Taming the Web for Local Advertisers

When executives talk about media fragmentation, they often mean national media: myriad cable channels splitting off audiences from declining broadcast networks and consumers increasingly drawn to offerings online and on their phones—Facebook, YouTube (GOOG), blah blah blah. But such fragmentation is, if anything, more acute at the local level. The same competitive troubles affect the established TV and radio players, and the city newspaper is likely readying its application for the endangered species list. Or it's already beginning its slow fade: In mid-July, the Ann Arbor News ceased daily publication, though a smaller-staffed Web site and a twice-weekly print product will remain.

If you're an advertiser, this leaves a hole in the market. The newspaper, one crucial way to get a message to lots of consumers, is shrunken or gone. Sure, a zillion local blogs have popped up; some of them have real value. But the thing is, there's a zillion of them, and few have followings of any size, so you have to amalgamate ad buys across 10 or 15 blogs to get anything resembling a decent audience. Buying ads on one neighborhood's best little blog might leave much of a retail outlet's market uncovered. And buying ads on such blogs often means dealing with one- or two-person operations run by people who might be good at making sentences but who know little about business. "They are bloggers, not salespeople. They have other jobs," says Andrea Kerr Redniss, senior vice-president at media-buying agency Optimedia. "Wrangling those people together is horrendous."

All of which helps explain why so much advertising remains concentrated in traditional outlets and why so few, if any, independent local online ventures end up knee-deep in ad dollars. Many fail. Mark Potts, who knows from unsuccessful local online ventures—his Backfence.com, a network of community news sites, went under in 2007—is trying to erect a superstructure that will help advertisers and content sites alike make sense of the new landscape. His new company, GrowthSpur, will drape an ad network around the chaosphere of local online markets. Its networks will allow advertisers, local or national, to buy ads from sales reps across a wide array of sites, choosing among them (yes to the local parenting blog, no to the local beer-geek site) to assemble ad buys in a new and more painless fashion. For an undisclosed cut of ad revenues, GrowthSpur will string a bunch of sites into a network and automate the buying and selling of ads across said network. It will also teach inexperienced bloggers the finer points of selling ads.

The GrowthSpur platform will allow publishers to sell ads into each others' sites and enable what Potts calls "citizen ad sales"—ads sold into GrowthSpur networks by people who already sell some services to key local markets. One possible source for such sales, suggests GrowthSpur adviser and new media advocate Jeff Jarvis: real estate agents. They have sales skills, detailed local knowledge, and, these days, an awful lot of spare time on their hands.

GrowthSpur, should it flourish after its fully featured networks launch early next year, would help standardize one particularly woolly media frontier. And it would open up a process long closed. Typically a media property employs ad sales folk who sell ads only for that property. That makes sense when the ad buys are big enough to warrant nice commissions, but much less sense when that staff is dealing with the cost of an ad for a hundred bucks or so on a local blog.

The bigger questions, of course, involve whether advertisers will buy (literally) local blogs. But Optimedia's Redniss says something like GrowthSpur could help matters by surfacing many markets' online possibilities. "It's not something agencies can do—have screen shots of thousands of blogs across the country." Expecting massive behavioral change, whether in advertising or in any human habit, is a mug's game, which is why I'm not yet persuaded that GrowthSpur will remake the local ad landscape. But should it work, such remaking gets easier, which is a good part of the battle.

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