believe they think that it’s all geriatrics looking for catheter solutions.

        But, hey, I’m one of those people who think that Coke wouldn’t lose noticeable US sales if they stopped advertising Coke trademarked products incessantly. They certainly wouldn’t lose more than the ~$250M (in 2005 ad spend) that they’d save.

      2. November 16, 2011

        Oh, one other point.

        “I was referring mostly to localnewspaper.coms in regards to needing more standardization.”

        Did the physical newspaper industry ever have a standardization?

  2. Anonymous
    November 16, 2011

    I think you’re both right. John, national advertisers are seeing the greater potential in aligning their brands with some local relevance. Why *can’t* Coke work harder to make a local connection to its customers? Won’t the customers actually feel better about that? What’s more, you mention Seattle and a single platform — there are in fact some really excellent ad networks in your area that do the equivalent. Next Door Media comes to mind. That makes it easier to justify as well as execute buys across many sites that have very small audience. That’s a note to you, too, Ron. Hyperlocal ad networks are a place to start if you’re looking for ease of buy.

    And Ron, local blogs and newspaper sites can in fact be sustained on local dollars alone — BIA/Kelsey estimates $23.3 billion spend by local advertisers this year, doubling to $45 billion by 2015. So, John, imagine the profit hyperlocals could make if they added national dollars on top of that?

    But, John, I agree that there are many hyperlocal publishers who aim to focus their edit and advertising purely on the local community, that’s what has fueled the “Authentically Local” campaign started by Baristanet’s Debra Galant and others. The Batavian’s Howard Owens would argue you can still be very profitable on these dollars alone. I still think there’s great opportunity to bring national brands back to the local level and create better connections with consumers. And Street Fight focuses on all the ways that hyperlocals can build sustainable business models, national advertising is one of them.

    Ron, thanks for taking the time to participate in this interview. And thanks to you both for this engaging dialogue!

    1. November 17, 2011

      Part of me thinks that ‘Imagining profit if we did…’ is what led to Michael Jordan getting a baseball contract. Whether it was a right fit or not didn’t enter into the equation.

      And I’m very familiar with NDM and their crew. I’d also argue that as much as they do right, they do wrong, primarily when it comes to cross-posted information (ie, when something happens in hood X, they post it to sites covering the hoods surrounding it as well, whereas I believe that people who are in Ballard who are interested in what happens on Phinney Ridge will subscribe to the Phinney Ridge blog, and those who aren’t interested in what happens on Phinney Ridge don’t want to read about it on the blog about Ballard anyways. They occasionally come across as wanting to be a metro blogger as opposed to a hyperlocal blogger, almost to the point of trying to force out the competition.)

      “And Street Fight focuses on all the ways that hyperlocals can build sustainable business models” – Maybe it should add in ‘should’ with ‘can’. 

      “Why *can’t* Coke work harder to make a local connection to its customers?” – They can. And they should. But, if you’re trying to tell me that ‘Buying an ad on MyBallard.com is how you make a connection with your customers, I’m sorry to say that I think you’re completely in the wrong. Want to make a connection with your customers? Get into the local neighborhoods and *do good*. Don’t just sell at me. And if a PacNW Coke executive walked into the local food bank and had an event where they helped raise money and that gets talked about, isn’t that better advertising than just putting up a ‘Drink Coke and be cool!’ 160×600 skyscraper on the right sidebar?

  3. Anonymous
    November 16, 2011

    While I like what I am seeing with Patch, I still don’t pay much attention to hyperlocal advertising. In the case of Topix, I definitely wouldn’t because Topix is a sick website that has caused so many problems because of their lack of monitoring of the site and not requiring users to register. I mention this to make a point hyperlocal can be effective if people feel it is helping the commuity. Topix is largely despised in communities (my community has sent out warnings about it) I personally refuse to support any company that advertises on Topix knowng what type of site it is and I have heard others say the same. Before any of you think I am on here to bash Topix, I tell you this to make a point. Topix auidence isn’t primarily people who look for deals.It is a gossip site. If Patch is smart they won’t go that route. With the New York Times and others frequently going after Topix, their formula isn’t smart long term. Topix and its CEO need to think about long term and that means requring registration and better monitoring of the site. Yes they may lose in the shortterm a few cowards who go in and trash others but in the long term the site would attract people who actually support advertisers.  I can assure you people who go in to bash others or read “who is sleeping with who” topics that dominate that website don’t care about advertising.

  4. rick nelsen
    November 26, 2011

    Within two months I will be launching theolmsteder.com, a hyper local site for sister towns near Cleveland, OH. And unfortunately for these national brands, they will not be allowed to advertise on my sites. We are going in “all local” and we’ll stay there. 

    There is plenty of money at the local level; as more and more local advertisers realize how substantial the take is when we work together to keep the money inside instead of sending it to corporate and then eventually to Washington, they actually will want to pay more for the exposure. 

    It’s a win-win all around, and that’s going to be the problem moving forward for syndicated scratch like the big boys Patch and Main Street Connect. That will include their big boy national brand advertisers, too. 

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Street Fight Daily: 11.15.11