Merchants who want to target customers in their local areas without giving away large profit margins or investing in complicated mobile technologies have an alternative to some of the more high-tech marketing vendors like Groupon and Foursquare. That alternative is Patch, the popular network of hyperlocal news sites that's been giving small-business owners a way to reach plugged-in local consumers since 2009.
How It Works: With 863 sites in 22 states, plus Washington, D.C., Patch has become the primary source of local news in many small communities with no daily newspapers or television stations. Local Patch websites are staffed by professional journalists and community bloggers who cover everything from city government and school news to upcoming events and traffic conditions. In addition to getting their local information and news from Patch sites, readers frequently use the online portals as a place to discuss neighborhood events and debate community issues. Small-business owners looking to target well-connected locals can take advantage of a number of advertising opportunities—including display ads, newsletter ads, on-site coupons, premium directory listings and custom video listings—available on their local Patch sites.
Patch in Action: Nearly 300 Patch sales reps work to help local merchants across the country develop custom display ads that promote their businesses and target the right types of customers. Rates for display ads vary based on the individual Patch site, as well as the size and placement of the ad. However, merchants frequently report that the return on investment when advertising with Patch is greater than print newspapers and magazines. "Based on the cost per impression, and the ability to target ads and track click-throughs, you get a better sense of what’s working," says Daneen Grabe, owner of Little Pub in Ridgefield, Conn., and a frequent Patch advertiser. "With online advertising you get the immediate click to your site, plus you can change the ad easily and you get some data to review."
Local merchants can also claim their businesses in Patch's city-specific directories, which list vital information like hours, location and contact information for businesses and schools. Although merchants can claim their businesses for free, they are charged a fee for upgraded features like video commercials, personal business owner messages and premium placement of directory listings.
Why It Works: Merchants who advertise on hyperlocal Patch sites know that the readers viewing their online ads are coming directly from the communities they serve. Not only does Patch attract readers by being the primary source of instantly-updated news in many small towns, but it also pulls from AOL's user database in targeting potential readers. The network sends e-mails to AOL users with registered zip codes in areas that Patch currently serves. This targeted readership is important for small businesses, especially those that keep a tight rein on advertising costs. Merchants like Brandi Beckley of the Downers Grove Park District in Downers Grove, Ill., report that they would rather receive fewer click-throughs from a more targeted readership than a high number of click-throughs from people who don't necessarily live in their local areas.
Advertising on Patch also gives less-established businesses a way to enmesh themselves in the communities they serve. In addition to running paid display ads, professionals like Minnesota real estate agent David Nelson will frequently write blog posts that appear on local Patch sites. These professional blogs help business owners get their names out to community members. "It’s all about exposure. You may be the best real estate agent out there, but if nobody knows who you are or what you look like, it’s hard to get your name known," says Nelson.
Maximizing the Benefits: Merchants looking for ways to measure the effectiveness of their online marketing efforts can compare the information Patch provides, which includes the number of impressions and click-throughs for each display ad, to their own customer acquisition data. At the Downers Grove Park District, for example, Beckley compares the page views and click-throughs on her Patch ads to the number of registrants who've signed up for events while her ads were up. Beckley found that online registration numbers at the Downers Grove Park District were up 25 percent in the last year.
The real value in advertising on Patch is all about taking full advantage of the multitude of channels that Patch provides. Patch advertisers can select the position that their display ads will appear on a local site's homepage or interior page. They can also run banner ads in Patch's weekly e-newsletters, post on-site coupons for customers to print, publish their own Patch blogs and purchase enhanced listings on the network's directory of local businesses and schools. Businesses without their own websites can make it easier for potential customers to find them on Mapquest by re-routing Mapquest visitors to their Patch Directory listings.
Stephanie Miles is associate editor of Street Fight. She is based in Portland, Ore.
Photo credit: Courtesy Patch