Happenings Media Makes Lifestyle Content Pay — In Audience and Revenue

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Happenings MediaSisters Tina Paparone and Angela Giovine are the founders of Happenings Media, which, in five years, has grown into an impressive network of digital lifestyle magazines built around local events that help to bring communities together — and generate serious revenue. Here, Paparone tells Street Fight how the duo bootstrapped their growing operation, and expanded to 23 sites across the country:

When did you found HM, and why — and how do you share responsibilities?
Back in 2009, we launched our first Happening magazine, Bucks Happening, inspired by the lack of digital coverage of the “Happenings” in our hometown of Bucks County, Pa. We very quickly realized that we were tapping into a big need, not only in our own community, but beyond. Regional lifestyle magazines weren’t converting to the modern media landscape, and many of the local entrepreneurs trying to fill the gap needed support.

As a bootstrapping start-up, we’ve definitely both gotten our hands dirty with all aspects of the business over the past five years! But we’re lucky because our skill sets complement each other really well, with Angela heading up technology and design — she’s designed the entire network of websites — and myself heading up content and client management. We both are actively involved in various parts of the sales process and licensee training.

Happenings Media’s digital magazines “share valuable insights about dining, culture, shopping, entertainment and events.” What’s an example or two of the insights that get shared?
We’re always on the lookout for the best-kept local secrets to share with readers. Some of our most popular features include our comprehensive seasonal and holidays guides, such as the Bucks Happening Fall Guide or the North Delaware Holiday Guide.  We also experience a great response when it comes to highlighting “Happening” locals- everything from our everyday “Happening Heroes” to locals making national headlines.  There are so many fantastic stories to share.  When it comes to video content, our “Happening TV” channels give readers a behind the scenes look at local hot spots, such as this piece about boardwalk fudge in Ocean County, N.J., and we capture exclusive interviews with local celebrities.

Of your 23 digital magazines, 16 are licensees. What is a licensee’s fee to Happenings Media and what does he/she have to provide in ongoing financial support for operations of the magazine? Do licensees share revenues with Happenings Media?
Our licensees do not pay any start-up fee. Licensees do sign on for a two-year commitment, which incorporates a revenue share. In addition, Happenings Media reserves three display advertising units on each website.

What does Happenings Media provide in support for the licensee?
We provide licensees with a turnkey digital magazine — setting them up with their website, branding, introductory training, and the essential tools that they need to operate. Once they’re operational, we’re with them every step of the way- providing ongoing technical support, business training, shared content opportunities, and materials.

We prioritize continual innovation, evolving with the needs of our licensees, especially over the past few years. We listen to their feedback and work to provide the best support. For example, we’ve recently started offering varying levels of sales support in response to feedback, from “Sales Bootcamp” training sessions to providing a dedicated sales rep within a specific market.

Our licensees are also part a very active community, gaining support not only from Happenings Media but also from each other. They routinely refer to each other as part of the “Happenings Media family”.

You want your licensee to have “local authenticity.” What does that mean?
Local authenticity means being part of their community. Every community is distinct; what works in Raleigh, N.C., may not resonate with an audience in Long Island, N.Y. Being an active part of their community is an essential ingredient to success for a local licensee.

How important is social media in connecting HM sites with their communities?
Social media is so powerful because it’s one of the most accessible ways to connect directly with locals, both readers and advertisers. Currently, we have about 70,000 followers on Facebook and Twitter.  That’s 70,000 people that we can learn from and service on a daily basis.

Our success is very closely tied to our ability to foster authentic connections — online, at events, and within our network of licensees.

How effective are your local “Red Carpet Bashesin connecting your digital lifestyle magazines with the communities they cover? Can the general public come to the bashes? What’s attendance at a typical bash and what’s the cost per ticket?
Our “Red Carpet Bashes” are a celebration of the amazing people that make up each “Happening” community.  After months of viral voting during our Happening List competitions, it brings the excitement of our digital presence into the physical world.

The events are a fantastic forum for the magazine to connect with hundreds of local business leaders as well as for them to connect with each other. The positive energy of a bash is always extremely infectious.  At a recent Happening List Bash in Wilmington, DE, our licensees were even able to donate a portion of every ticket back to the winner in “Most Happening” charity (photo attached).

The events themselves vary by region, again being specifically tailored to meet the needs and demand of each community, so we’ve hosted anywhere from 80 to 400 people at events in a variety of formats. Tickets have ranged from $10 to $50 depending on what’s included, and they’re always open to the whole community.

Are the Bashes sources of revenue?
Yes. Typically, we’re bringing in event sponsors and exhibitors. We’ve also thrown other types of events like the “Happenistas Night Out.” magazine anniversary parties, digital advertising training sessions, and even local happy hours. We believe that there is a lot more potential in the local event space as we continue to grow.

Tina Paparone and Angela Giovine
Tina Paparone and Angela Giovine

Community sites are urged to load up on user data to induce local merchants and SMBs to sign ad contracts. What’s your approach with potential advertisers?
There’s not doubt that understanding our user data is extremely important, but our sales approach goes very much beyond the data. Local SMBs first and foremost value the brand when it comes to making their buying decisions; they need to trust and believe in who we are. Establishing that relationship takes multiple touch points.

Once we’ve gained that trust, we take a consultative sales approach, working with local and regional partners to create integrated advertising packages tailored to meet their specific goals. We find that many SMBs feel entirely overwhelmed by the many sales reps reaching out to them on a daily basis as well as by the flood of new digital products coming into the market. We take the time to educate them, learn about their goals, and pinpoint the best ways to achieve those goals through our products.

In addition to display ads, what other kind of messaging do you offer to merchants?
We offer a variety of advertising options in addition to display advertising, including sponsored content, email newsletters, social media promotion, and video marketing. One of the biggest advantages of digital advertising is the wide variety of effective tools that we have at our disposal.  It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. Based on our experience in each market, we design a variety of annual and specialty

Did you get outside investment to start up in 2009 or to launch your network in 2011?
Happenings Media has been 100% self-funded. We started in 2009 with one site, Bucks Happening, and began building from the ground up. It took a lot of sacrifice and hard work.  Now, being in a position where we cannot scale quickly enough to meet the ever-growing opportunities, we’re seeking outside investment.

Are you profitable?
Yes. We’ve scaled up as we have grown organically.

In five years, what will Happenings Media look like, based on your long-term planning (and dreams)?
n five years, Happenings Media will be serving every major market across the country, fueled by passionate entrepreneurs covering their communities. We’ll continue to offer SMBs outstanding opportunities to showcase their businesses while also offering effective, scalable opportunities for regional and national businesses to engage local markets.  We will continue to expand upon those services- more content, more videos, more events! We dream of walking hundreds of red carpets to celebrate the amazing local communities that fuel this country as well as the Happenings Media licensees dedicated to serving them.

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 earlier this year.