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Building an online community with no marketing dollars

Striking a balance between content creation and the evolving world of content monetisation sits AgendaCity.com, an online start-up that’s building a community around local restaurant recommendations before selling access to local businesses.

The site is the brainchild of Blake Hutchison, who spent five years in the US watching the rise of the commerce-driven content business – as opposed to sites that made their money from traditional online brand advertising. He’d noted that commerce sites, particularly deal sites, were battling when it came time to develop consumer engagement strategies – though this is not something AgendaCity.com struggles with

For us, content plays a major part in engagement and also acts as a lead generation source for sales opportunities,” he told Dynamic Business.

The business is based on four interrelated elements: a recommendations section, with a focus on new restaurants and nightspots; a private sales area, where members can access special offers; and AgendaTables, the country’s first privileged restaurant booking platform, where customers can select times at top restaurants, book via the site and save 30 percent off their entire bill; and most recently,  uTaste, which is a decadent food subscription service.

And there’s clearly a market for the offering, because AgendaCity has amassed a database of 35,000 in just over two years and took over 500 restaurant reservations in the first 8 weeks after AgendaTables launched. What makes this story all the more impressive? Hutchison has achieved all this with a non-existent marketing budget.

“Our marketing is grass roots. It’s mostly about developing relationships and trust among the existing audience to build referrals. It’s just the reality of the [start-up] situation – we’re not in a position to ‘spray and pray’ as many of the big-business funded eCommerce ventures are doing at the moment. Our audience to date has come about through word of mouth,” he said.

The trick to managing this has been to work hard to deliver high-quality content to users, so as to grab their attention and foster engagement and sharing.

“Call it a form of content marketing. We drive huge open and click rates from our recommendations, which ensure we give ourselves every opportunity to convert where and when our customers are ready to buy,” Hutchison added.

Agreements mean nothing

With a team of just two, Hutchison has had to form a number of partnerships to help with the growth of his start-up – which has led to his learning some difficult lessons.

“You can expend a great deal of energy on these partnerships, and it’s been our experience that even once the agreement has been settled and signed, there are no guarantees,” he said.

“Ultimately, it’s about priorities and for the most part the opportunity to partner means far more to us then it does the large scale partner we’re ‘working with’.  In theory, it could be considered a breach of contract but that’s not a fight worth pursuing,” he added.

As for other lessons learned, Hutchison has a couple of key pieces of advice to share:

“Unless you have serious cash reserves yourself, then get ready for a fight. If your business can work and hasn’t been established in Europe or the U.S., contemplate doing it there first.”

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Lorna Brett

Lorna Brett

Lorna was Dynamic Business’ Social Web Editor in 2011/12. She’s a social media obsessed journalist, who has a passion for small business. Outside the 9 to 5, you’re likely to find her trawling the web for online bargains, perfecting her amateur photography skills or enjoying one too many cappucinos. You can follow her on <a href="https://twitter.com/#!/dynamicbusiness">Twitter @DynamicBusiness</a>

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