Waiting For The Local Train To Arrive

For the 15 years or so I have been covering digital media, local media has been in a persistent state of becoming. Those piles of local ad dollars always seem so ripe for the picking, and most users are hitting the Web to locate nearby information and services...aren't they? And yet, moving all those mom and pop stores to buy digital media, and getting users to think of the Web as a local resource, both proved to be a long, slow process with no visible tipping point. Whether it is the local newspaper or TV station trying to make a go of their online models, localized networks like CitySearch or Microsoft's Sidewalk, or just Google and Yahoo local search market, Main Street never seems quite ready to be digitized. Everyone had a slightly different approach to jumpstarting local ad sales online. I even recall a weird AmWay model where neighbors were supposed to go door to door, selling small businesses on local ads. This is a nut that attracted a lot of different crackers.

And so excuse my cynicism as I watch the mobile platform take its run at local media and ad dollars. Again, nearby resources make a ton of sense on a handset. A high percentage of searches, whatever searches do really occur on mobile, tend to be for at-hand services and information. I consult weather and traffic daily on my cell, and my expectations from the Web for getting reliable and comprehensive local results on searches has now transferred to mobile. And yet, is there a model here -- let alone a way to get at those reluctant local dollars?

Lee Durham, CEO and founder of Local Solutions Network (LSN), says his network of 140 local media properties is getting there. Partnered up with ABC, Cox, NBC and Telemundo affiliates, the company enjoys favored positioning as a white-label solution on the major decks. Deck visibility remains critical, says Durham. For all the promotion of local mobile services from TV affiliate Web sites and the like, 70% of the 80 million monthly page views come off the deck. On my Sprint directory, the vanilla Local News category kicks me over to LSN partner 6ABC.com. LSN helps affiliates design their mobile WAP sites and networks them together for ad sales and servicing the carriers.

The main menu for my affiliate surfaces the resources a mobile user most likely wants, from headlines to traffic, local cams and weather, even lottery numbers and a slideshow of recent news images. Most stories get thumbnail images, and breaking news sports red coloring. Timestamps on most stories add some immediacy. There is a flight tracker and a lot of promotion of 6ABC's current and day's programming as well, to round out content that seems serviceable but not especially compelling. Local still gets hidden in the deck, and even within the sites, there is more clicking than I would like to see. There is some evidence that people do want local news on their handset when they can find it. Durham says he has seen affiliate traffic grow 35% just from carriers repositioning the offering on the deck.

Some affiliates are feeding video into their local mobile sites, and I have to say that local video-on-demand is very promising. With morning, noon and late-afternoon programming, most local affiliates have a trove of video clips available for on-demand viewing, and they are by nature short enough for mobile. Several years ago a nascent local service called LiveLocal aggregated multiple TV affiliates so you could see clips from local TV news within an hour of their running on air. The LSN examples I have seen are hobbled a bit by the limitations of multimedia over WAP, but if this model is well implemented I can imagine audiences enjoying time-shifted local TV in their hand.

Making local content weave its way into mobile media habits is going to be tough enough on a cluttered deck. One very strong area is Telemundo, which Durham says can see mobile site traffic sometimes run double the corresponding Web site activity. "Hispanic users are bypassing the Web," he says. In fact, one of the most successful ad campaigns so far targeted Hispanic users in five major metros for Primus VoIP services. The first ten hours of the banner run saw clickthroughs of 13%, pulling slightly down to 10% in the first day and then settling into a hefty 7.5% over three weeks.

The real choke point for local digital platforms always has been ad sales. Networked models like LSNs have to rely on affiliate teams that have the contacts in the neighborhoods but also have a ton of other more reliable and lucrative platforms to sell first. LSN has two mobile rep forms but also goes into the affiliates to train the teams. "Stations are very interested in making this a profit center," says Durham. "The general managers say they will embrace mobile, sell it and push the salespeople."

The legacy of local on digital media remains mixed, largely because the various moving parts necessary to make it work rarely seem to be in synch. Well-targeted local digital ads clearly have power, but they need to get scale in order to attract both ad buyers and sellers.

It has taken years to get onliners to think of the Web as a local medium, and one wonders if mobile will suffer its own long hard trudge towards getting people to think of their handset as a window into local media. Part of this has to come down to the media themselves. Navigation and discovery on the deck still sucks, and it probably will for a while.

It comes down to investment on the part of the media properties themselves. How much are the TV affiliates and local newspapers willing to invest is robust and compelling mobile product and then leverage their other media to drive usage? On-demand access to the local affiliate's video programming? That is interesting. Quick views of weather and traffic, local alerts, school closings - all in a handset. That is attractive. But it all still needs to be well-packaged and surfaced, both on the deck and as a part of a content provider's multiplatform strategy.

Those are a lot of gears that have to mesh. Mobile platforms don't solve any of these problems any better or faster than the Web did. My guess is that to see the future of local mobile media, look first to the most recent past.

Tags: mobile
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