Web Advertisement Made Better for Small Business

Wednesday, March 28, 2007
Posted by Brawlin Melgar
Michael Rivkin and Alexander Libkind have a high-tech solution for one of modern man's most vexing problems: The need to order more food during the Super Bowl. For the unprepared—those fans lacking the foresight to put the local pizzeria on speed dial—this task has often involved someone missing the game or those much-hyped commercials to look up the number of the buffalo-wing and beverage-delivering corner deli. But Rivkin and Libkind, co-founders of Zodiac Interactive, have tapped their inner couch potato to envision a better way: using the remote control to connect with local vendors.

On Jan. 17 the pair released technology that will let subscribers search for local businesses and never miss a minute of what's on the tube. Simply hit a button on the remote, and the live-action picture on the screen shrinks to make room for a local search menu, which users can peruse by category or keyword.

Businesses in the vicinity matching the desired criteria are then displayed onscreen. Clicking on a vendor causes the cable subscriber's phone to ring with the business on the line.

Targeting Small Business Rivkin, Zodiac's CEO, plans to support the service by selling interactive banner ads from local vendors on the search screen. Zodiac may charge businesses for the call as do other click-to-call Web services.

Rivkin is still experimenting with the revenue model. But first he wanted to develop a service that could make life a little easier for the average television viewer. "If you are watching the Super Bowl and you want pizza, or sushi, or whatever, just go into our service and order from the place that you want," he says.

The person that stands to benefit most from Zodiac's service, however, is not the football fan but the small-business owner. Indeed, this may be the breakout year for small-business ads on the Web.

Tech companies such as Google (GOOG) and eBay (EBAY) have unveiled or announced the development of services to get the small-business owner more involved in online advertising. The hope for technology companies is that such products —which often link online services such as interactive maps with local business directories and even Internet phone providers—will help them sustain double-digit growth by tapping into a large segment of U.S. businesses that have yet to spend much, if any, of their ad budgets online.

For years, businesses that wanted to advertise online have had to invest thousands to develop a Web site or pay companies to develop Web-specific advertisements such as banner ads. As a result, many small-business owners have been reluctant to invest in what they saw as an unproven medium.

But the advent of search advertising, with its ability to target consumers and track results, encouraged more small businesses to get involved with online ads. The text-based search advertisements also got rid of one of the big barriers for small businesses, the inability or unwillingness to pay a design firm to create a graphic ad. An advertiser could supply Google or Yahoo! (YHOO) with the same few words it was already giving to directories such as the Yellow Book.

"The Final Frontier" Search is still a primary driver for local Web advertising. But as search ads get more expensive, it's new products such as pay-per-call advertising and local mobile advertising that have potential to reel in many of the small businesses that have yet to advertise on the Web (see BusinessWeek.com, 1/22/06, "The Small Fry Sour on Search Ads").

"Local online advertisers are the final frontier in online advertising," says Colby Atwood, president of Borrell Associates, a research firm specializing in local advertising. "Smaller local businesses were slower to catch on, but they are starting to flow onto the Web at a pretty high rate."

Atwood attributes much of the growth to a realization among small business owners that customers are researching potential purchases