CityVoter’s 3 Million Votes: Discussion With Founder Josh Walker

CityVoter, the “best of” city service that works with local broadcasters and newspapers, says it has passed the milestone of 3 million votes. The company gets about 1.4 million unique visitors per month and is on pace to increase annual page views to 70 million in 2009. This is nearly 100 percent year-over-year growth, even though the company has dramatically cut back its employee count.

CEO and Founder Josh Walker says the company has raised roughly $5 million to date, and is nearing profitability. As CityVoter has zeroed in on its core mission of promoting the best small businesses in a community, it has grown more efficient and become more effective. It currently has more than 60,000 SMBs engaged with the company.

“We’ve really carved out a niche supporting brands and publishers,” he says. “Two years ago, we looked like a directory” and weren’t really hitting the marks.

Key to the company’s efforts are the “best of” contests that are its hallmarks. The cities where CityVoter has the strongest brands have had “best of” contests promoted by TV station partners and by local businesses themselves. Roughly half the traffic comes from broadcast and newspaper partners, while the other half comes from the CityVoter.com destination site.

Walker says markets such as Detroit, Denver and Indianapolis have prospered in this manner. Detroit had 180,500 votes, Denver had 109,000, and Indianapolis had 95,000. Conversely, “You won’t see Chicago doing very well” because it hasn’t yet conducted a  “best of” contest.

The Detroit relationship with WDIV-TV, a Post-Newsweek station, actually makes for a good social media case study. The eight-week “best of” contest not only drove 180,000+ votes, but more importantly, drove 86,000 recommendations. It also saw a 25 percent increase in businesses competing, and an 86 percent increase in user accounts created. “This is fantastic local energy and enthusiasm for one of America’s most economically depressed cities,” notes Walker.

The key to WDIV’s success was that it incorporated the contest into its news broadcasts and provided fun promos. It also built on-air anticipation about the results by making a big deal about the “secret ballots.” It provided businesses with “best of” signs and “best of” balloons, and filmed businesses as they were notified that they were winners, Publishers Clearing House style. Walker notes that CityVoter is working with at least 10 other stations that have engaged in similar efforts.

Its efforts with newspapers play off different strengths. The San Francisco Chronicle, for instance, has launched different “best of” sections with three or four editions conducted at different times of the year. For instance, it has separate winery and restaurant sections. “The winery voter is not the same as the local gym voter,” says Walker.

Newspapers remain challenging, however. “There is a constant fight with editorial about user-generated content,” he says. There is something to that. Newspaper editors are leery about hiring non-union writers for special sections. They are also leery about users stuffing the ballot box — an ongoing focus for CityVoter and others in the field.

Besides the local media partnerships, Walker says CityVoter has done very well piggybacking off national promotional efforts. For instance, it has been working with NBC’s “Biggest Loser” and OfficeDepot on its recent “Survival of the Smartest” SMB contest, which gives tips to SMBs on how to survive in tough times.

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