Tag Archives: merchantcircle

Reply’s MerchantCircle Relaunches; Heavier Consumer Focus, Less on Listings

MerchantCircle, which was sold to Reply.com in May 2011, continues to rethink the traditional Yellow Pages small business model. The company today unveils a web site that is less oriented towards directory listings, and more oriented – it hopes — towards winning more consumer traffic, generating more SMB leads, and better monetization.

While the new platform has been launched on the core Merchant Circle site, it will soon be available on a white label basis for other publishers, such as Internet Yellow Pages and City Guides. A key driver of the move has been the company’s desire to leverage a larger consumer base for Reply’s “clicks or leads” model.

MerchantCircle has actually been moving towards a “social commerce” model for some time, in recent years adding Answers, community content and other features. But EVP Darren Waddell tells us that the site has now more clearly moved away from an IYP “silo” model, where consumers basically encounter a business and its merchant page.

“It is not about the merchant value proposition,” says Waddell. “It is about helping consumers to connect with local business owners in a meaningful way.” Consumers will be able to seek requests for quote, see pictures – which Waddell stresses are “really important”; build deals; enter business subscriptions; and access the company’s trove of six million+ pieces of user generated content. Merchants, meanwhile, move up from a simple IYP-like enhanced listing to Reply’s Marketplace.

“We really blew out the entire MerchantCircle front-end,” Waddell adds. “We’ve developed an entirely new look and feel.” In beta tests involving up to 10 percent of its user base, the new, improved MerchantCircle has yielded a 2.5 X improvement in consumer engagement.

Being consumer friendly has also required Merchant Circle to crack down on merchants that were aggressively gaming the site and hurting its credibility. “It was a small but loud minority,” notes Waddell. “Algorithmically, we’ve really cracked down on people gaming the system.”

Initially, some of its merchants have not been pleased with the changes, which put most non-featured businesses below the fold. Waddell notes that some merchants on the site’s forums have been “really upset,” but MerchantCircle is sticking with it’s more balanced approach.

In the long-run, the company believes that they’ll realize they’re better off with the consumer-friendly features. In the meantime, Waddell suggests that Merchant Circle has hit an effective balance , with 1.2 million active merchants being able to respond to a strong volume of consumer requests – a capability that he believes is unmatched in the industry.

Waddell appears at ILM East March 26-28 in Boston on our all-star “Local Business Success: Picking Winners” session, along with AT&T’s Maria Kermath, Schedulicity’s Dave Galvan and SMBApps’ Randy Parker . Register here.

MerchantCircle Sold to Reply! Inc. for $60 Million

Reply! Inc has acquired MerchantCircle for $60 Million in cash and stock in a deal that makes a big bet on SMB, vertical and social marketing. The deal, which should be completed in Q3, brings MerchantCircle’s list of 1.6 million SMBs to Reply’s “leads or enhanced clicks” platform that ties together elements of search and lead generation.

It also seemed to indicate a possible IPO in the future, although company principals say there is no hurry to do so. Reply filed an S-1 with the SEC last year. Both companies have been profitable for at least two years.

Reply currently attracts 25 million unique visitors to its network of sites and white label relationships. The deal brings together a number of online consumer destinations from both companies, including Bloglines.com, Contractors.com and iMotors.com. MerchantCircle itself has shaped up to be a strong, search-driven Internet Yellow Pages player — although it prefers to characterize itself in broader terms, having added a Q&A platform, appointments, leads widgets, etc.

Indeed, MerchantCircle CEO Ben T. Smith IV likes to focus on the site’s engagement characteristics. “We had 250,000 business engage with each other on Tuesday,” he says. “They friended each other.” Smith says that 25 percent of the member base is active on a monthly basis, which is comparable to other social networks. Instead of a “flat directory,” Smith says: “We give consumers a way to say ‘I want someone to fix a hole in my fence.’

Under terms of the deal, Reply CEO Payem Zamani will run the operation, which will be comprised of Reply! Marketplaces, and Reply! Media. Smith will be Reply! Media Division President and report to Zamani.

Reply was founded in 2006 with a focus on simplifying real estate and auto leads. On one level, the company seeks to make it as easy for consumers to connect to businesses as to make a search. It also has focused on monetizing traffic at every step of the way, and simplified the process for businesses to acquire leads.

Zamani says that what he is building is “dramatically different” than what Google, Yahoo and others provide. “What we’ve done in the local space is what Google Adwords did for the SEM business” — but easier and more scaleable.

Reply’s big idea was recognizing that some consumers aren’t always ready to fill out a cumbersome lead form. Its solution was to develop a variety of lead formats, including “enhanced clicks,” which might be seen as light leads. In these cases, consumers would just provide basic information (i.e. desired car make and model) within a search box found on a site or widget.

It has since added home improvement, insurance, education, apartments and used cars – a vertical lineup that provides a continuum from more mature businesses that have long depended on acquiring leads, to less mature businesses that are more likely to rely on acquiring their customers from search.

At this point, Reply.com has formed click-and-leads partnerships with a number of leading publishers, including CBS Local, Hearst, Local.com and Merchant Circle. These complement existing leads relationships formed with major portals, vertical publishers and OEMs, such as Cars.com, ServiceMagic, JumpStart, RealEstate.com, ActiveRain, GEICO, Ford Motors, Nissan, and Sears.

MerchantCircle Adds Request for Quote

MerchantCircle last week quietly added free Request for Quote services for its large base of 1.6 million local merchants, immediately sending out more than 180,000 quotes. The quotes are based on category and locale.

Logistically, consumers that ask for quotes are asked for more information, if needed. They are then routed to merchants. The MerchantCircle system automatically creates a profile for each consumer that allows them to track which vendors have received their request, manage their responses and also go back and rate the vendors they’ve worked with.

On the merchant side, merchants receive leads in their inbox, where they can engage with the prospect or pass along the lead to other merchants in their network. Each lead is pre-qualified through the MerchantCircle system to help prevent junk and spam and to ensure quality.

MerchantCircle also announced that it will be deploying the leads feature to the CityGrid Media network. As part of the agreement, MerchantCircle will provide CityGrid with a feed of advertisers for distribution on the CityGrid network; each advertiser profile will include a clickable button that launches a lead submission form. CityGrid is an investor in MerchantCircle.

ILM:10: Local Content Economics ‘Not Like Demand Media’

Content farms and aggregators are a major part of the new, scaleable local ecosystem. But the rules of the road are different for local content than for general content, according to executives speaking at ILM:10 in Santa Clara.

MerchantCircle Local Content Studio GM Andy Halliday noted that Merchant Circle is pumping up its context with local content, and now has 120,000 pieces of local content from 15,0o00 contributors after just six months. “Local content has a long tail but there are fewer searches per item,” said Halliday. “It is not the same economics as non-geo topical content like Demand Media.

Halliday also noted that local is “the wild west frontier for getting content up on the Web. It needs to have ‘liveness’ or it’s just a placard. More possibilities open up with the advent of mobile with geo-tracking,” he adds.

Local.com VP for Octane 360 Adam Rioux echoed Halliday’s view, noting that Octane is custom building content that Local.com can sell targeted advertising around. He also noted that Local.com is driving much greater usage for the content by distributing t he content not only to Local.com, but to its partner network, publishers and to SMB profiles.

Perfect Market CEO Julie Schoenfeld said the company has been successfully focusing on working with publishers to monetize non-mainstream content that may have low usage at first but can be pumped up with contextual placement based on search algorithms. It is now working with 30 publishers.

“Think of every article you produce as a deposit in the vault that yields dividends over time,” said Schoenfeld. She advised the audience that with location based services becoming more prevalent, “great meta data, including local geo-targeted content about when or where it was written, is very important.”

Local.Com Overhauls Web Site; Targets Women

Local.com has dramatically upgraded its destination site, with soft colors, an excellent user interface and renewed focus on three core categories –“business,” “coupons” and “events.” The categories are clearly aimed at driving organic traffic from its intended audience of women and mothers.

The site is geo-targeted to automatically provide local listings and features. Listings can also be easily featured on users’ Facebook pages. Business Listings, meanwhile, include drop down sub categories on top of core sections (restaurants, health & wellness, home services, pro services, activities, pets).

“It is a 180 degree turn around” from the prior site, says CEO Heath Clarke. He noted that the effort was very resource intensive in terms of people and money.

The destination site accounts for half of Local.com’s revenue. It is strategic to the company for a number of reasons. The new version is intended to bring in more advertising around its “abundant fresh content to enrich your life” commissioned via Octane Expert, a division within Octane 360, Local.com’s recently acquired SMB services company.

Octane, setting off on a similar path as Demand Media and Merchant Circle Content Studios, can develop articles (i.e. “How to Prepare Italian Food”) for $8-$15, and sell an array of advertising around it.

Local.com’s new coupons section comes from The Deal Map on the local level, as well as (largely) retail ads from ShopLocal and national ads from Savings.com and Coupons.com. Events come from a partnership with Eventful.

MerchantCircle Buys Scheduling Company

Scheduling is seen as the next wave of online marketplace services for SMBs, encouraging sticky usage, premium features and, in some cases, highly contextual advertising. Scheduling vendors such as Agendize, Full Slate, MaxiPage and X-Time are actively syndicating solutions.

Jumping aboard the scheduling trend is MerchantCircle, the SMB services company with 1.3 million registered SMBs. It announced today an all-cash acquisition of TimeBridge, an online meetings facilitator that incorporates scheduling among its other solutions. TimeBridge represents MerchantCircle’s first acquisition.

CEO Ben Smith told us that MerchantCircle will use TimeBridge to incorporate a free, simple-to-use scheduling service for its merchants. While TimeBridge is not primarily a scheduling platform, over time it has acquired 25,000 SMB customers over time. “We knew (scheduling) is something we’d have to have at some point in time,” said Smith.

Ultimately,TimeBridge’s value may be its use as an in-house technology vendor. CEO Yuri Nelkin is bring brought on as CTO of Merchant Circle, and the expectation is that his five-person Israeli team will work on a number of development projects for MerchantCircle. Meanwhile, TimeBridge will continue to exist as a separate entity.

MerchantCircle Launches Local Content Studio

MerchantCircle is joining the ranks of companies creating local and vertical content, including Demand Media, Associated Content, Examiner.com, AOL’s Seed and Patch, Perfect Market, Helium, Brafton Media and others. MC’s new Local Content Studio is being helmed by Andy Halliday, who many of us remember as former head of eCommerce at Excite@Home, who has since been engaged in several entrepreneurial efforts.

The basic idea for MC’s Local Content Studios, and the others, is to create optimized content that can be used to economically and efficiently spur local traffic to its directories and profiles, while driving ad impressions. Presumably, MC will have an edge over rivals via 1.3 million SMBs that have claimed profiles on the service, covering 95 percent of U.S. communities.

The SMBs may be seeking to build attention for themselves (i.e. real estate agents), and/or earn awards or make a little cash –$1 or $2 per article. The cash can eventually add up: some SMBs, in early testing, are already being sent checks for $300 and up.

The Studio is, in fact, may be seen as an extension of MC’s Answers division, launched last September, in which members are encouraged to provide their expertise on a wide range of subjects (where to fix, how to fix, etc.). Both efforts are part of a broader effort to broaden Merchant Circle’s identity and engagement with consumers and businesses beyond the core directory.

At the heart of The Studios is an online authoring and publishing system which can support thousands of simultaneous content development projects. The projects can be claimed by local merchant members or other writers remotely, submitted, reviewed for approval or corrections, and published to local and topical “Expert Pages.”

Merchant Circle VP Darren Waddell says that the creation of the Studio does not alter Merchant Circle’s extensive and successful relationship with Demand Media, which includes syndication of MC’s Answers, domain registration for MC members, and expert articles and other content to MC profiles for $9.95 per month, among other activities.

MerchantCircle’s efforts to launch more local content is not occurring in a vacuum. We have watched with interest as Yahoo has been developing local news and information via the hiring of writers in New York and San Francisco, and recruitment of writer/editors in San Jose, Chicago and Denver, per reporting in Paid Content. Their written and edited material will likely be paired with material from Associated Content, which Yahoo purchased this spring. It represents a very different take than Patch.com, which is hiring journalists for hyperlocal reporting in up to 500 communities.