Last week, top local marketers, solutions providers, technologists, and media executives assembled in a stylish TriBeCa loft for the fifth annual Street Fight Summit to discuss pressing issues and developments in the connected local economy. The audience heard from seasoned investors like Ted Leonsis, established executives such as Dennis Crowley, and a host of emerging companies that are transforming the local marketing landscape.
The program saw terrific keynotes, a number of fantastic panel discussions and fireside chats, and, in between, opportunities for conversation and networking. It’s tough to boil down all the learnings that emerged from the event, but following are five key takeaways:
1) The on-demand economy demands attention.
Read any news publication on a given day and you’re sure to find an article on a company proclaiming itself to be the Uber of something. Consumers increasingly expect to be able to get whatever they want — from food to transportation to entertainment to healthcare to beauty products and services — whenever they want it. Does that mean every local merchant or local-focused startup has to follow suit?
As Street Fight Insight’s research director David Card observed in his session on technologies and tactics for the connected local economy, most local businesses lack the in-house competence to use mobile marketing technologies to advance their business. So they don’t necessarily need to “on-demand-ize” their business, according to the panel on on-demand in local commerce, but they do need to understand the heightened consumer expectations and technology developments that are driving the on-demand economy. Many of the current crop of on-demand startups will undoubtedly fail, while others will be absorbed into larger entities, but as a consumer demand model, instant commerce is not going away. On-demand is commerce for 2015 and beyond.
2) Solutions providers need to focus first before thinking about expanding.
Companies in the local marketing space, whether they’re tech vendors, platforms, or agencies, inevitably feel a strong pull to be all things to all people, but maintaining focus, especially in the early going, is vital. After all, being the best at one thing is challenging enough; being a market leader in everything…well, few can pull that off.
The opening panel of the event, featuring ReachLocal CEO Sharon Rowlands, ShopKeep co-founder Jason Richelson, and Swipely CEO Angus Davis, discussed the merits of balancing focus with strategic expansion opportunities. On the one hand, Rowlands noted that a fragmented market needs a leader. On the other, Richelson cautioned that the allure of going horizontal notwithstanding, products need to fit customer needs. Opening keynote speaker Josh McCarter, CEO of Booker, was more emphatic: “One size generally won’t fit all industries,” he said. Companies need to be opportunistic about expansion, whether that means working in new verticals or layering on new services, especially as they see client demand, but as Davis put it, “you have to nail the niche first.”
3) Local businesses still can find value in traditional media.
The transition to the digital economy generally has been cruel to local media companies. Print continues its downward spiral, a process accelerating at the local level as publishing corporations pull their coverage back to the regional level. Yet, the struggle to save local news is not doomed, as a recent Street Fight article put it. Rather, an opportunity exists at the intersection of local news, advertising, and commerce, even if the winning — and sustainable — formula has yet to emerge. As Leonsis stressed in his expansive fireside chat with BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith, the benefits of such a partnership should accrue to local publications, businesses, and residents alike, suggesting that robust local media and commerce constitute pillars of a community.
HitViews CEO Walter Sabo made a strong case for radio’s (yes, that radio, the medium TV was supposed to have snuffed out long ago) role in the hyperlocal economy, observing that it is by nature local, mobile, and personal — three qualities that align closely with consumer behavior and preference. Beyond just granular reach, Sabo added, radio has larger local audiences than national TV networks, plus at nearly 100 years and counting, radio is established, meaning local businesses know what they’re getting. Despite gloomy prospects, partnering with local traditional media companies (or their digitized versions) can drive results and foster a virtuous cycle that benefits the local community at large. Just don’t expect change overnight: As Leonsis warned, winning in local, whether it’s media or ecommerce, means playing the long game.
4) Innovation in the connected local economy remains robust.
Lest you think innovation has lagged at the hyperlocal local, the Street Fight Summit served notice that it is flourishing. Between the startups and established firms that participated in the event and the nominees and winners of the first annual Local Visionary Awards, the goal of helping local merchants compete more effectively and enabling multi-location national brands to better reach local audiences was plainly evident.
In terms of helping local businesses compete, part of the effort involves improving their results by connecting them to larger ecommerce value chains, both in their communities and beyond. On-demand models are one source of innovation — witness companies like Urgent.ly, Pager, Doorman, and GoButler — and undoubtedly will play a part in connecting buyers and sellers. But it’s not a case of on-demand or bust. In a smartphone-driven marketplace, instant commerce reflects one need; connecting content, context, and advertising is another, and that’s where startups like Blockfeed and RAIN come in. Redpoint Ventures‘ Satish Dharmaraj indicated the venture capital market likely would continue to tighten, although First Round‘s Howard Morgan said there’s always a market for great companies. Just don’t pitch him a local directory service to — he’s said that’s an easy pass.
5) Small businesses need big data.
Local businesses, whether they’re sole proprietorships or a branch of a multi-location chain, stand at the very end of consumers’ increasingly complex path to purchase. That puts them in a good position to understand key aspects of consumer behavior, preference, and demand. The more local businesses can leverage all the data they collect about their customers, the better positioned they’ll be for the next phase of the connected local economy.
For example, in the closing session of the event, Foursquare CEO Dennis Crowley, who labeled his company a “location layer for everything on the internet,” noted that for his business, the money isn’t in consumer-facing apps like Swarm; rather, it’s in the data those apps collect. Granted, not every local business is in the position to become a data layer for the internet, but in today’s digital economy, the difference between winning and losing may boil down to what you know about your customers and how (or, more to the point, how well) you use that information.
Noah Elkin is Street Fight’s managing editor.