Case Study: Park District Picks Patch and Sees 25% Growth

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It’s not quite “Parks and Recreation,” but close. As the public information supervisor for the Downers Grove Park District in Downers Grove, Illinois, (pop. 48,724) Brandi Beckley decides which channels to use to draw residents to the events that take place in the Park District. She has relied heavily on hyperlocal sites like Patch, TribLocal, and MySuburbanLife because of the targeted audiences that these publications provide. An occasional contributor to her local Patch site, Beckley says she’s more likely to run ads on sites that are willing to run the feature articles and press releases she sends their way.

How do you let people know about the events that the Park District is putting on?We spread our marketing dollars out a bit. We do print, and that could be in the newspaper or local suburban magazines, and then we do online advertising as well. We’ve [run ads with Patch since] the [local] site got up and running; I want to say that was early 2010. So probably for about a year we’ve been advertising with them. The site was so new [when we started running ads] that they didn’t even have ad reps in our area yet. I had talked to the editor when I submitted editorial content for the site and asked, “Hey, do you guys sell advertising? [We’d like to] be able to put something up,” and she had somebody contact me. From there, they’ve beefed up their advertising department a little bit since the site has taken off. We have [also] advertised on the TribLocal website, as well as the MySuburbanLife website. I would say [we run ads] monthly, if not every other month. Usually the publication or website will contact us and let us know they’re running a special. Patch and most media sites — TribLocal and SuburbanLife — run specials, usually if they are trying to fill last minute spots or [have] cancellations. Because we are a government agency, our marketing budget is very tight, so those are very helpful for us.

What specifically makes hyperlocal sites attractive to you as an advertiser?
The price and the target market. Patch is very specific to our community, so that makes it right up our alley. We don’t necessarily want to buy an ad in the Daily Herald that is not delivered to Downer’s Grove. So, it is specifically location and target market, and then cost.

As far as your paid advertising on Patch is concerned, what does that encompass?
We usually buy the block on the side [of the main page], and they have different pricing structures based on how many pages that square ad will show up on. What’s nice about online advertising is we do get a report on the number of page views and the number of click-throughs. When you do print advertising, you’re just assuming that the circulation is the number of people you’re reaching.

What factors or statistics are most important to you when you read these reports?
Being a community organization and focusing on our specific community, we’re not really looking to bring in anybody from Chicago or other surrounding suburbs, and our market reach is limited. So, we can’t expect to have 100,000 click-throughs because we’re only serving 50,000 people. To us, [it’s important that] whoever is clicking on that [ad] is a potential customer, versus somebody from Chicago who would never come into our facility. I think it’s more of the quality of the click versus the number of clicks.

We’ll take the report on the number of page views and the number of click-throughs to our ad, if it’s for a specific program or a specific special we’re running — whether it’s golf, or fitness, or a summer camp — and we will compare that to the number of registrations that we’ve received during the time when the ad was up. [We’re looking] to see if there was either additional or a higher number of registrations from this time last year. Our online registration numbers are up over 25 percent in the last year.

Was the editorial content you were publishing on the Patch site related to your advertising?
Actually, it’s all related. The editor of the Patch site, who is different now than it was when it started, is usually looking for content and stories to post. So we’ll send press releases, we’ll send feature articles — anything of interest that’s happening in the park district, we’ll send over to the editor and they can choose to post it or not.

Are you more likely to advertise on a site that posts the editorial content you provide?
Yes, to a certain extent. We build relationships just as in any business. Some newspapers sponsor special events by doing in-kind advertising [and] we are sure to throw business their way. When they continue to support us, we support them.

How about in terms of the return on investment? How does hyperlocal online advertising compare to print?
For print advertising, the duration of the actual publication comes into play. If it’s a newspaper, [then] basically it’s on the streets one day, so it may not be worth spending as much. If it’s a suburban magazine that lasts for a month and it’s laying on someone’s coffee table for a month, then it might be worth paying more for. The same way with online advertising, where if it’s going to be a display ad for 30 days or two weeks then it has more staying power. It’s worth more to us that way, and then hopefully, the return on investment is higher as well.

What could hyperlocal publications do to make life easier for businesses?
For us, on a tight budget, offering the specials when they have open space. You know, the last minute calls to say, “Hey, we’ve had this open. We have a spot open. We’ll give it to you for half price.” Or, getting us the [statistics reports] without us having to ask for them. Those kinds of things are helpful.

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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.