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STOCKTON — Pedro Avila wanted to develop a form of advertising that grabbed people’s attention and reached them on a personal level. So, he combined a billboard with a bicycle and in May 2014 launched Road Finch, a mobile billboard advertising business headquartered in downtown Stockton.
The company recently opened a Sacramento branch and hopes to expand into San Jose this year.
Named in part for the pet zebra finches Avila raises, Road Finch works with clients to promote their brands by designing portable billboards that can be towed on carts pulled by bicycles.
“We are able to get right in the middle of crowds of people using a means they haven’t seen before,” said Avila.
While the bicycle-billboard combination garners a lot of attention, the powerful advantage Road Finch offers clients involves the bicycle riders themselves. Known as brand ambassadors, these employees cycle throughout targeted areas loaded with clients’ product information, brochures, fliers and coupons.
“It’s that human touch, the ability to interact with people one-on-one that no other type of advertising can even touch,” Avila said.
All of Road Finch’s 13 employees, regardless of their position, have acted as brand ambassadors, donning uniforms that consist of orange bike shirts that bear the finch logo, helmets, gloves, sunglasses and messenger bags.
Together, Road Finch and clients determine where brand ambassadors should cycle to gain the most attention. Typical locations include areas within the downtown Stockton district that have frequent and heavy pedestrian traffic as well as farmers market or events held at the fairgrounds or Stockton Arena.
Brand ambassadors will change course, however, if a target area lacks people.
Wherever they ride, the bicyclists are always prepared to stop and talk with anyone who is curious about the products advertised on their towed billboards.
“I was headed to the fairgrounds, and I was pulled over by a gentleman just to collect what I had,” said Road Finch graphic artist Shawn Alfaro. “He loved it and he said, ‘Great. I wouldn’t have known about it if I hadn’t seen you,’ and then he takes off.”
Road Finch has a wide range of customers that include municipal organizations, restaurants, agricultural producers, legal firms, realtors and an author. Many of those businesses see a positive correlation between Road Finch’s mobile advertising and their sales — especially restaurants that can trace coupons handed out to the public by brand ambassadors.
Author Nancy Brooks said her online book sales go up when she uses Road Finch’s services.
“The books hold steady rankings when I use Road Finch,” she said. “I’ve even tried to see what happens if I don’t advertise for a few weeks, and my rankings drop. Considering there are millions of e-books out there, having an advantage makes a difference.”
The ability to get on-the-spot information about her books is what helps sell them.
“A lot of people don’t have time to Google the products in stationary ads,” said Brooks. “They’ll see it and forget about it by the time they get home. But if they can ask questions, right then and there, it makes a big difference.”
The Downtown Stockton Alliance uses Road Finch to promote area events and agrees that the brand ambassadors add that effective extra touch to advertising.
“I think that this is much more personal,” said Communications Manager Sylvia Qualls. “It’s much more in the face and at the street level. The bikers are right there where people are walking and they’re very easy to notice. They are not only mobile so they can cover a large area of downtown, but they can stop whenever people seem interested and want more information.”
Road Finch still relies primarily on word of mouth to promote its advertising services.
“Most of the customers we’ve gotten to date, it’s just been organic. A client has seen our people on the road or heard about it from others,” said Avila.
The firm is in the process of hiring a sales professional to help boost sales.
Having started out with used bicycles found on Craig’s List and some PVC piping, recycled tires from children’s garage sale bikes and black 99-cent Walmart spray paint for the carts, Road Finch has relied on what Avila calls grassroots financing. The company has received no infusion of investment money, and operations have been strictly self-funded.
Avila believes Road Finch is ready to go to the next level and hopes to expand throughout the United States and eventually worldwide. He considers financing the biggest hurdle in terms of reaching the firm’s growth goals.
“We landed a big client that should be able to self-fund us even more,” Avila said.
With the proper financing, Road Finch hopes to grow and invest in emerging technologies. Still, Avila believes the firm’s lean beginnings have helped make the business adaptable.
“By not having money at the beginning, it’s made us extremely inventive, and it’s made us resilient,” he said. “By running on fumes, we keep going.”