[Psst! Want more? Watch our webinar on local engagement.]

Billboards, radio, television and print publication ads are an essential but ultimately limited method for reaching your local customers. At Citation Labs, we help nation-wide clients establish or expand their presence at the local level – online and off, and we’ve noticed that there are a multitude of avenues brands aren’t taking when they consider local. We started to think about and experiment with ‘local engagement’ in a new way. After two years, and one new side-project turned sister agency, we’re ready to reveal how we’re redefining ‘local.’

We’re calling this piece the ‘ultimate guide’ because it outlines every tactic we’ve developed so far, divided into four categories:

In this article, we’ll run through the playbook of true engagement with your customers at the local level.

I. Online-only community engagement

‘Local web’ is almost an oxymoronic phrase. A directory of Cincinnati restaurants, for example, may be hosted in upstate New York and monitored by an employee in San Jose, CA. But engaging with online-only local opportunities for or about the residents of a particular city can help raise a brand’s local profile from a search and branding perspective. These opportunities could include:

  • That directory of Cincinnati restaurants
  • A resource page linking to pet-friendly restaurants in Nashville
  • “Non-local local sites” like Yelp, Yellow Pages or Open Table
  • A blogger who lives in Dallas

We define online-only community engagement as ‘relationship building without a physical presence.’ If you want to stay in the digital world, finding those truly local web options involves detailed prospecting and careful connection, but results in a local presence you can almost feel.

Online-Only Tactics

1. Blogs
Engaging with local bloggers first means prospecting for local bloggers.

We begin in any location by finding local blogger lists. Search “best [CITY] bloggers” for any location, and you’ll find at least one roundup of area bloggers. The list may be outdated, and you’ll need to double check each blogger’s site to make sure they’re still blogging and haven’t relocated, but it can be a quick way to find some legitimate prospects.

Blogger lists can take you pretty far into a city, but if you want to prospect for all of the local men and women in your target town, you’ll need to do some creative digging.

To prospect bloggers in [CITY X], we use the Link Prospector and traditional searches looking for phrases local bloggers who also fit our search profile would use. For example, if we’re looking for bloggers in Dallas, we won’t just search “Dallas blog.” We’ll also search: “here in Dallas” or Dallas intitle:”about me.” For more on using the Link Prospector to find bloggers based on phrasing, check out Ken McGaffin & Megan Hannay’s 5-minute how-to:

As if locating local bloggers isn’t challenging enough, we also have to find meaningful ways to approach and connect with them. Bloggers are increasingly defining their levels of “PR friendliness,” but that doesn’t mean they’ll mention any corporation that comes their way. Blogger reviews/promotions often include product giveaways or freebies. There are also straight-up money-exchanging “sponsored posts,” but those are treated more like ads, since there’s an implicit request for positive feedback.

But the plus side is, if you can successfully partner with writers who are familiar with your target city, you’ve got new local advocates with a platform.

Use this tactic for: 

  • social shares
  • links from local pages
  • increased branding among local blog readers

2. Local Link Curator Engagement
True curators are looking for useful information that serves their audience. They may not write a post about your great customer service, but they’ll include a link to your infographic on local employment resources.

One key piece of advice here is prospect first. Local linker topics can vary by city, so we highly recommend prospecting for links pages mentioning a certain zip code or city before you plan much in terms of content. For example, you’re not going to have as many “hurricane” resources pages in Kansas. And you’re more likely to find senior citizen related resources in cities where the population is older.

From any topical perspective, links and resource pages at the local level are an “inch deep and a mile wide” (or as our friends at Whitespark would say, “a centimeter deep and a kilometer wide”). Because there are so few of these pages, the content costs (research, curation, writing) may not be offset by the number of links or the ROI earned. But you can increase your chances of converting outreach emails into a link by engaging with non-competing local experts to create content that would appeal to local linkers. Think “group interview” with local run club leaders to learn the safest routes for nighttime jogs. This tactic increases the authority and the “local feel” of the piece.

Use this tactic for: 

  • links from local pages
  • increased branding among local information-seekers

Benefits & Limitations of Online-Only Engagement


  • Increased likelihood of appearing in local searches for your brand’s keywords.
  • Word-of-mouth and social media exposure from local influencers.
  • Increased branding among locals on web pages related to their city.


  • Variable time commitment. Locating and engaging with the right locals online can take weeks, or even months, for any given city before results come through.
  • Limited reach. Online-only engagement can’t access an entire market within a city. For local search, there’s also the chance that a competitor already ranks highly, which will require a doubling of efforts to beat. This doesn’t mean “don’t try,” but if resources are lacking in forms of local exposure, the [CITY] SERP will become the only battlefield with a given competitor.
  • Low quantity of opportunities. There just aren’t that many local opportunities (compared to national ones), and you really need to hand-qualify everything.

II.Local media engagement

If every brand has a story, every new location is a chapter. Your launch in New York will not follow the same script as your launch in Atlanta, which will be surprisingly different from your first few weeks in LA. PR offers a way to connect with each city on its terms and to highlight how your brand’s working to move into the neighborhood.

photographerLocal PR Tactics

1. Local Content Journalism
Want to get the attention of people or businesses local to a city? You could send out a press release about yourself, with some nice quotes to be copied and pasted on half a dozen “news” sites. Or you could give the residents of your target location a chance in the spotlight. Content journalism is a great way to introduce a brand to a new region while also providing a way for potential customers to shine.

Don’t have a writer to serve as a local journalist? Hire a local freelance reporter and ask him or her to find the most compelling stories around town related to your business. This is also an opportunity to work with local bloggers – ask them to contribute a locally-flavored piece to your blog in exchange for cross promotion.

Another idea we’re experimenting with is reaching out to local business with an “in the news” section of their website. Including them in a blog post piece could help gain visibility and earned links.

Use this tactic for: 

  • social media attention in your target city
  • links from local pages

2. Local Press Engagement
This could also be a great opportunity tell customers stories, or release aggregated data in your industry. Has your presence in CITY X taught you something about its residents? How can your company expertise help solve a local issue? If you have a great story, find local reporters who have covered your industry or new business in the past. Or study the news for ongoing trends in your region and find an angle that only your organization can provide.

At the same time, no local tactic truly stands alone, and this is no more true than it is for press engagement. There’s not much to say if you don’t have a story to tell, so using some of the other tactics in this piece is a great way to get things started. And if you really want to meet journalists, get involved with local events.

Use this tactic for: 

  • local press mentions and/or links
  • social media attention in your target city

3. Local Scholarships

Offer members of the local community a scholarship for education that occurs in that state or city. Scholarships can be as simple as financial donations, or they can be as involved as internship or mentoring programs. Again, think about the story your brand wants to tell the local community; how can this type of involvement enhance your underlying local mission?

Scholarships are also a potential link earning opportunity, for local schools, community programs and scholarship links pages, so make sure they’re easy to find on your website and published in the right place. (See our UX Webinar with Shari Thurow for more on site architecture.)

Use this tactic for: 

  • local press mentions and/or links
  • links from local pages

4. Local Contests

Just like local scholarships, we recommend getting creative with contests. It’s hard to beat your own drum, and corralling support for your contest can begin to feel like a job in its own right. But if you’re working with the right community partners and hit on a real community need (or interest) your donut run could turn into a local sensation.

Use this tactic for: 

  • local press mentions and/or links
  • social media attention in your target city

Benefits & Limitations of PR Engagement


  • The chance to introduce your brand’s personality.
  • Ownership – with content journalism, contests and scholarships, your brand controls the story.
  • Increased likelihood of appearing in local searches for your brand’s keywords.
  • Increased branding among locals on web pages related to their city.


  • No certain benefits. Sometimes great stories & ideas go nowhere, and it’s difficult to predict what’s going to catch on in a new place.
  • Time commitment. Building relationships with journalists is equally, or perhaps even more time-consuming than working with bloggers or local community activists.

III. Online-offline (hybrid) community engagement

Let’s take a walk in the “real world” for a moment. Your customers may spend 40+ hours a week in front of a computer, but are you sure that’s the best way to reach them? It isn’t proven that online ads are the most effective form of spreading brand awareness. Even beyond banner blindness, a recent study showed that sponsored posts on Facebook resulted in minimal emotional reaction from consumers.
And, as mentioned with blogs and resource pages, not all CITY X locals peruse local resources online. The more native someone is to CITY X, the less likely they are, we assume, to look online for best restaurants or government resources – these folks know their way around, and they’ve got an established repertoire of brands they trust. So how do we reach men and women who don’t surf the local web? Go where we know they are – CITY X itself. Add real-world branding to your promotion strategy.

There’s a fragmented marketplace (one we’re working to assemble) that connects brands with local communities. And in this section, we’ll share some areas where these hybrid engagement models can be found.

Hybrid Engagement Tactics

baseball1. Local Demographic Engagement

Here, you’re focused primarily on reaching a demographic where they live. You might get on a banner or a t-shirt or your logo may appear on the website for the 5k. You can partner with a museum to develop an educational program or donate a table at a breast cancer awareness event to local survivors. All of these opportunities come with tangible marketing benefits – press mentions, social media, email newsletters, earned local links, signage and branding, etc. It’s an online/offline melange, and this hybrid engagement method is the speciality of our new company, ZipSprout.

Even if you don’t want to hire an agency to help you brand locally, it’s possible to target grassroots opportunities in any locality you’re focused on. Once you start looking local, you’ll find everything from HOA newsletter ads to park bench sponsorships. And targeting demographically allows for finding opportunities that serve or overlap with an audience you’re aiming to reach. If your audience is local pet owners, target events that serve homeless animals. Local demographic engagement finds your brand’s niche in the real world.

What’s the best way to find these opportunities?

Start searching. They’re everywhere.

Most cities have a parades, festivals, half marathons and wine & dine events multiple times a month. Not to mention the number of nonprofits in constant need of funding and arts events looking for underwriters. Many marketers don’t search for these opportunities, because they are time consuming. But if you can make the space in your schedule, you’ll find local niches that your competitors haven’t reached.

Use this tactic for: 

  • social media attention in your target city
  • links from local pages
  • increased branding among locals (of your target demographics)
  • local press mentions and/or links

handshaking2. Handshaking (visiting & sponsoring local events)

Find an opportunity that involves media attention or social media support (as most local sponsorship opportunities do), add a company representative with a friendly demeanor, and you’ve got the epitome of offline-online brand building.

Handshaking usually entails (wo)manning a festival booth or meeting customers over a round table at a charity dinner. It can also involve company volunteer day or tickets to a sporting event. For many local engagements, sponsorship includes a ticket or two, and if your brand can swing sending representatives, you’re meeting potential community advocates over dinner or golf, or at the 10K finish line after-party.

This tactic is the ultimate engagement, though it’s also the most difficult to scale without creative thinking. But handshaking doesn’t always have to come from a corporate representative; this also a chance for sharing economy brands to reward local rockstars. Give your top customers in CITY X the chance to attend events for free, and they’ll sing your praises to fellow attendees.

A final note on handshaking – if you truly can’t attend or send anyone to a local event across the country, don’t discount this type of sponsorship. It’s very possible that your space can be donated to a person or nonprofit, reaping your brand all the other benefits of local engagement along with the side perk of connecting with more locals. For example, one outdoor event we contacted in Austin offered to let our brand donate their booth space to an animal shelter – what could be better than letting attendees enjoy puppy petting in your name? This is what we mean by ‘creativity’ – most local opportunities are willing and excited to work with partners in ways to meet both parties’ needs.

Use this tactic for: 

  • social media attention in your target city
  • links from local pages
  • highly personalized branding among locals (of your target demographics)
  • local press mentions and/or links

Benefits & Limitations of Hybrid Engagement


  • Increased likelihood of appearing in local searches for your brand’s keywords.
  • Increased branding among locals on and off the web.
  • Potential for
    • newsletter mentions
    • website/blog mentions
    • press mentions
    • social media mentions
    • ‘handshake’ opportunities
    • company signage or branded tshirts at events


  • Personnel. Who’s going to step out of the office to represent the brand?
  • ROI is more difficult to measure with offline branding efforts.

IV. Local grassroots advertising opportunities

Grassroots advertisers are opportunities not tied to any larger marketplace or ad network. They’re also not Google PPC ads. Not that we’re saying don’t do PPC or networked advertising, it’s just not our area of expertise, nor is it the focus of this article. This piece is about finding opportunities that are truly local, and in this final section, I’m asking you to consider spending a portion of your advertisement on options that are only accessible by direct contact with the publisher.

These are locally focused magazines, newspapers, radio stations and other advertising platforms that exist outside of a network. Some of them may be tied with local universities; others are nonprofits or independent for-profits.

We find these opportunities mostly via advanced Google searches, such as “brooklyn” intitle:”advertise with us” whose first result is a local independent publication in Brooklyn.

Use this tactic for: 

  • increased branding among media-consuming locals of your target demographic

Benefits & Limitations of Local Grassroots Advertising


  • Clear cost and reach upfront.
  • Low time commitment.
  • Show of support for a local business.


  • No opportunity for PR or link earning.

Wrapping it up with a big bow

(Holy cow, you stuck with us.)

These types of engagement demonstrate to a community that “we’re here to contribute.” At the end of the day, that’s what we want new neighbors to feel.

Put it all together, and it works like this:

You’re involved with a local dinner event, raising funds for teaching local middle schoolers to code, and you’ve donated most seats at our table to local bloggers. The event is covered by the press, so you’re able to shake hands and exchange business cards in preparation for your city-based customer insights release next week. The bloggers are having a great evening with one of your best customer advocates in the city, who’s sharing her amazing experiences with your brand. Your name is tied with this large community event for the following year, thanks to blogger write-ups and the nonprofit’s website mention, and your ads in local independent magazines target the same young, startup and coding centric crowd.

Do you need to wrap every city campaign with all four forms of engagement? Of course not. This is your introduction – brand it with your style. But we hope these methods help you see how local you can go.

[And don’t forget to sign up for our webinar on local engagement.]

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