It Takes Fieldwork to Market Online to Main Street

If you want to succeed at marketing online to businesses in a specific city, stop thinking like a businessperson and start acting like an anthropologist. Just as anthropology is the study of people in their natural environment through observation and participation, the secret to success in marketing online to Main Street is in the fieldwork.

The Internet knows no geographic boundaries. But when you want to reach a group online in a specific town, city, or state, not being able to target by location becomes a problem. A search engine is not going to produce a list of where local folks go online. Opt-in email lists are better at helping you reach all small-business owners rather than just the ones in Hartford, CT, or Phoenix, AZ.

To find out how to market to a locally based community, try the fieldwork techniques of anthropologist Margaret Mead, who studied the people of Samoa. First she learned all about the Samoan culture. Then she went among the Samoans and observed their ways. And only then did she participate in the routine of their daily lives.

Starting to get any ideas? Fieldwork makes a lot of sense when you recognize that people are people whether they’re online or off-.

At the Zeff Group, we come by fieldwork naturally, being a shop full of anthropologists and folklorists in our former lives. In our marketing work, we combine our social-science roots with our Internet acumen. The result is fieldwork-centered online marketing.

Here are the three steps of online fieldwork we use to market online to Main Street.

1. Research

The first step is research. You need to learn as much as possible about a region’s online community. This means finding the popular local Web sites and newsletters people read. Finding the discussion lists with a thriving community. Locating the online organizations people respect and go to for information and advice. In short, you need to find the online nerve centers of the communities you are trying to reach.

Newspaper and city sites. Start by going to the Web sites of the region’s local newspapers, radio stations, and TV stations. Next, check out the many city site portals, such as CitySearch, a collection of 40 city guides; LocalBusiness.com, news sites for 24 cities; and internet.com, with 11 local city portals. Combine that with the 400-pound gorillas dancing around the local news market, such as Yahoo and AOL’s Digital City.

Once you find all the local news sites for a city, start reading. What’s the local news? Who are the local advertisers? What are they advertising? You need to learn what’s happening in town. And from your research, you’ll quickly learn which sites are the best for local news and which are merely online wallpaper.

Calendars. Next, find all the local calendars for an area. Calendars are typically located on newspaper sites, community group sites, and city portal sites. Calendars will not only tell you about upcoming events, but they will also tell you who puts on events, what topics people are getting together to discuss, who the local community leaders are, and where people like to congregate. This valuable information will give you a much better understanding of the community.

Local email newsletters. Next, look for local email newsletters that target a specific geographic area. For example, in Washington, DC, you can find everything from the technology-centered regional publication Potomac Tech Wire to the small city-specific Alexandria Weekly. These publications are used by the local community and are a great place to advertise. When you want to reach a local audience, your best ROI will come from these homegrown publications. In our work on almost two dozen cities, we have found that every location has at least one local email newsletter and most have several.

Local organizations. The heart of your fieldwork research will be locating the local groups where your target market congregates and converses online. These can be formal membership organizations or, more likely, loosely associated networks of people where membership is merely a matter of receiving emails and attending an occasional event.

Go ahead and start locating local Chamber of Commerce groups and high-tech councils.

But online, the real networking occurs in the more grassroots groups that are less structured and more organic.

For example, in South Florida you have two networking groups that put on programs for the high-tech community, Tuesday Network in Miami and Boca.Coms in Boca Raton.

For those who want the networking without the speakers, there are pure social networking groups for the tech community like Pint of Portland and its sister group, Pint of Boston.

For women in the tech community, there are many organizations from the international group Webgrrls to the national network of Digital Divas. Some cities, like Washington, DC, have their own independent groups such as DC Web Women.

2. Interview and Observe

The next step is to observe the community. Read the online papers, join the discussion lists, and find out what people are talking about and what they care about. Find out what’s happening.

Observe how the local organizations make announcements to their members. Do they have a newsletter? Can you sponsor the newsletter? If you sponsor the newsletter, can you stand up and make a pitch at a meeting as part of your sponsorship package? Can you go to one of the events and find out how pitches are made? Do people bring door prizes or handouts? Do you need to sandwich your announcement with content, or can you be bold and do a shameless plug?

Learn acceptable and unacceptable behavior. This is something you can’t learn in a book or from reading the FAQ; you’ll learn the unwritten rules of appropriate behavior only by joining the lists and reading the posts for several days or even several weeks. You’ll quickly learn the right way and wrong way to discuss products or services.

Finding, observing, and then reaching out to these groups is crucial. They have their finger on the pulse of the local community. These groups hold the cards to getting the word out.

3. Participate

And, finally, once you’ve done all your research and observed how the community operates, only then are you ready to participate. It’s crucial that you realize that you can’t “fake community.” The community will recognize a plant right away. And, as the Head and Shoulders commercial says, “You don’t have a second chance to make a first impression.”

In our experience, taking the time to do fieldwork makes all the difference. Once you become a member of the community, you learn how to move your posts from marketing messages to information sharing among community members.

The next time you need to launch an online marketing campaign to reach businesses in Portland, OR, or Providence, RI, don’t forget to go native. It’s all in the fieldwork.

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