How a Hyperlocal Editor-Publisher Team Scored Big in Suburban Nashville

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BrentwoodOne of the highest revenue producers on Michele’s List of independent hyperlocal sites is BrentWord Communications, which publishes four-year-old Brentwood Home Page in suburban Nashville, Tenn. Founders Kelly Gilfillan and Susan Leathers launched a second suburban site, Franklin Home Page, a year ago and a third, Nolensville Home Page, this summer. Total revenue for the sites is $251,000-$500,000 annually, a range attained by few hyperlocals, whether independents or part of corporate networks. Here’s how Gilfillan and Leathers did it.

Kelly, you’re strong in sales, and Susan, you’re strong in editorial. Were your dual backgrounds crucial to your success?
Kelly: Absolutely. Focus on both areas is vital and it is very difficult for one person to maintain that high level of dedication in two areas.

Susan: Definitely. Having both sides of the business covered by different people has helped us grow; it’s also allowed us to attain and maintain credibility in our community and with our customers.

What’s the key to revenue?
Kelly: We believe both revenue and editorial are equally important, and everyone at BrentWord Communications knows this. We share this with our salespeople and our editorial staff on a regular basis. Without content, there is no sale. Without the sale, there is no money to pay the staff to create the content.

You have extensive local football and other sports coverage. How important is that?
Kelly: Next to top headlines, sports provides our largest readership. The sports section page is second in readership only to the homepage. Prep football is also a big revenue item for us.

What’s your model for community news?
Susan: First, we do not aggregate. We serve a sophisticated, well-educated and affluent readership. We know our three sites, must reflect that.

We have five full-time editorial staffers, not including myself. We have a beat writer for each site, a content manager and a sports coordinator/editor. Most of our content is original, and produced by staff or assigned freelancers. We do use press releases, but everything MUST have a true tie to one of the towns we cover or Williamson County.

How important is social media?
Kelly: We post all of our headlines through Saturday on both Twitter and Facebook. Our sites have a referral rate of 35% from social media, so I would say, yes, that makes it very important to us. We have not monetized it all — i.e. selling our advertisers on our social media sites — but we are asked almost weekly to do so. We try to respect our readership and not use that space to advertise to them. For sports, we started hashtags for #bhpscores and #fhpscores and we are asking our stringers to tweet about the scores.

When a big community story breaks, how do you cover it?
Susan: A good example is the Maidens murder case. The story began last April with the murder of a young orthodontist in the home she shared with her husband in one of our gated communities. Now awaiting trial, he allegedly shot her multiple times, left their toddler in her crib and fled the home, which led to an all-night manhunt. We posted updates all night. We’ve covered every court hearing. We put a face on Rachael Maidens.

In pursuing advertising, do you focus on local merchants?
Kelly: Yes. Even our larger advertisers use us to push their local services and not their overall regional services. We have a lot of mom-and-pop businesses whom we respect and who enjoy doing business with us.

To land the big regional company Vanderbilt Health as an advertiser, what were your chief selling points?
Kelly: Our readership numbers are consistent and the demographics are amazing. In short, we landed them because of those two things.

What’s your basic “sell” story you take to businesses?
Every business owner is looking for a return on investment. We let businesses know we will work every day to deserve their trust. We have a lot of competition for these eyeballs in Williamson County, the 18th most affluent county in the U.S.

Display ads don’t work anymore, we’re told. Brentwood Home Page has many display ads. Your opinion about the effectiveness of display?
Kelly: It is just very important to be clear what the customer’s objectives are so that you can help them achieve that goal. Do they want clicks? Phone calls? Their goals are our goals.

What about sponsorships and “native” advertising”?
Kelly: We have sponsorships for our site — they are on our mast. We also offer sponsorships for each section and all special sections have a sponsor. Sponsored content, or native advertising, is a small part of what we do.

How do you pay your sales reps?
Kelly: Our reps are 100% commission and are 1099 employees [self-employed for tax purposes]. We work on a tiered compensation model. The more they sell, the higher the commission.

What’s behind your BrentWord Marketing?
Kelly: The sales team was consistently seeing customers who needed help and could not afford it. So we hired a creative director who works with the sales reps to get their customers’ ads made. He also works with our social media clients. It now one year old and is going very well.

Did you self-finance the start-up of your sites or go to outside, angel-type funding sources?
Kelly: We bootstrapped this entire project. We have a line of credit that we established early on and have used that when necessary. This year, we have not found that necessary.

Is your long-term strategy to expand throughout metro Nashville?
Kelly: We believe in hyperlocal. We believe that our expansion was made possible because the other two cities wanted what Brentwood was receiving. We are approached on a regular basis about expanding to other areas but we are being intentional about going where there is a need. Network-type expansion could be a mistake. That would take an investor. I think you would need to break down Nashville into smaller hyperlocal markets to make it work.

Are you profitable?
Susan: Yes. We are operating in the black with a slim profit margin. That figure, however, does not include salaries for an editor or advertising director, roles Kelly and I still fill. Our salary right now is our profit. Most of our profits go back into the company — establishing a customized CRM [customer relationship management system], for example.

Finally, what’s your advice to would-be hyperlocal news publishers?
Kelly: Don’t hire too fast. We took our time to hire and waited for the sales to rise before we invested in another person. Don’t be in a position that you need to be paid immediately BUT pay yourself as soon as you can. One adviser told us to start giving yourself something within 90 days, so that you get in that habit and stay there. Even if it’s $100, it doesn’t matter. It’s the act of rewarding.

Put together a non-binding advisory board. Find friends, family and colleagues who know what you don’t. Get their advice; you don’t always have to take it. But hearing a different point of view helps you think outside the box.

Susan: Don’t go it alone. Our partnership — and our different professional strengths — has been the most important aspect to our success. It has also allowed us from the start to keep the news and business sides largely separate. We joined LION (Local Independent Online News Publishers), which has been priceless, since for two years we thought we were the only people out there doing this.

Tom Grubisich authors The New News column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of LocalAmerica, which is partnering with InstantAtlas to develop sites that will present how communities rate in livability. Local America is featured on the Reynolds Journalism Institute’s Pivot Point site.