Communal Merchant Directory Site Banks on Hometown Feel

Handing out ice cream sandwiches at a community clean-up event and visiting neighborhood Chamber of Commerce functions is what Hal Rucker, CEO of local user content-supported business and community startup Smalltown calls “good karma marketing.” The just-launched enterprise aims to compete with the likes of Backfence, Yelp and MerchantCircle by offering free and paid business Web sites, local business reviews and free classifieds.

“We really are part of the town,” said Rucker. “We live here; we work here.” Here is San Mateo, California, one of the two locales Smalltown has set up virtual shop. Nearby Burlingame is the second.

The challenge is not only getting local residents to recognize the truly local quality of the sites and use them, but for Smalltown to mirror that hometown feel when it comes time to branch out beyond its backyard. “Part of our business model is every time we launch in a new town, there’s a person who lives and works in the town who’s responsible for the vitality of that Web site.”

The firm aims to meld features available on a variety of localized sites, allowing merchants to create updateable mini-sites, local denizens to post business reviews and free classified-style ads, and easily pass along information to other users.

A similar service, MerchantCircle, acts more like a business network, offering companies free Web pages, newsletters, blogs, forums and tools for creating Web coupons and building merchant referral networks. Another local We Media community site network,
, allows readers to promote events, rate and review local businesses, create photo galleries and post free classifieds listings. Yelp has more of a big-city singles feel, and lets users post reviews of local establishments, set up personal profiles and connect with others.

There are currently 13,000 “Webcards,” or business profile sites, within the Smalltown system, about 200 of which can utilize Smalltown’s paid premium services like photo galleries, coupons and automated anonymous contacting for lead generation. Merchants using the $40/month premium service are doing so for free now, but will be charged for the enhanced version next month if they choose to use it, said Rucker. All merchant sites are given a unique URL determined by the merchant or organization.

“We’re hoping local organizations will use it, like church groups, soccer teams and the Kiwanis Club,” Rucker told ClickZ News, admitting services that rely on user-generated content like Smalltown are prone to experiencing the “chicken and egg problem.” That is, without visitors, merchants don’t see value in creating the Webcards, while users will only find value in visiting if there is a multitude of business and local information to be found.

To obviate that problem, the company licensed directory information for the two locales and hired people to confirm data, as well as meet local proprietors. Smalltown then built up content on the site prior to launch using that directory information.

“I really try to promote locally…to let people know I’m in their community,” said Nancy Whitcraft, owner of art studio and home décor shop NC Whitcraft Home. Smalltown assisted the San Mateo artist and other nearby merchants in creating index card-like Webcards.

Since her Webcard has only been up for a matter of days, Whitcraft said, she’s not sure whether it will actually bring in any new business, adding, “It just depends on how much [Smalltown] can really get the word out.” Whitcraft promotes her services in other local establishments, on free sites like Craigslist, and in California print magazine Gentry.

Smalltown will pitch local business owners and potential site contributors mainly through community outreach, according to Rucker, who said, “We don’t spend any money on advertising.”

Unlike local search offerings from Google, Yahoo, and other engines that have loads of data from across the globe to sift through, Rucker said Smalltown is better equipped to connect local residents with merchants in their area since its data is specific to certain places.

“We have a very different challenge [than Google Base or Yahoo Local],” he said. “Our goal is to get every Mexican restaurant in Burlingame in our [database].”

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