30A, the independent site that covers Santa Rosa Beach and neighboring communities along West Florida’s Gulf Coast, has done it again set a revenue record for 2016 with a big, double-digit increase over 2015. 30A’s website is just one of the 55 activities that are its brand.
We recently caught up with founder and CEO Mike Ragsdale, who tells us why diversification – including wine sales that last month brought the site a national gold medal for the “Best Red Blend” under $25 – is so important to 30A’s fast growth into what is now a multimillion-dollar operation. He also explains how community news sites that don’t have a tropical beachfront to boast about can create their own unique, revenue-generating brands:
You grew 29% in 2016 – to over $2.2 million in revenue. That’s a lot from a relatively high base of $1.7 million in 2015. How important are multiple sources of revenue to this pace of growth?
They’re essential. Bad weather or low occupancy rates during peak vacation season can significantly impact our local retail sales. Economic slumps or changing market trends can affect digital advertising revenue. So our goal is to diversify the 30A brand just like you would a stock portfolio. That way, even when we have tropical weather along the gulf coast, for example, we can still count on revenue from our retail partners in other states, as well as from our digital properties. There is no magic bullet that powers 30A’s success. It’s everything working together. That’s the power of building a brand rather than a website or single product line.
You’ve got more than 541,000 fans on Facebook – a number that dwarfs what most local news websites have achieved. How important are these half-a-million-plus fans to 30A’s success? Same question about your logo sticker, which can be found in well-traveled sites around the world.
Facebook has been extremely important to our success. We use Facebook Live to share daily stories from the coast, as well as promote various aspects of the 30A network, from our 30A Wine to our Dumpster Diver recycled apparel line to 30A Radio recording sessions. 30A fans love the beach, and they love being able to stay connected with the coast on a daily basis, and Facebook is one of the easiest ways to achieve that. The 30A sticker is our tribal emblem. It’s something that ties us all together and identifies us as a community. When I was in New Orleans a month ago and saw 30A stickers on random cars, I thought to myself, “That’s one of our tribe.”
Are most of the initiatives that you’ve developed at 30A unique to beach communities? Most local websites don’t have surf, sand, and sun. Are there things they can do in promoting their own heritage and character that would enhance their branding?
Absolutely. There’s a strong sense of civic pride in almost every community. Think of all the colleges and universities out there. There’s a geographic hub for every college — usually the town where the main campus is located. But then there’s a huge network of alumni that spread out all over the world. That sense of connectedness among students, faculty and alumni is very strong, even if they are spread out geographically. They don’t need a beach or ski slopes to foster a sense of community. They just need some rallying points — a mascot, a logo, a team, memorable college colors. The opportunity to create that kind of tribe exists in every town and community. You just need to create those rallying points and then tap into the civic pride that already exists. It takes time, of course. But the opportunity is there for the taking in every community.
What about your charity work, like raising $162,000 for the “no-kill” animal shelter. How important is that in connecting 30A to its communities?
If you help others in your community, sooner or later, you will be rewarded you for it. It’s not just good — it’s good business too. Alaqua Animal Refuge volunteers manage those donation collections each week, and while they’re there, they also restock our 30A sticker supplies. So it prevents our team from having to make the restocking rounds every few days. Alaqua gets the donations, homeless animals get the care they need and our tribe members get a free 30A sticker to put on their car. It’s the perfect kind of partnership.
How big a staff do you have to take care of 55 separate 30A activities?
Two and a half years ago, I was 30A’s only employee. We began to expand our team in November 2014. Today, we have about 30 employees, including those at our four 30A retail stores.
Many local news sites are trying to create richer experiences on their own digital real estate to develop higher CPMs than they get from pageviews driven by Facebook and the other distribution platforms. How do you size up this “value vs. numbers” issue?
30A is a brand, not a website alone. It’s not a Facebook page alone, either. 30A is for people who love the beach. If they want to interact with on us Facebook and nowhere else, that’s perfectly fine with me. If they want to buy 30A Gear, but not have us blowing up their Facebook feed with videos of dolphins and sunsets, that’s cool too. If they want to listen to 30A Radio, but couldn’t care less about buying beach gear, no problem. Our job is to make sure that every interaction they have with the 30A brand brings them happiness.
In news that’s featured on 30A, the future of your communities’ fragile environment is a frequent subject. Should local sites do similar focused work in covering and digging out news that’s just as important to their communities.
At 30A, we avoid politics like the plague. That said, our beaches ARE our business. We love the beach, and so do our fans. It’s the common passion that ties us all together. So while we avoid taking sides in political issues, and we rarely report “hard news,” protecting our coastal environment is paramount to our mission. So if we have an opportunity to help educate visitors about the Gulf Coast, we take it. Some local news sites may very well need to cover town meetings and traffic accidents. But that’s not how our brand evolved. We differentiated ourselves by seeking to be positive.
Is 30A profitable?
We flirted with profitability in 2016, but fell just short. Launching our new recycled apparel line and hiring new team members to support a nationwide rollout required significant capital (not to mention launching Roku and Apple TV channels, 30A Wine launch, restoring a 1974 Airstream travel trailer for use as our 30A Radio recording studio, new apps and more). The old adage “growth consumes cash” held true for us, but we feel that our calculated growth in 2016 sets us up for considerable success in 2017 and beyond.
Are you planning to add any new activities, with new revenue streams, in 2017 or beyond?
We just launched a new 30A channel on Roku and on Apple TV. Both are in their early stages, but we expect them to become important platforms as web and television content continue to bleed together. Our big push this year is around our line of recycled apparel, so we’re adding new styles, colors and designs, as well as retail partners across the U.S. In addition to our 30A Red Blend and 30A Chardonnay by Mercer Estates, we have a 30A Rose coming in March, and a 30A Malbec later in 2017. We also have a major new initiative to announce in a few months, but we’ll have to save that for later.
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.