Niche Site CHARLIE Goes Big With Underwriter Le Creuset

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charlie After an initial stint doing publicity in the movie industry in Los Angeles, Caroline Nuttall migrated to Charleston, S.C., and fell “head  over heels” for its “beauty and progressive culture.” She expressed her passion for the city by creating the local digital magazine CHARLIE, whose words, images and design capture the many faceted, old-new richness of her publication’s namesake. CHARLIE won the 2013 Niche Award for Best Niche B2C Regional Magazine. In this Q & A, Nuttall tells Street Fight how she navigated CHARLIE to new revenue streams, including an underwriting partnership with national cookware maker Le Creuset.

Display ads have been the primary source of revenue for most for-profit community sites, including CHARLIE. What’s changed about that paradigm? What are the strengths and limitations of display?
I think display advertising has its place and makes for nice branding reinforcement. The problem is that so many are still looking to the CTR to measure success and the click is no longer relevant. A great stat came out of 2013 that said you are more likely to survive a plane crash than click on a banner ad. Today’s bright, social, empowered consumer wants to engage — and display advertising as a sole means of marketing simply does not cut it.

You have a new restaurant in Charleston, Bay Street Biergarten, sponsoring your calendar. Do calendars have to have a unique attitude, like yours (“the best events worth your time, effort and outfit”), to attract sponsors?
I love this campaign! It’s a great example of a potent mix of underwriting and sponsor content. Calendars lend themselves well to sponsorships because they are so content-rich. No matter the tone of the editorial, calendars are full of great information that people seek out, and are perfect partnership opportunities for any company looking to promote its own events. Obviously the more popular the calendar (which editorial tone does impact), the more appealing it will be to an underwriter. While lots of companies keep trying to cut through the event promotion clutter unsuccessfully, Bay Street Biergarten made a savvy move to “own” an entire event platform — one with trusted, non self-promotional editorial content — as a way to engage with people and, secondarily, to list its own events.

How did your deal with Le Creuset evolve? Who went to whom, and what was the pitch?
I’ve loved the Le Creuset brand for a long time and have been talking with them for many years about working together. They’re a super-smart bunch and really understand and embrace the power of great content. When the idea of “The Desperate Chef” came up, I knew immediately that they were the perfect partner. I remember emailing the Director of Marketing shouting, “I’VE GOT IT!” and asking to come in person the next day to present the idea. He loved it, and they came on board very quickly. When it’s right, it’s right.

They key for the news site is to find companies whose values are the same as that content. Got a column about school budget hearings? Find a company that cares about schools. The key for the company is to figure out what type of content its customers are consuming or would consume. Then partner.

CHARLIE has a reputation for content and design that capture Charleston in a unique way (“celebrating progressive culture in Charleston”). How did that help make the partnership happen?
We’re actually transitioning the CHARLIE brand. Historically, we have been a hyper-local magazine celebrating progressive culture in Charleston. So by that definition, you would expect only Charleston locals to be interested, right? Not the case. With so much interest outside of Charleston, I realized that people just love Charleston. They’re inspired by this sense of place. So we are now shifting to a national network of Charleston-inspired brands. The hyper-local brand power we have behind us and the new national focus we have in front of us is what makes a company like Le Creuset a perfect fit.

Why was “The Desperate Chef” — the feature Le Creuset  is underwriting — a winner with them?
It’s great content, plain and simple. Senior Editor Carter Worrell Dandridge  and I were brainstorming, wanting to come up with a content brand around food. There is so much content out there about food, so it had to be unique. She said, “I don’t know how many times I come home from work, look in the fridge and think, ‘I have nothing to eat.'” Well, that happens at least twice a day in my house. Everyone knows what that feels like. So “The Desperate Chef” was born…a video series where The Desperate Chef, Jack Burg, shows up unannounced at someone’s house and authentically cooks a meal with whatever they happen to have on hand. Our Desperate Chef will also write columns on things like, “Seven Things to Do With a Can of Black Beans.” It’s all about being resourceful in the kitchen. It’s good content, it has broad appeal, we handle the production, and Le Creuset’s brand values and products are a natural tie in. Winner, winner, chicken dinner!

 “The Desperate Chef” says at the bottom of the screen “presented in partnership with Le Creuset.” What does this partnership mean for CHARLIE, especially in contrast to a relationship you would have with an advertiser?
I believe in the power of exclusivity and “ownership,” so we have one company as the exclusive underwriter of an entire content brand. By nature of that set up, this immediately makes the underwriter much more of an important partner than a traditional advertiser. It’s a three-legged stool…CHARLIE, the underwriter, and the talent powering the content. All three play big roles in resources, content creation, marketing and promotion. We are all attached; therefore, we all want audiences to love the brand and will each do what we can to make it the best it can be.

 CHARLIE is a niche site. You don’t cover holdups, fires and school budget hearings. Can community sites that feature news like that (as well as “softer” news and categories like real estate) find a partner who brings the same mutual benefits as Le Creuset? Should the site be prepared to have a more elastic definition of what’s news?
Any good content has a good potential underwriter. The bottom line is that every company is wondering how to make its marketing work, how to make its social media more engaging, how to get more customers. The answer is content. Really good, unique, editorially-sound, non self-promotional, niche content. They key for the news site is to find companies whose values are the same as that content. Got a column about school budget hearings? Find a company that cares about schools. The key for the company is to figure out what type of content its customers are consuming or would consume. Then partner.

Will CHARLIE move beyond display advertising altogether — or do you see your site having revenue streams that will include display. Do you have an ideal ratio for display, sponsorships and partnerships?
We won’t eliminate display. It has its place as reinforced branding. I think it rounds out a campaign nicely; it’s just not the heart of it. We have diversified revenue streams that include display, email, native, video and event sponsorships, but content marketing underwriting campaigns will definitely be our focus moving forward.

(Full disclosure: I am friends with Caroline Nuttall and have contributed several articles to CHARLIE.)

Tom GrubisichTom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) writes “The New News” column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of the in-development hyperlocal news network Local America that rates communities on their performance across a broad spectrum of livability — Local America Charleston launched last week.