Smalltown: Slow and Steady Growth

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I neglected to write about Smalltown at the end of the year though I was intended to do so. The company has added its seventh local site for the San Francisco Peninsula: San Carlos. The ultimate goal is to have a site for every “city” between Millbrae and Palo Alto, CA. It’s a site that I often overlook when writing about local, but which has been plugging along now for more than a year and is showing positive consumer and advertiser adoption.

CEO Hal Rucker said that the recently added San Carlos site was built in two weeks, about 1/4 the time it took to build the original Burlingame site. Apparently Smalltown is also successfully using an email newsletter to great effect to help push ads and content to registered users and reinforce site usage.

The ultimate goal is to take the company national, which will challenge Rucker and company to duplicate the success they’ve had locally and avoid the pitfalls of others who’ve come before. However he told me a couple of months ago that ad sales were going very well, which is quite encouraging for the company.

5 Responses to “Smalltown: Slow and Steady Growth”

  1. zippy Says:

    As a resident of the San Francisco Peninsula, where Smalltown is located, and who knows many of the businesses which have advertised (many for pennies, or even free), I think you lend too much credence to Mr. Rucker’s self-serving prognostications. I’m not saying that Smalltown doesn’t work at all, just that it doesn’t work well enough for businesses to start paying them Yellow Pages-type rates.

    Smalltown acquired a really useful, pre-web 2.0 phone tree-type service called local2me.com. The owner of local2me was more of a Craig Newmark (craig’s list) kind of guy, in that he was more interested in community than profits. All Rucker has done is jazz it up a bit graphically. But how is how is Smalltown going to make people come back regularly when it really doesn’t have much content, or most important, “soul”. As for going national – wasn’t the lesson of last year that you can’t mass replicate/clone “community” on a national scale?

  2. Greg Sterling Says:

    Thanks for the feedback. Do you have any sense of whether your neighbors/people you know are using it (consumers)?

  3. zippy Says:

    My “sense” is that people are not using it very much–as I said, not enough for Smalltown to charge profitable rates for the moment. This feeling comes from three Smalltown advertisers whom I know from local YP’s and print publications. It’s also based on the very positive advertiser testimonials posted on Smalltown’s website. They all say they love the format/webcards. Significantly, however, no one is saying what a great response they get in terms of paying customers. You know that if Smalltown had someone saying that, they would be screaming it from the rooftops.

    But I don’t want to diss Smalltown–they must have some advertisers who report a worthwhile response. It’s going to take time, and perhaps some better SEO on the site, so that they come up higher on local web searches.

  4. Greg Sterling Says:

    Thanks for the information/feedback

  5. Hal Rucker Says:

    Let me try to shed some light on issues raised by Zippy.

    Zippy: “Smalltown acquired a really useful, pre-web 2.0 phone tree-type service called local2me.com. All Rucker has done is jazz it up a bit graphically.”

    HR: Local2Me is an email-based service where neighbors can exchange comments about local topics. It’s a great service. I’ve been using it myself since it first started because I worked at Excite with Michael Olivier who developed it. We haven’t made any significant changes to the Local2Me email service. Instead, we are talking to some of the more active users as a kind of “real world focus group in action.” With their input, we are designing some great new features in our Discussions area.

    The Smalltown website has many features that are not available on Local2me. In particular, Smalltown has Webcard postings, which are like online multimedia brochures about local merchants and service providers. The basic concept behind the site is to enable local businesses, as well as community members to participate, thus creating a two-way conversation between businesses and the local people they serve.

    For example, if you post a listing on Smalltown that asks “Can anybody recommend a contractor to fix my bathroom?” a neighbor can reply “Yes, we used Joe Smith and he is great. Here is his Smalltown Webcard”. Joe Smith’s Webcard is his web presence with all the up-to-the-minute information about Joe and his services, and it can be attached to a comment just like attaching a file to an email.

    On Local2me, neighbors ask questions and provide answers. On Smalltown, neighbors ask questions, provide answers, and pass around Webcards as a way to share in depth and current local information.

    Many online communities, including Local2Me, have user generated content. Smalltown’s focus is the integration of user generated content AND merchant generated content into one user experience. This includes our ReplyBack feature that makes it easy for a merchant to respond to a review. It’s actually pretty cool.

    Zippy: The owner of local2me was more of a Craig Newmark (craig’s list) kind of guy, in that he was more interested in community than profits.

    HR: You know, I hear this every once in a while from Local2Me users. But I can’t resist pointing out that Local2Me has banner ads, interstitial email ads and Google Ads! (And, by the way, Craig Newmark is a multi-millionaire.) I guess I just want to add that we’re not the bad guys because we want to pay our employees. In addition, using Smalltown is free. Smalltown doesn’t have any traditional ads. And the service is supported by merchants in the community who want to connect with their neighbors.

    Zippy: “But how is Smalltown going to make people come back regularly when it really doesn’t have much content, or most important, “soul”.

    HR: Well, we already have over 22,000 Webcards in our 7 towns. (Take a look… I think we have a truly impressive amount of content for a 15-month-old site.)

    Smalltown’s homepage changes every day and we continue to add sticky content. We have a local events calendar that lists interesting things going on around town. Soon we will be adding a Sales and Promotions calendar so locals can check which stores are offering good deals.

    There are two important business details to understand. First, we email a Daily Digest to our registered users that contains all the new content, including coupons, that has been posted on our website. (http://www.smalltown.com/sanmateo/html/dailydigest ) Many of our users don’t visit the site regularly because the most interesting new content is delivered to them. Second, we do not have any traditional banner ads. So we care less than most websites do about traffic and ad impressions. We’re a bit more like the yellow pages – one doesn’t read the yellow pages every day; one reads the yellow pages every once in a while when one needs to look up a merchant or service provider. Smalltown is somewhere between the two. We want enough traffic so there are useful reviews and discussions, but our key metric is “Do our paying customers get more value from us than they pay for their Webcard?”

    Regarding “soul”, wow, I agree we need more of it. We’re working on it, but it’s an elusive asset. It’s one of the reasons we want to have access to learn from Local2Me. Our philosophy is to build a flexible platform and let each town create its own flavor and spice through the addition of local content. Do the yellow pages have a soul? I like to think we’ve at least surpassed that mark 😉

    Zippy: “My “sense” is that people are not using it very much–as I said, not enough for Smalltown to charge profitable rates for the moment.”

    HR: Our product, an “Enhanced Webcard” costs $40 per month with an annual contract. We have over 500 Enhanced Webcards on our sites. Some of those were done for free when we launched our first town. We did this to kick-start the website. But we no longer give away Webcards.

    All we have to do is show our customers, the Enhanced Webcard owners, that they are getting more than $40 per month of business from their Smalltown listing. Our first annual contracts are coming up for renewal this spring, and we are prepared to show them the numbers to prove the ROI of a Webcard is the best local advertising dollar they ever spent.

    Zippy: “It’s also based on the very positive advertiser testimonials posted on Smalltown’s website. They all say they love the format/webcards. Significantly, however, no one is saying what a great response they get in terms of paying customers.”

    HR: Please watch the video again. There are several customers who talk about ROI in real numbers: http://www.smalltown.com/theater_smalltown.html . I can also put you in touch with other happy customers. Really, I’m not being flippant. We know our customers, they work around the corner, and I’d be proud to have you talk to them about how well their Webcards are serving their local online advertising needs.

    Hal Rucker
    hrucker@smalltown.com

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