Google Offers vs. Groupon? Nah! Real rival to online coupons is bulletin board.

Google is considering a big move into online coupons with Google Offers. But its biggest rival isn't Groupon. It's the bulletin boards in the library and bank lobby, full of local ads.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
A community bulletin board at Stop & Shop in Hingham, Mass., displays ads for local businesses and services. More small businesses now offer coupons online via services like Groupon. Google is reportedly testing a rival service, Google Offers. But many small businesses find it cheaper to stay low-tech in their outreach.

Despite all the hoopla about online ads and coupons, most of America still advertises in amazingly archaic ways: a sign in a shop window, a business card on a bulletin board, a flier under the windshield wiper.

It's not only cheap – printed fliers and a few pushpins – it's also effective. "I've never paid for advertising," says Jeanne Pinsof Nolan, owner of The Organic Gardener in Glencoe, Ill. Five years ago, she posted a flier on a grocery store bulletin board and now has some 150 clients. "My advertising is my flier," she says.

This tranquil corner of the advertising world is huge – by one estimate 90 percent of ads are not digitized – and increasingly under scrutiny by online ad companies. One reason national ad giant Google was willing to pay a whopping $6 billion for online coupon company Groupon was the latter's ability to bring local businesses onto the Internet.

Now, Google is reported to be testing its own local ad service, dubbed Google Offers. By bringing mom and pop stores online, Google, Groupon, and all the other group coupon sites hope to reap a bonanza.

"The percentage of local advertising that is not digital – and that's most of it – will change because the cost of advertising online is really low," says Frank Mulhern, associate dean of research at Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism in Evanston, Ill.

How quickly the online companies will succeed is another matter. Local online ad spending will grow nearly 18 percent this year, according to Borrell Associates Inc., a research and consulting firm in Williamsburg, Va. That's a little faster than the almost 14 percent rise forecast for total online ad spending. Online coupons are growing faster – up 50 percent between 2009 and 2010 – and worth more than $10 billion, Gordon Borrell says.

Still, Internet ad salespeople will have to convince people like Peter Sykes. Laid off from a hunting store, he now rides his bike around Riverwoods, Ill., stuffing fliers into mailboxes to promote his fly fishing and hunting instruction. Would he offer a big discount on Groupon to generate more traffic? "I'm not a techie," he says.

Small businesses represent a special challenge for online ad companies. Groupon and other daily-deal sites advertise discounts to millions of subscribers, via e-mail – everything from tanning salons to Holocaust museums. The site keeps up to 50 percent of the coupon and the business gets a surge of customers, sometimes an onslaught.

"The sites offer great deals to the consumers at the expense of the small businesses," says Utpal Dholakia, a marketing professor at Rice University's business school in Houston, and author of a recent study on Groupon. He found that 32 percent of the businesses surveyed said their Groupon promotion was unprofitable. More than 40 percent of the respondents said they would not run the promotion again.

"It's like dynamite," says Jay Goltz, a Chicago business owner and blogger for The New York Times. He had 900 customers respond to his Groupon ad, but is unsure how many were already customers. In addition, he questions how many people will return to his stores as repeat customers. "It's a great invention, but it could blow up your house," he adds. "I wouldn't predict the end of the bulletin board."

The old world and the new world collide at Newport Coffee House here in Bannockburn, Ill. The bulletin board is so crowded that a table is positioned nearby to catch the overflow. While waiting in line for coffee, customers can check out the Pet Pal dog-walking service or pick up a schedule of language classes.

"We get about one or two businesses a day asking to post on our board," says owner Nevair Jindoyan.

However, after perusing the bulletin board, many customers grab a coffee, sit down with friends, pull out smart phones, and scroll for deals.

"Ooh," says a customer checking her BlackBerry, "I can get $50 off on a $100 massage from Groupon today." Another customer scrolls down to WeDeal and reveals the day's discount to the rest of the table.

There are many other deals available online. Foursquare, a mobile social-networking game, allows members to "check in" at local businesses and receive "specials," which are discounts for loyal customers. A business can tap into this by offering tips at various places where would-be customers congregate. "For instance, a fitness trainer could build [his or her] following by offering tips at various gyms around the city," says Erin Gleason, Foursquare's spokeswoman.

LivingSocial, another daily-deal site with more than 10 million subscribers, offers ways to blend small businesses to take advantage of online advertising. "It may not be that we have the organic farmer, but we can work with the organic farmer and the local winery to create a tailored package," says Korina Buhler, a spokeswoman for LivingSocial.

Ms. Pinsof Nolan, owner of The Organic Gardener, recently developed a website and has considered Groupon. But she continues to get most of her customers from her old standby, the flier with the tear-off phone numbers at the bottom.

"There's nothing like seeing something right in front of your face," says Regina Ruggiero, whose company, New York Blackboard of New Jersey, has been making bulletin boards since 1944.

And sometimes the old technology actually trumps the new one.

"I'm thinking of canceling my online dating service," says Judy Brinkerhoff-Smith, who paints portraits of families and their pets. Her bulletin board brochure prompted 30 calls from single men, and she ended up dating one of the callers. She welcomes the calls and says, "We are all just trying to make a connection."

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