Kelly Gilfillan launched her Home Page Media Group in suburban Nashville in 2009 smack in the middle of affluent turf that had been long “owned” by Gannett’s the Tennesseean. She made her well-timed move in the City of Brentwood in Williamson County not long after the Tennesseean completed a 10% across-the-board reduction in staffing during some of print’s darker days. Her publishing partner then was Susan Leathers, who was part of the Tennesseean cutback. In 2014, right after Gannett closed its last two weeklies in the Nashville suburbs, Gilfillan launched her Spring Hill Home Page.
Home Page Media Group is one of the six community news groups nationally that Michele’s List ranks in the $501,000-$1 million revenue category. Gilfillan hopes to hit $1 million revenue in 2017.
In this Q & A, self-funded publishing entrepreneur Gilfillan tells how she manages and grows her independent network of four community sites and a recently launched local lifestyle digital magazine.
Scale can be the curse of “pure-play” community news sites. How have you avoided [trouble] in your successive expansions?
We take our time when we enter a market. Being in the same county, we generally have had readership from the surrounding community before we enter with the news site. We go into a market where there is a need, and this is important. We have an aggressive Facebook campaign strategy when we enter the market. Success is tougher in smaller markets because of the lack of available business support even when you have strong readership.
When we decide to enter a market, we meet with community, business and government leaders. We meet with our key county-based customers, such as the county hospital, and seek their support, and then I go into the market with the sales team. We introduce our product about six weeks before our launch to smaller businesses. The key here is to get enough advertising in place so the reporter is “paid for” before you launch. You’re much stronger position to launch a site in the black than in the red. We also had the advantage of having a site we could duplicate and avoided that initial startup investment.
There’s a lot of talk about the right editorial model in community news. Describe yours.
We have a traditional news model at the base — strong writing, integrity and community focus. From there, the journalism of today kicks in with hyperlocal coverage, speed of delivery and presentation of the content over multiple platforms. We increased number of stories per day and how we deliver them last year, and the change helped increase readership.
What kind of news do your readers want most? Do they like short or long or a mix?
What we produce is mostly short form due to turnaround and time constraints. Long-form projects are well received by the readers. For example, we have a series running about the shrinking amount of farm land in Williamson County, and the story was so important we divided into a three-part series in order that the message was not lost in long form. Our team knows our readers well, and we do our best to deliver the stories in a manner that best suits them.
Our top readership numbers are spread across a variety of topics including crime, sports, schools, commercial development and real estate. We push out breaking news with extra emails and strong pushes on social media. When we have it, it is the leader. But we are firm on what is breaking and what is not. You have to know your reader. Examples of breaking news in the past 30 days have included a resignation of a football coach, three local teens who died in a car accident, and our state representative who is in danger of losing his leadership position due to a drug investigation and character reference he wrote for a convicted child porn offender.
Does the size of your network help attract more advertising, and, if so, what kind — community, regional or national?
It absolutely helps having the multiple platforms to offer our customers. Larger customers with decent annual budgets tend to go across multiple sites and have the higher placements. All advertising buyers are local even if their brands are national. For example, the local auto dealer for Cadillac and the local dealer for Pandora jewelry are two of our best customers.
We play to our strength, which is to help them reach our extremely strong demographic on a daily basis. Williamson County was named the 16th wealthiest county in America, so when you have their eyes on a daily, sometimes multiple times per day, you have a case for high-value products with strong strong performance. If the customer is a loyal reader, it is usually a fairly easy sale.
I live in the county, I grew up here, and I know the audience. I tell my customers all the time it is the easiest marketing job I’ve ever had because I am the target customer, and I know how to reach them. That said, our strength, consistency, speed and integrity on the editorial side are what keep us viable.
Do display ads still rule?
Yes, 80% of our revenue is still display ads. With our new site, StyleHomePage.com, we are trying more packaging with sponsored content and display ad combinations. We also offer marketing services such as social media posting, email newsletter creation and distribution, website creation and website updating. Website development is the area where we have the largest potential in revenue growth this year.
You offer sponsored content to advertisers. Are they buying into it?
We have slowly increased our sponsored content products on the four news sites. We work diligently with our customers to make sure the opportunity we provide them to reach our readership is a strong position and supported through all our platforms. Our sales team usually brings me in on these sales, so I can set expectations. We are very up front with the customers that their content must be of high value to the reader and not self-promotional. We are helping them become known by our readers as the expert in their field in their home market. It’s a high-value proposition, and we are very careful with it.
Scott Brodbeck with Local News Now has been a great model for all of us with his sponsored content, and I keep an eye on him and his products to see if they fit in my market.
Do you get involved with programmatic advertising? If so, are the CPMs worthwhile?
I do not and do not plan to. I believe the fairest and wisest thing to do is stay loyal to my local advertisers. Is it fair to them to basically give away the product that they are paying a premium for? I understand the value to the regional and national advertiser to this sort of advertising. When I build out our network further, I will reconsider.
How many advertisers, overall, do you have who are regular clients?
We have 72 active advertisers across five sites. We have many customers who are on long-term contracts of six or 12 months.
How important is social media to your success?
Social media is vital to our success. Our analytics show that social media brings in 30-35% of our traffic on all sites. The other sources are our twice daily email newsletters (30%) and organic keyword search (30%). Facebook and Twitter followers are our strength, and we try to adapt as quickly as possible as those platforms make changes.
We post all stories, including press release rewrites, on social media. Every story is important to someone in our audience and the more ways we give them to find us, the more successful we will be.
How big is technology for your network, in editorial and advertising especially?
Without technology we don’t exist. It’s imperative to stay current, but you don’t want all the bells and whistles to divert you from your mission when your resources are limited. We do an awful lot with a small tight budget. Our strategy this year includes a new face for our sites.
Are you profitable?
I could be if I wanted to be. My goal has been to grow the company as fast as possible without taking on outside investors. Being self-funded means you grow when you start making a profit. We don’t start the next site until we have the funds for the next reporter and then we build revenue as we go.
What’s the biggest and best lesson you’ve learned through your expansion?
Do your homework. Evaluate the competition. Meet with community leaders. Meet with the business owners. Don’t assume you know what they want. Ask them.
All four of our cities are different. Different traffic problems, more crime or less crime, different forms of city government, all of which demands unique coverage.
I did go into one market before I was ready because Gannett pulled out and left the city with no daily newspaper. I felt like it was worth the risk to go in more quickly than I planned so that the opportunity was not taken by another publisher. The stress level was higher and the turn to profit slower. But the risk paid off, and we are established in the community as the news leader, and it is in the black.
Tom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) writes “The New News” column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of hyperlocal news network Local America, and is also working on a book about the history, present, and future of Charleston, S.C.