Conference Notebook: The Future of Local Is the Marketplace, Not the Message

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Screen Shot 2013-12-10 at 5.48.47 PMThe local market has seen a seemingly endless flood of startups come online over the past few years, with many building the next iteration of last year’s feature. But as the market matures, and later-stage startups look to expand their addressable markets, the industry is starting to coalesce. According to data presented at Interactive Local Media in San Francisco this morning, the number of M&A deals jumped by 65% this year thanks to strong performance online, but explosive growth in mobile.

“Whether you’re in social or mobile, or some confluence thereof, the bottom line is that there appears to be a massive investment of energy, enthusiasm, and dollars into local,” Jed Williams, VP of content at BIA/Kelsey, told an audience Tuesday morning . He also said that while the local media market saw a jump in billion-dollar acquisitions (e.g. Google’s acquisition of Waze), there’s been even stronger growth in smaller, $10-50 million-dollar buys.

Part of what’s driving the convergence is that publicly-capitalized companies like GoDaddy, which have sold to small businesses for years, have recognized that there’s a need — and opportunity — to fold ancillary marketing services into their core products. Almost a year to the day after the company hired Blake Irving as CEO, the once-scandalous domain registrar has aggressively repositioned its brand, rethinking its marketing messaging, simplifying its website, and expanding its product set through a number of acquisitions and internal investments.

During a presentation Tuesday, Irving, a former chief product officer for Microsoft, outlined the company’s efforts over the past year to lay the groundwork for a more integrated marketing service, which includes everything from a restructuring the technology stack to rolling out a major redesign of its website last month. The intellectual core of the strategy centers on what Irving calls “discovery marketing,” which draws on some of the inbound marketing messaging that companies like Hubspot have propagated online.

“What little businesses are trying to do is to have customers within their locale find them and transact with them as quickly and easily as possible,” said Irving. “This concept of discovery marketing is about taking the old funnel — of selection, discovery, and eventually loyalty and repeat business — down to an extremely short cycle.”

What’s important here isn’t the term per se. Rather, it’s that the firm is speaking about the local marketing opportunity as a marketplace — not a message. Whether it’s through presence management, loyalty, or payments, the challenge, and implicit opportunity, in the local space centers around connecting businesses which sell goods and services locally with nearby consumers. It’s a problem that Google solved on the web years ago, but which remains largely unaddressed in the physical world.

Consider eBay. It’s maybe the most successful online marketplace to date, and has invested heavily in local commerce initiatives in recent years, bringing its PayPal product to brick-and-mortar stores and piloting new initiatives like its local delivery service eBay Now. Jody Ford, VP of marketing at eBay marketplace, told an audience Tuesday afternoon that the company plans to continue invest in its local initiatives, expanding existing pilots like eBay Now to a number of new markets over the next 12 months.

Ford positioned local commerce — both from a discovery and fulfillment perspective — as the next phase for an ecommerce market, which spent the better half of a decade focused on creating parity between shopping experiences online and in-store. Now, with the online experience often exceeding the local one, Ford says the opportunity is in tying those two experience together.

“There’s a new battlefield in the commerce wars and that’s local,” said Ford. “It’s the online offline crossover. The boundaries are blurring.”

Steven Jacobs is Street Fight’s deputy editor.