Merchant Circle Seeks to Provide YP Alternative

“Small business,” “marketing tools” and “viral marketing” = a new generation of Yellow Pages that will really help businesses get more local customers. Or so hopes Merchant Circle, a well-funded startup that officially launches in June.

Like a blogroll, small businesses add other small businesses from their community to their network, trade ads, and get mutual attention from local consumers – hence the “Merchant Circle” name. Other features on the current, pre-beta version have been more come-and-go.

President and CEO Ben Smith, a Rustic Canyon entrepreneur in residence (who co-founded Spoke Software with Chris Tolles of Topix), told Local Onliner that everything’s in flux prior to the June launch. “It is all about testing. It is not close to being done. We are constantly revising. There is lots of new stuff coming for launch in June and then a second wave in late June.” But some basic goals have been established. “The milestone here is to get 20 percent of merchants” in a community, said Smith.

IAC Launches Local Real Estate Brokerages

IAC launched its online/offline brokerage in Portland,OR in March, is establishing its next office in in Seattle, and will soon be in two other cities, according to IAC President and COO Doug Lebda, who was speaking to analysts during an earnings call. RealEstate.com, a subsidiary of Lending Tree, IAC’s big mortgage lead generation play, achieved quick results out of the gate, putting 30 houses under contract in March, while adding 12 new listings. “We’re in testing mode,” said Lebda. “But the early results are encouraging and we’re in this for the long-term.”

The effort employs new business models for real estate. “The brokerage model we are undertaking is very different,” said Lebda. “Centrally, through the Web and call centers, you control lead flows coming in. Leads are transmitted over the phone and the Web to agents in the field.” Lebda added that “the system comes with less capital expenditure than traditional real estate models,” with “much higher conversion margins and scalability.”

Under the realestate.com model, agents stand to make much lower commissions. Agents earn a third of the total commission, compared to 50-70 percent norms in the market today. IAC keeps two-thirds — and also benefits from leads to other real estate service providers.

Doctors Targeted for Local Online Scheduling

Local online scheduling services have been quietly heating up again, after a rash of them failed during the dot-com boom. Two of the most well-known scheduling services are associated with CitySearch alumni: Open Table and Active.com.

Now comes DoctorsDirect, a lead generation, scheduling and payment service launching this summer in ten cities. The initial rollout list is mostly focused on Internet-savvy towns where consumers are used to finding things online, including San Francisco, San Jose, San Diego, Seattle and Denver.

Heading the service is Tommy McGloin, the former head of Mapquest who previously put in time as a pioneering local onliner at AOL Digital Cities and MovieFone. McGloin says the new service is a unique ecommerce play that is inherently local. In this regard, it is unlike WebMD and other medical research services that are more national in scope. While local online advertising related to medical specialities are possible in the future, the focus will initially be on getting doctors signed up.

NAA: Google Eyes Six Newspaper Initiatives

In a conversation with Newspaper Association of America members this February, Google Local head Shailesh Rao and colleague Jim Kolotouros outlined six Google initiatives that they’d like to work with newspapers on. These include AdSense; a premium tier version of AdSense that enables online order entry for merchants; GoogleLocal; video; GoogleBase; and ongoing experiments with print ads in papers.

Kolotouros said that the initiatives are being developed on an adhoc basis, but that Google would like to put them into “one bucket” to streamline their use by newspapers. Separately, Rao said that Google would like to enable newspapers to act as sales agents for Google to upsell existing customers along the lines of “a model we’ve tested in the Yellow Pages business.”

Highlights of the conversation are transcribed as part of “Getting Serious About Search,” a new survey and report by the NAA’s Melinda Gipson that effectively updates my 2004 survey and report, “Paid Search and Newspapers: Issues and Strategies.”

Zixxo Tries Again with Local Coupons

Online coupons lower DM costs. And when redeemed, they’re living proof that an advertisers’ message has gotten through. But they also make up the bottom rung of the media food chain. It’s hard to get consumers to look them up, and hard to get advertisers excited about them. They can also be hard to sell.

A couple of years ago, Bay Area-based Zixxo discovered the downside of coupons the hard way. It launched a franchise model based on charging $30 for coupons, and free classifieds. But the site never really caught in.

Now, founder Mike Hogan has come back with a new, improved model. In a conversation with Local Onliner, Hogan said he has been greatly inspired by all the changes that have occurred in coupons since he first came on the scene. He noted that consumers are now routinely getting together for coupon “trains,” sharing codes, and going on eGroups to hunt for the best coupons. With Zixxo, they can also share coupons, as well as RSS them.

Boston Chain: HyperLocal and Regional

Community papers really don’t do much online, especially when they’re operating on the fringes of a giant metro. Such has been the case with South of Boston Media Group, a Quincy, MA-based chain of two small to medium-sized dailies (The Enterprise and The Patriot Ledger) and 25 weeklies operating in the shadow of the mighty Boston Globe, and its website, Boston.com.

But the chain sees a way around Boston.com — hyper-local content that Boston.com can’t begin to pick at, and a regional aggregation of classifieds that would theoretically satisfy every user.

On the commerce side, the site features a regional aggregation of classifieds not only from its own papers, but from Craig’s List, The Boston Herald, The Boston Globe and others. “If you offer search, you have to mean it,” notes VP of Interactive Bob Kempf.

Free-411: The Local Search Killer?

Free, advertiser-supported Directory Assistance, launched six months ago by the likes of Jingle’s 1800Call411 and Infeeda’s 1800411metro, appears to be here to stay. Free DA’s emergence promises to have a significant impact on the $8 billion DA marketplace, which is roughly 1/3 mobile, 2/3 landline. It will also indirectly impact the market for local search and Internet Yellow Pages.

But will free DA mean higher volume or less? More money or less? And what’s the timeline before traditional directory assistance sees pricing pressure? Looking forward, how much time will it be before technology factors such as voice recognition, wireless and email coupon delivery, and text and video delivery play a convergence-like role? All these variables were the subject of debate at The Kelsey Group’s Drilling Down conference in San Jose.

George Garrick of Jingle Networks, the producer of 1800Free411, claimed to be sitting on research showing that 85 percent of consumers would rather hear a 15-second ad than pay $1 or $1.50 for ad-free directory assistance. Rather than eating into existing DA revenues, he made the case that Jingle (and others) was transforming it by switching to a targeted advertising model. “Users are making five times the number of DA calls than they used to,” he said.