Leveraging local performance for national brands

Throughout the 00s, Life is Local was the cri de cœur of local press’s advocacy body, the Newspaper Society. Money was spent locally, we were told. People shopped, banked, relaxed and ate near their home. They looked for jobs, cars and homes within a given radius, and advertising should reflect their habits. That was probably the case once, but in the age of next-day delivery and restaurant reintermediation, is it still true? Moreover, armed with datasets that facilitate so many other ways of dissecting the populous and building an audience, should marketers still care? If the high street is on its knees, what of the media that once nourished it; what value does local marketing retain today?

Traditionally the distinction between local and national advertising was wholly binary and the benefits of each were well understood. To its credit, local activity offered to local advertisers a high level of efficiency and relevance, and an affordable buy-in cost. To national advertisers it offered a greater penetration than national platforms could provide in isolation, and opportunities to offer discrete messages to different communities. To its detriment, local activity was often more costly on a per-thousand basis and offered an inefficient route to market, requiring considerable time and resource to cover a large territory. Consequently, properly constructed media plans blended an appropriate mix of local and national activity, perhaps using broadcast to generate awareness and drive reach and frequency at a low cost per thousand while underperforming outlets were given further support with local press that gave additional reasons to buy and reflected the concerns or demography of a given location. Channel planning such campaigns required a broad understanding of the nuances of both disciplines, while activation of local marketing necessitated expertise with and access to discrete sets of research tools, relationships with different groups of suppliers, and an understanding of what a good deal looked like and how to achieve it. Local marketing was in many regards a distinct specialism and it had significant value to national brands and local advertisers alike.

Complications to this relatively straightforward local/national binary have emerged over the course of my two decades in the industry, as the shift towards digital media consumption gave advertisers the ability to target national media on a geographical basis. To a greater or lesser extent the emerging advertising opportunities offered geographical targeting out of the box (Facebook, Google, programmatic display), while technological advances facilitated an enhanced capacity to segment more traditional channels geographically (non-linear TV, Spotify). As a result, today pretty much every channel that can be used nationally can also be used at a local level, planned and bought by the same teams.

While muddying the local/national distinction, the disruption that tech brought to our industry also offered numerous new complications that allowed us to divide audiences into sub types and communicate with them accordingly. The division between local and national became far less relevant than a consumer’s position in the sales funnel, their previous purchases, the contents of their cookie cache or the deterministic data we held about them and their proclivities. As well as opening up a new realm of segmented digital targeting, this new wealth of data impacted the way we buy traditional media: today JCD would be far happier selling you a Tesco 6-sheet audience, dayparted against Clubcard data across a range of locations, than letting you take an uninterrupted fortnight at the store in Barrow-in-Furness.

Over the same period (and by no means unconnected), the ability of many traditional local media platforms to reach consumers was diminished as we began to consume media and access news in new ways. More traditional platforms began to lose audience share and as ad spend followed consumers online, many of them began to close as a consequence.

Despite this much-elided distinction between two previously relatively dissimilar disciplines, and notwithstanding a weakening of many mainstays of the local media market, the value of a blended use of local and national media is unchanged. The data signals that introduced novel ways to segment audiences have also confirmed that in many ways life still is local: Google’s own figures suggests that 46% of searches are looking for local information. Tech giants like Rightmove and JustEat recognise the value of a humble sticker in the window of a participating outlet. The metaverse may be on its way, but for now the real world is still just outside.

Today, for many advertisers, a properly constructed media plan should be three-dimensional, reflecting the need to flex relative to the consumer’s position in the purchase funnel or accommodate understandings gleaned from their digital footprint, but also acknowledging their position geographically. It’s true that local consumers can be targeted through many of the same platforms as national audiences, in many instances without a significant asymmetry in the cost per thousand, but there remains a core skillset around the tactical use of local marketing within a media schedule that should not be underestimated. Even when national platforms like Sky or Facebook can be activated at a local level, an expertise in the local space can help translate top-down awareness into bottom-up calls to action. The local media environment offers an axis along which relevance can tweaked: directional out of home for bricks and mortar retail, “personalised” messaging that speaks to inhabitants of a specific home town, or simply Find My Nearest tools that help the consumer travel the final mile to store. Tailoring messaging by geography can make BVOD or non-linear radio far more relevant to the consumer, increasing response rates and boosting recall.

Reflecting the retained value of the local area marketplace, many of the “new” media platforms are built to accommodate local marketing activity from national and local advertisers alike: Google My Business is a major source of traffic for many brands and a core tool for improving SERP results, particularly on “where’s my nearest” searches. Local SEO is a specialist skillset well worth its place on most media plans. The proper use of Facebook’s Store Traffic objective and hyperlocal mobile footfall campaigns can stretch national campaigns to cover the final mile, allowing marketeers to understand the real-world impact of digital media investment.

And of course, alongside a familiarity with the local facets of national platforms, an affinity with the remaining local platforms is still vital. Although a tough decade or two has had a devastating impact on regional press as a whole, there is life in the old dog yet. Maidenhead Advertiser, Manchester Evening News and Milton Keynes Citizen alike, the publications that remain have survived for good reason: they are high-quality multi-platform brands, much loved and trusted by their audience and revelling in a renewed pomp. Knowing your bellyband from your gatefold, or haggling to have a few tweets thrown in with your full page; knowing what day the ents listings are published, all of this is essential to provision of a proper local area marketing campaign.

So… is life less local than it used to be? Probably. Even as COVID reintroduced us to our communities, it also introduced many of us to new digital opportunities for the first time. There’s no avoiding the fact that digital enfranchisement has broadened our horizons to the occasional detriment of local life and local commerce. But does a local marketing pull still complement a national marketing push, each improving the performance of the other? Absolutely it does.

The ways in which the local space can be exploited within a media plan may have moved on but the impact on ROAS of a properly integrated local campaign shows that the value of local marketing remains constant.