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Putting local to the test

From time to time, I'll help out a friend with a local business and help get them up and running with a website. Usually, they're simple sites that use a blog content management system like Wordpress to handle updates, and they don't have any fancy Flash intros or extraneous bells and whistles. My cousin's agency usually puts together a site template and I get the content up. Usually, these friends of mine aren't looking to take over the world, they're just looking to make a splash in their particular corner of the world.

Over the past year, I've helped a law firm in Suffolk County on Long Island, a car wash in Wayne, New Jersey, and my best man at my wedding, who is running for re-election to the Suffolk County Legislature. While I'm used to planning large international, national and regional campaigns, rolling up local ad inventory and placing truly local online ad buys was not my bailiwick. Not only was this a function of the clients my agency typically serviced, but also a lack of compelling online media opportunities at the local level.

Maybe it's because Google and others have demonstrated there's money to be made at the local level through self-serve, but it seems as if there are a lot of online opportunities that can work for local businesses. The key to prioritizing these opportunities and making the call on which might be right for a specific business is what I call spill tolerance.

If I'm a restaurant within ZIP code 11792, and some of my media spills over into adjacent ZIP code 11786, giving me some customers from slightly outside my geography, it doesn't much matter to me. My business is fairly spill tolerant.

However, if I'm a plumber licensed only in the State of New York but my advertising spills into New Jersey, I could end up getting a number of phone calls or web leads with jobs I'd have to turn down. Such a business might be considered less spill tolerant. The point is that different businesses might have varying degrees of spill tolerance for various reasons. Franchisees might have corporate restrictions governing their ability to advertise within neighborhoods containing other franchises. There might be state or local laws affecting a company's ability to do business in one town or county vs. another. Get a gauge on what these governing rules might be for an online campaign and use them to determine how tightly you will have to target your advertising.

Most local businesses are stuck advertising at the ZIP code level. However, if a business can tolerate spill to the point where they can move their targeting up to the city or DMA level, more opportunities will be open to them.

For example, many content sites can use IP databases to target with a reasonably high degree of confidence to top cities and DMAs. More spill tolerance means being able to take advantage of these opportunities.

Search is another opportunity. In the past, buying search terms that contained ZIP codes or place names would drive a fairly decent search buy. Now, search engines have a number of ways to target specific geographies, including profile-based targeting based on what a user specifies as a home location for things like driving directions, IP databases, geography-specific terms within the search and more.

Just like any other targeted advertising opportunity in emerging media, it's important to ask about how geo-targeting is executed from a technical perspective.  The executional details should be compatible with your spill tolerance.

If a sales rep asked me to advertise on a newspaper network using an IP database to target its ads, I might not be able to consider that opportunity for my buddy's car wash in New Jersey. It's rare that folks drive more than just a few miles to reach a car wash, so spill into adjoining area codes or even beyond a handful of ZIP codes would most likely be wasteful. 

On the other hand, I might advertise with Google for search terms containing "car wash" and my target ZIP codes. That would keep the advertising focused on the neighborhoods most likely to get my client new customers.

Approaching local ad opportunities is a question of spill tolerance and targeting methodology. Make sure every local advertiser's spill tolerance is measured and every targeting methodology is vetted, and you will do well.

Tom Hespos is the president of Underscore Marketing and blogs at Hespos.com. .

Tom Hespos is President of New York agency Underscore Marketing. He is a frequent contributor to industry trade publications and has been writing a regular column about online marketing and advertising since March of 1998. His clients include Wyeth...

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