Cox Search Launches Kudzu

Cox Enterprises has been largely silent on the local front since the high profile failure of Cox Interactive Media and its city guides in 2001. But the local media giant is quietly re-entering the local waters with the creation of a new “Cox Search LLC” division, described as “a strategy and development group created to develop interactive products.”

We had an email exchange with Cox Search Vice President and General Manager Tom Bates. Highlights of the exchange are below. But first, some background.

As with Cox Interactive Media (and more successful efforts, such as AutoTrader, Mannheim Auctions, and ValPak) Cox talks the talk and walks the walk when it comes to building separate organizations that won’t get bogged down by the priorities of its other, revenue generating media properties.

Cox Search’s first product is an Internet Yellow Pages/social network named “Kudzu,” after the invasive vine spreading over the southeast. Kudzu was set in motion in October 2003 and formally launched in August 2005, after months of delays. Kudzu’s pilot is set in Atlanta, Cox’s home base, and covers the entire Atlanta metropolitan area, rather than just focusing on the urban center, as Craig’s List tends to do.

A quick look at the site reveals a full-featured, highly searchable product, with 100,000 + local service listings and more than 13,000 user reviews (some motivated by the promise of a $10 gas card in return for 10 reviews). Like a good IYP, users can search by keyword or category, as well by distance or review. The site also features a number of “how to choose” guides.

Based on job descriptions, the initial listings were partly put together by vertical teams focused on areas such as “health” and “real estate.” In addition to that effort, a key focus has been to add useful information to the listings beyond name/phone number/address/category with searchable “copy points” such as photos, brands and descriptions. Already, a third of the listings have been enhanced in this manner. In addition, a growing number of the listings are self-generated, using the self-posting tools. More than 2,000 listings have been added as the result of user reviews.

The Local Onliner Interview with GM Tom Bates

Now we get to the email exchange with Tom Bates, who previously served as Cox Interactive Media’s COO and head of sales for New Century Network. Bates clued us in on key issues, such as the site’s promotional strategy, its acquisition of user reviews, and plans for growth.

For starters, Bates says Kudzu has been effectively leveraging promotional ties with various Cox properties in Atlanta, including The Atlanta Journal Constitution, AJC.com, Access Atlanta (a city guide) and several radio stations. It is also promoted on billboards throughout metro Atlanta, and through some non-Cox media.

The site has “also done a direct mail drop, and some B2B advertising in the Atlanta Business Chronicle,” which is not associated with Cox. “And we’ve begun tele-selling (inbound and outbound). Frankly, our biggest traffic driver to date has been positive word of mouth,” Bates says.

“Merchants are getting leads. Cox has many employees in the market using the site. We’ve promoted ourselves through business groups (e.g. Chambers) and consumer groups (e.g. neighborhood associations).”

Bates adds that “online marketing has also been a key component. Smart SEO. Keyword buys on the major search engines. Search boxes on ajc.com.” The site has also been reported to use paid search on Google and Yahoo.

As for the 13,000 reviews, which are the heart and soul of a site like this, Bates expresses satisfaction. Getting to 13,000 has “been done without restaurants or by counting reviews of a chain as multiple reviews, as some are doing. But there is still plenty of room for growth,” says Bates. Right now, there is “a very good mix of categories, but obviously, there are more dentists than bail bondsmen. And everyone loves their vet it seems. “

“We’re at the point where we may call more attention to the number of reviews a reviewer has done,” Bates adds. “We’re also considering a rebuttal or appeals process for merchants. But we’re still thinking this through.”

Going forward, the emphasis will be on getting more reviews, deeper content, and selling premium listings, as well as more traditional advertising. The site has been offering free, three month promotions to get businesses involved.

But now it begins to plan seriously converting advertisers with packages that begin at $25 per month (or $250 per year). The deal includes guaranteed placement; business descriptions; photo albums; email addresses; the insertion of company logos; and registration of up to five locations at once.

In addition to premium listings, Kudzu is selling top page placements, which are limited to three positions per category. These cost from $500 to $1000 per month, based on the length of contract (three months, six months or 12 months). Similarly, logo tile ads range from $400 to $900 per month.

Bates notes that Cox Search hasn’t decided what its next products wil be, or on additional markets for Kudzu. One would suspect that logical candidates would be places like Austin, Columbus, Ohio and San Diego, simply based on where Cox has a major promotional capability.

Why Is Craig’s List Still Hip?

It’s still early in the game and a lot of the site’s success will be to ensure that it gets the upsells, whether it can rely on self-serve to carry most of the traffic, and whether it can maintain a constant flow of user ratings. None of these issues are givens.

However, it is quite an experience looking at Kudzu, and then looking at BellSouth Real Pages, which is probably its “immediate” competition (at least from the advertiser’s point of view). And then you can look at sites like Craig’s List, which is its “future” competition. Good start, Kudzu.