You just moved into town and you realize how much work you need done around the house. You don’t know who the best lawn guy is. You don’t know who would be able to walk your dog while you’re at work. Do you open the yellow pages?
Well, yeah, if this is 1985. But in 2011 the first place most people turn to is the Internet. The trouble is that the Internet brings you the entire, unfiltered, uncategorized world.
Lots of entrepreneurs are trying to change that (U.S. 1, January 5, 2011). Now Suzanne O’Rourke has joined the hyper-local online competition. If you live in Princeton, Plainsboro, South Brunswick, Franklin Park, Jamesburg, or Monroe, you can log onto www.LocalChatbox.com, O’Rourke’s online repository of small, localized businesses. And while you’re there, you can read what customers are saying about these businesses.
One rule: You can’t be a jerk about it. You can criticize constructively, O’Rourke says (“The food was good but the service was slow” is fine), but you can’t defame anyone. “I won’t be a platform for bashing,” she says.
The concept as O’Rourke sees it is merely addressing the realities of the digital age. “If you look around, all you see are people on their Droids, their iPhones,” she says. “The yellow pages tell you nothing. This tells you everything.”
The site is a marriage of concepts behind three well-known sites — Yelp.com, which allows consumers to tell others about their experiences with businesses and organizations; Patch.com, AOL’s network of localized online news sites, which also features events listings in each market, and Groupon.com, which offers coupons for online shoppers.
The difference is that O’Rourke is not looking to conquer the corporate world with her idea. Talk to her enough about LocalChatbox and you will hear her reiterate the phrase “This is meant to help small businesses.” And she’s serious. Though she won’t say which, O’Rourke turned away a chain store that wanted to advertise on LocalChatbox because she wants to help the small business owner; the person whose business is an extension of herself.
Part of her way of doing that is to be inexpensive. A business can buy a listing on the site for $200 a year. If you want to be featured, meaning that your business will be part of a rotating panel of highlighted ads, it will cost a little extra, but you won’t pay more than $400 a year. And for the money you get a listing that allows customers to evaluate and rate you and follow links to your website. (The online world includes several sites that offer free listings, among them U.S. 1’s princetoninfo.com, which has databases featuring more than 5,000 businesses and more than 500 restaurants.)
Since launching in February O’Rourke has signed up 98 businesses and says that she will feel things are catching on for real when she signs up between 200 and 250. One thing she does enjoy is the mix — “we really do have a little bit of everything,” she says, rattling off such diverse enterprises as dog walking and grandfather clock repair.
O’Rourke so far enjoys a loyal client base that she says is getting real results. “One of my house painters has gotten three jobs because of us,” she says. Another business had found nine new clients. “People love the idea,” she says. “And I think every town could use this. You don’t know all the experts in every field. I take the research and the work away from the consumer.”
O’Rourke is LocalChatBox. She does all the marketing, all the promotion, all the networking, all the schmoozing. And though LocalChatbox exists entirely in the digital world, O’Rourke’s approach to getting the word out is an old-fashioned, foot-to-pavement campaign. O’Rourke has sat at events, registering users at a table and holding raffles. She hands out postcards to people and to business owners, who in turn hand them out to clients with their bills and statements. She hangs cards on doorknobs. She leaves cards on tables at restaurants. She advertises in church bulletins. And she puts up signs, like one she has at the soccer field in Monmouth Junction.
O’Rourke is no stranger to marketing campaigns. A native of Baltimore, where she learned her life and business beliefs from her attorney father and sales professional mother, O’Rourke spent 14 years in direct marketing after finishing college in 1994. She came to New Jersey to attend Rider College, where she met her husband, Patrick, a financial services professional. He graduated in 1993, the last year before the school switched from Rider College to Rider University. “It’s our joke that he went to college and I went to a university,” she says.
Armed with a bachelor’s in communications, O’Rourke entered the direct mail world and became a vice president at a large firm. “Then I got pregnant with twins,” she says. An admitted fan of all things family, she stayed home to raise the twins (now 6) for a while and came up with the idea for LocalChatbox when she realized she could do something to help small business owners stay out there and reach customers without the massive commitment it takes to run regular print or broadcast campaigns.
O’Rourke’s family focus shows up in her latest avenue — listing local family-friendly events. It is one more way to keep LocalChatbox’s name out there, she says, but it also is a way of simply keeping the community together.
“This is a labor of love,” she says. “It’s a ton of work. But it’s all about helping people out.”
#b#Local ChatBox#/b#, 4 Van Gogh Court, Monmouth Junction, 08852; 732-406-3365. Suzanne O’Rourke, owner. www.LocalChatBox.com