At last week’s LOCALCON conference in London, Time Out‘s Russ Cohn, Zenchef’s Xavier Zeitoun, and FreshLime’s Bob Barnes discussed the impact of vertical approaches on local marketing. The conversation touched on the experiences of the speakers in regards to the fact that now more than ever there is a demand for solutions that cater to the unique wants and needs of specific sectors.
Zeitoun hails from restaurant tech — Zenchef, which he founded as 1001 Menus more than five years ago, provides all manner of digital services to restaurants via an online reservations platform. Within that industry, Zeitoun has discovered that vertical solutions are a natural response to an increasingly savvy client base that has a better handle of and more clarity on what they want. “The verticalization of digital marketing is a consequence of the level of maturity of businesses,” he told the LOCALCON crowd.
FreshLime, where Barnes serves as VP of sales and business development, provides automated marketing and reviews management to local businesses, with a focus on customer retention. Barnes said he’s found that horizontal approaches work well for larger companies maintaining numerous local presences, but less so for SMBs in a single location, who need more tailored solutions to keep up in today’s environment. “Everyone is focused on the top of the funnel, on driving new leads and getting new customers,” he said. “Traditionally, small business was about repeat customers, and building the relationship between merchant and consumer.” Understanding the tensions and circumstances particular to different verticals can help service providers maintain that tradition while staying competitive.
Cohn, Time Out’s managing director of global ecommerce and local advertising, offered the perspective of a formerly print-based media company that is using further expansion into verticals like travel and food as part of a push for overall digital sustainability. “Local can’t be a broad, sweeping brushstroke,” he said. “There has to be a knowledge of things within specific verticals, and what appeals to [vertical] partners. Our content is broad, so people can come in on various touchpoints.”
Time Out reaches a monthly audience of about 100 million and is in the process of transitioning into a more comprehensive booking platform so those millions can stay within its ecosystem for the transactions that result from content browsing. Street Fight caught up with Cohn again after the conference to get a more in-depth sense of how the publisher is making this pivot:
Can you give us a general sense of Time Out’s ecommerce strategy?
Time Out and ecommerce have not been bedfellows. We’ve flirted with it in the past. We sell a considerable amount of theater tickets in London, which has been our primary source of ecommerce. We have very strong relationships with the theater industry, in London and somewhat in New York, mainly driven by our editorial content. We’ll be doubling down on those efforts and really focusing on outreach to the theater sector, making sure that we’ll continue to be seen as a valuable partner not only on a media level but on a commercial level.
My responsibility is to allow our users the ability to engage with great content at the top of the funnel and then buy what they want in a frictionless way. In the past we’ve had great content and we’ve inspired people to do things, but we haven’t been able to make those transactions — we’ve always pushed them out to our partners. What you’re going to see over the next six to 12 months from Time Out is more frictionless ecommerce, from engaging content all the way through purchase. We’ll also be layering data across that — things like user preferences, purchase history, whether users enjoy our events, whether users are Time Out card members. We’ll be able to stitch all of that together. You’ll see us extending into more entertainment categories, across travel and attractions and food and drink, as we bring on more breadth of partners in those areas.
I think a lot of publishers are having to ask tough questions about how far they’re willing to go in re-envisioning how they operate — “How much of our old print-based identity do we keep?” What’s Time Out’s strategy for maintaining its identity while embracing everything digital brings and reaching out to different verticals?
We’ve been going through this transition for a while at different rates. We’ve acknowledged that the audience has moved. We get that people are online and we need to enable them to access what we provide on any device and any platform that they require. Print is still a great vehicle for us. It really helps us as a marketing channel — it’s a very good line of advertising revenue, so we can’t dismiss it.
We need to continue to give people great content online and keep that irreverent tone about Time Out, and make sure that brand trust emanates in whatever we choose to publish. Trust is an area where we have a distinct advantage with ecommerce. People trust us enough to buy from us, they just weren’t aware that we can sell them things. We need to help people understand the capabilities we have to do that.
About 95 percent of people online who engage with Time Out actually go out and do something. That’s a huge number. We clearly have to make sure we can enable people to do more with us, so we can take more of a transactional value. I don’t think we’ll lose that credibility in the content that we write. We’re not trying to replace content with commerce — content is key to our success in commerce.
Time Out is a large-scale company. What have your takeaways been in terms of being a horizontal player that branches out into and serves different verticals? How can a big media company find success in local markets?
Each local market is different. From a user point of view, people are using tools to help them find local information in a variety of ways, with print and on mobile. We’ll continue to be horizontal, naturally, because of the content that we provide. On a vertical level, we’ll focus on areas that in the short term will provide the most immediate commercial opportunities while still playing to what the audience demands. We know that we have credibility in local entertainment and our guides about cities. We have strength and depth in content in those areas, and we’re probably one of the few businesses in the world with that ability to influence people to go do things.
Our strategy is to focus on areas where commercially it makes sense but fits with the audience. For example, we could add a property portal, because that’s local, but while people have an interest in that local information, I don’t think transactionally we’d be in a good position. We have to understand who we are and what our audience sees us as, and then help provide those services on a vertical basis.
Annie Melton is Street Fight’s news editor.