City-themed Web sites, a mere speck on the Internet scene a year ago, are stampeding into local markets with multimillion-dollar ad campaigns and in-your-face marketing tactics.
By yearend, nearly every major newspaper, radio station and TV station will likely have aligned itself with one or more of the local online networks, ranging from Digital City and Microsoft Sidewalk to CitySearch, NBC Interactive Neighborhood and CityWeb.
Advertising Age estimates local media Web sites and online networks will spend more than $50 million to market themselves by yearend.
FAST AND FURIOUS BATTLE
Many local services will use their own ad space or airtime to promote their online offerings. Ad Age estimates the value of this ad space at an additional $25 million.
It all adds up to a fast and furious battle to give the global Web a truly local flavor.
"This year and next year are big spending years," said Michael Parker, director of marketing at Cox Interactive Media. "You have some players online. You've got sites rolling out. There's going to be a significant level of spending because of the need to grab mindshare of the consumer," he said.
Cox will spend an estimated $10 million, including the value of advertising placed in its own media properties, to market Web sites in cities including Atlanta and Austin, Texas, Mr. Parker said.
CITYSEARCH TO SPEND $10 MIL
CitySearch has set aside more than $10 million to market its offering, which is available in seven cities now, including Austin, Texas, and Salt Lake City, and is expected to be in a total of 15 by yearend, said CEO Charles Conn.
It also expects to get several million dollars' worth of free advertising from its partner newspapers and TV and radio stations.
Advertising Age estimates Microsoft Corp. is spending an estimated $2 million to $3 million per market to promote Sidewalk, which is expected to be in seven cities by yearend.
U S West in April launched a $3 million to $5 million ad campaign promoting DiveIn, its 10-city regional offering.
Yahoo! will devote the bulk of its estimated $20 million to $25 million annual marketing budget to Yahoo! Cities this year.
Digital City and NBC Interactive Neighborhood, meanwhile, are gearing up for major national ad campaigns later this year.
MAKING CONTENT RELEVANT
All these marketing efforts have a key focus: Making local online services an integral part of consumers' lives.
"The real trick is making Internet content relevant. It's a great place to go if you want information . . . but it has no relevance to everyday life," said Blake Bryant, director of creative services with KNBC-TV, Los Angeles, a test site for NBC's local interactive network, scheduled to launch this fall.
"Our marketing focus will make it relevant on a daily basis. But my goal," he said, "is to make it relevant on an hourly basis."
Local online services have a long haul to reach that goal. Consumers are more likely to pick up the newspaper to find restaurant reviews than they are to go online for them.
"It's tough to change consumer behavior and get them to put down the newspaper," said Peggy Brown, Microsoft Sidewalk group product manager.
Turning the tide is what the first major marketing campaign for Digital City Chicago is all about.
The online service (www.chicago.digitalcity.com) last month kicked off an estimated $1 million to $5 million TV, radio, print and outdoor effort carrying the tagline "It's virtually everything in Chicago." The ads, created by Keroff & Rosenberg and placed by Hal Riney & Partners Heartland, both Chicago, will run through the fall.
"The goal is to explain what [Digital City] is, what it can do for people and how they can find it," said Kathy Manilla, interactive marketing manager. "Once people get a taste of it, I think they'll get hooked."
Corporately, Digital City is expected to launch a major ad campaign in all 14 of its markets by yearend. Leap Partnership, Chicago, is the agency.
"You're going to see more and more of us in the next 12 months, on the product front, the advertising front and the promotions front," said Bill McIntosh, Digital City director of marketing.
Microsoft's Sidewalk (www.sidewalk.com) takes a different tack with its advertising, which broke last month in Seattle and launches June 23 in New York.
Radio, print and outdoor ads from Wieden & Kennedy, Portland, Ore., focus less on features and benefits of the city entertainment guide and more on "an aspirational message," said Ms. Brown.
RETURN VISITS ARE KEY
One print ad shows Sidewalk's "a" icon for its arts and entertainment section as if it were artwork in a gallery.
Gaining trial is only one hurdle, however. Getting consumers to return is the key marketing issue.
"There's a real need for getting [consumers] local information that's relevant to them in their day-to-day life," said Karen Edwards, director of brand management with Yahoo! (www.yahoo.com), which operates 11 city-themed sites.
To fill that need, local sites are turning to guerrilla marketing methods. One key component of Sidewalk's marketing strategy is its "Click on to Get Out Day." The first such event, held May 23 in Seattle, used entertainment giveaways from the Seattle Mariners baseball team and local nightclubs to entice consumers to come to the city's Westlake Center after work.
TAPPING LOCAL GROUPS
A similar event is planned for this summer in New York, Microsoft's newest Sidewalk market.
In both cases, the goal is to motivate consumers to get out and see the city-and be reminded that that's what Sidewalk allows them to do every day, online.
CitySearch (www.citysearch.com), which last month entered its seventh market, Nashville, depends heavily on tie-ins with local organizations.
"The first thing we do is work with the community groups, the volunteer, non-profit, educational, government groups," said Mr. Conn.
Print advertising from Ground Zero, Santa Monica, Calif., emphasizes CitySearch's focus on getting people involved. In one ad, a man standing outside a theater holds a sign reading "This movie sucked!" The campaign carries the tagline "Views from the inside."
Long term, local online offerings want to be as easy to use and as convenient as the rest of local media. The key selling point: not only local content, but neighborhood information like school lunches, high school sports scores and suburban election returns.
`AN EMOTIONAL ATTACHMENT'
Digital City Chicago is building an area called "Communities," which offers information about seven Chicago-area cities so far.
"We hope that as the sites become rich in content and relevant, people will find them as an information source, instead of picking up the phone," said Ms. Manilla.
Cox, meanwhile, is promoting Access Atlanta (www.
accessatlanta.com) with a TV campaign emphasizing how the site helps consumers. One spot, from Bigelow & Eigel, Atlanta, shows how a mother used the site to find a ballet class for her daughter.
"We're not putting our newspaper, radio and television stations online," said Cox's Mr. Parker. "That is the formula for sporadic visits. . . . What we have to communicate is not just that [our local offerings] provide information, but we try to provide an emotional attachment."