More Local Sites Target Rural, Exurban Populations
Every time we turn around another local-oriented Web site says it’s targeting rural and exurban audiences. So far, we’ve got Center’d, Topix, MerchantCircle, WeddingMapper.com and others zeroing on the rurals (are we missing any?).
All these sites are drawn by the technical capability of geotargeting thousands of population centers by ZIP code. They’re also encouraged by the relative absence of significant local media.
How big is the rural marketplace? The Census Bureau classifies 61.7 million (25 percent) of the U.S. population as rural. But the most appealing rural markets are probably not the ghost towns we see in movies or on vacations. Instead, they are the “third order” markets that might have a knowledge worker basis, such as Blacksburg, VA, and Boone, NC, the respective homes of Virginia Tech and Appalachian State University.
Other appealing rural markets — perhaps the most appealing — would be the exurban markets on the outskirts of major population centers such as Washington, D.C., Charlotte, San Diego and Palo Alto. These are largely underserved by local media even as million-dollar housing developments have cropped up.
But these kinds of markets appear limited to us. Indeed, it remains to be seen whether the numbers really add up. While national advertisers might like to use these sites to reach the rurals, it isn’t clear whether there is much homegrown demand from local advertisers. In general, the demographics might be less appealing (especially in regard to key Web user parameters such as education), and there are fewer openings and closing of businesses, which tend to be stable and well known among the locals.
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I think one of the issues local merchants have with media is that it is too broad in its coverage to effectively serve their needs. If local search sites can fill this gap in a way that drives truly local leads and foot traffic then this could be a real growth market since competition would be more limited and targeted users might tend to be more loyal. I for one applaud this approach.
While AmericanTowns.com does not specialize in “rural” sites, we do have experience with sites in thousands of towns with populations of 5,000 to 100,000 people. That experience both affirms the issues raised by Peter and may indicate some solutions.
First, as indicated, national advertisers do want to reach these markets, but there can be a shortage of local media; these nationals also want to be seen as local, but be able to implement on national scale. And yes, local residents do tend to know what new businesses have opened, so a business listings site may not add that much value beyond the yellow pages.
But rural communities are very active on a local level, and often exhibit high levels of civic energy. As a result, we often see very high levels of household participation (10% and up) in our local sites for these communities, where people want to know what community activities are going on and to be part of them. In fact we are increasingly focusing on those towns where we have gotten the greatest local participation, which has actually helped our monthly traffic jump 50% during Q1. And we see comparable community interest in newer “ex-urban” areas, even though some of the civic traditions aren’t as well established.
With national scale to make good technology affordable on a per town basis and the ability for advertisers to pick exactly which town they want to advertise in, these smaller towns can be perfectly profitable for the publisher as well.
(Peter, we’ll be releasing Q1 metrics next week, which should demonstrate much of the above.)