SupportLocal Begins Long, Tough Road as Local ‘Word of Mouth’ Destination

SupportLocal logoJustin Sanger, the well-seasoned local entrepreneur and former CEO of LocalLaunch, recently launched SupportLocal. In short SupportLocal aims to be a business referral network and local recommendations destination. It will allow people to recommend and ask for local business referrals.

Currently it taps into your Facebook network, though probably not deeply enough. However the new conventional wisdom is that  you can’t or shouldn’t rely on Facebook to build your business.

There’s a mobile app in the works but it’s not yet available.

I spoke to Justin before the launch and again this morning. He says the company is doing new releases every two weeks and many of the challenges and questions I raised (discussed below) he agreed with or has thought about extensively.

This “local word of mouth” space is one that has been repeatedly attempted (unsuccessfully) by many companies. Yelp could be described as being in this segment but I’m really talking about “local Q&A.”

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Not long ago I wrote a post called Why Have (Local) Q&A Sites Largely Failed? And they have.

Yahoo Answers isn’t a success (there’s lots of content but quality is very low). Facebook shuttered its Q&A product. Google killed Aardvark. LocalMind is gone (acquired by AirBnb) and the list goes on. Quora will ultimately be acquired by someone but it’s not going to succeed at local.

The concept of local Q&A remains out there. On paper it’s exactly right: trusted recommendations from real people in quasi-real time. Yet there is a daunting range of execution challenges, mostly tied to getting content and engagement and then in leveraging and presenting information in an optimal way.

For one, SupportLocal must overcome the familiar “cold start” problem: nobody wants to be the first person at a party or eat in an empty restaurant. Sanger says he’s addressing that by initially focusing on the Denver market, where the company is based. He assures me there’s already a ton of activity there.

It’s smart to gain critical mass in a single market, tweak the model and expand geographically. That was Yelp’s success formula; that and a lot of SEO juice, which is much harder to get today today.

SupportLocal received seed funding and has some smart people behind it. But the execution challenges remain enormous. Nextdoor is another site going after largely the same objective albeit with a different approach (and $40 million in funding).

The challenge facing both (to differing degrees) is to lure people out of their familiar email discussions, Yahoo Groups and local forums. Email remains the primary way that parents, school groups, children’s sports groups and groups organized around local religious institutions tend to interact.

If you were to advise Monsieur Sanger on what he should do, what would you tell him? And what is your opinion about whether SupportLocal has a shot at success?

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