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Business Observer Friday, May 10, 2019 2 weeks ago

In the zone: Firm banks on targeted, local approach to online ads

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Tampa startup MyArea Network has a plan to compete with the Goliaths of digital marketing. It needs to work fast.
by: Brian Hartz Tampa Bay Editor

EYE: Companies  

Prior to moving to Tampa in 2005, Scott Conlon lived in Maryland and had a revelation about Baltimore’s famous crab cakes — yes, those — that 10 years later would push him into entrepreneurship.

“They were opening up all of these chain restaurants around the Inner Harbor,” he says, “and I was like, ‘Man, all these people who are visiting Baltimore, I bet they want to know where to get the real Maryland crab cakes.”

“You’re on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat or any of these other social media platforms that are all fighting for your attention, but they’re not about local. They all want to go after local, but they're not local first and local only.” Scott Conlon, CEO and co-founder of MyArea Network

A decade later, Conlon launched MyArea Network, a Tampa-based digital marketing company that specializes in maximizing exposure for local businesses to both tourists and residents. It does that with content posted on carefully curated websites, like 813area.com and 727area.com, and delivered through email and text message updates. The company makes money by charging businesses a recurring fee for advertising and content marketing. 

Conlon refers to MyArea as a matchmaking service, of sorts, designed to cut through the noise of websites like Google, Facebook and Yelp. Those sites, he says, take too much of a “macro” approach to local business marketing.

“Then they drill down, like they’re trying to figure out how to become more local,” he says, whereas MyArea Network “is not about search; it’s about discovery. We want to help businesses be in front of the audiences they want to connect to.”

Conlon, 37, faces intense competition in the lucrative world of digital marketing, forecast to not only become a $120 billion industry by 2021, but account for nearly half (46%) of all advertising spending, according to a 2017 report from research and advisory firm Forrester. How will his company, part of the Tampa Bay Wave business accelerator program, compete with tech giants that dominate online advertising?

To begin with, CEO Conlon and his partners, COO David Annis and Vice President of Product Greg Cummins, see an opening created by rising levels of “digital fragmentation,” as Conlon puts it. That opening, they believe, is to go local. 

“You’re on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat or any of these other social media platforms that are all fighting for your attention, but they’re not about local,” Conlon says. “They all want to go after local, but they're not local first and local only.”

Second, and notably, MyArea Network now has the backing of two tech-savvy area executives: former Catalina Marketing and Folgers Coffee Co. CEO Jamie Egasti and Tony DiBenedetto, founder of TriBridge, an IT and cloud computing firm that surpassed $175 million in value before it was acquired in 2017.

Egasti and DiBenedetto recently joined MyArea Network’s board, after participating in a round of bridge financing that’s generated $300,000-$400,000 so far. That follows an oversubscribed seed funding effort that raised $525,000 in October alone, Conlon says.

“It’s exciting to have Jamie and Tony join us both as investors and on the board, with their expertise,” he says. “They are mentors and I get to meet with them almost weekly. It’s very impactful for our business.”

Conlon, who previously worked in publishing, declines to disclose revenue figures but says MyArea Network has surpassed the $1 million mark and is growing 80% year-over-year. It has 21 employees and expects to grow to 40 by the end of 2019.

More growth? MyArea Network, active in 15 metro areas, mostly in the Southeast, has secured domain names for 150 more markets in anticipation of future expansion. Its websites, based on a city’s area code, burst with local content such as events calendars, user reviews of attractions, photo albums, deals and discounts and a “things to do” guide heavy on directing traffic to local businesses.

The sites also feature articles and photos submitted by local paid freelancers. The 727area.com site, for example, has an article titled “Best Places To Go Dancing in St. Pete and Clearwater," populated with a curated list of local bars and nightclubs.

Businesses can claim a page on the site for free, while a basic marketing package costs between $300 and $500 per month, Conlon says. A larger regional or national chain — Conlon cites Hungry Howie’s pizza company as a brand he’s had great success with — will usually pay $1,000-$5,000 per month “based on how much reach” they desire. That reach is tracked.

“We combine their sales data with our marketing data," Conlon says, "so they can see more of a return on investment based on the specific marketing programs they’re doing — they’re able to see the results.”

(This article has been updated to reflect the fact that MyArea Network continues to work with Tampa Bay Wave.)

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