For Mike Ragsdale, his 30A.com serving the Gulf Coast beach communities of Santa Rosa in Northwest Florida is much more than a website. It’s an “international brand” that includes a digital radio station and a retail operation that sells everything from to T-shirts to beach chairs to beer.
Ragsdale tells Street Fight how he did it, and how traditional local and hyperlocal news sites can present their communities in new and compelling ways — reaping new revenue:
Did you brainstorm the “30A.com” name, or was it a handle just begging to be used?
The 30A brand name was originally inspired by “County Road 30-A,” a two-lane road that runs through many of our local beach communities. The domain was short, simple and easy to say, which is something I always look for in a good brand. But the 30A brand has certainly grown to represent much more than a strip of asphalt.
How did you finance starting up and expanding?
My initial investment was virtually nothing. Just the URL, some freelance web design work and my time writing. I later invested in a professional logo design, which had a huge impact. But it’s always been self-funded. I’ve poured all revenue back into the business to create more platforms for future growth.
Your base is the Town of Santa Rosa. But do you also cover all the 20 or so communities that dot 30A?
Santa Rosa Beach is the name of the entire area, which includes a dozen smaller beach towns, resorts and developments. We definitely cover local events and activities across this region, but we also bring the 30A lifestyle to fans who simply long to live here one day.
We also have our fans in Nashville and Little Rock and elsewhere who are a day away. They just love the beach. Our job is to keep them connected with our way of life. So we really serve two audiences — locals who live here, and people who simply aspire to. And those two audiences have very different needs and interests.
You cover recreational activities and benefits, look at especially interesting stores, feature weddings and run an events calendar. But you don’t cover traditional community news, like crime, government, and schools. Why is that?
If you enjoy reading about car accidents, burglaries, political scandals or sexual offenders, then 30A probably isn’t for you. I believe that we’re all bombarded with way too much bad news. I wanted 30A to be a bastion for good news and inspiring stories.
There’s a real hunger out there for good news. Good news may not generate as much traffic, but it generates goodwill and positive energy. And in my experience, it also generates significant revenue. So I’ve always focused on building a “halo effect” around the 30A brand. I want people to feel GREAT when they see it. I want it to make them smile.
We now have our first full-time editor, Lauren Sage Reinlie, whose enthusiasm, authenticity and expertise will help us grow in new ways.
You don’t like calling 30A.com a “website.”
I’m not in the business of building websites, nor do I really see myself as a publisher. I’m building a brand. Our brand happens to have a website, a Facebook page, and mobile apps. We even recently launched a 24/7 digital radio station. But we also have 30A t-shirts, beach chairs, coffee, beer and countless other products and extensions of the brand. 30A is not just a website or news source. It’s a brand.
There are community papers along the Santa Rosa strip that do publish, print and digitally, a regular, conventional menu of news. Do you compete with them for advertising? Do you share readers?
Our ad sales team might compete with other local media on occasion, but it doesn’t happen very often, and our products are different enough that we all find enough advertisers to support each of our businesses. In fact, I work directly with many our our local print publications. I write articles for several local magazines, and we have cross-promotional partnerships. I give them ad space on 30A’s network, in exchange for ads in their print publication. We’re all in this together.
You don’t have any editorial staff – just freelancers. How do you get consistent quality of journalism when you pay by the piece?
I actually think that hiring freelancers to write articles can increase content quality, rather than the opposite. Everyone starts a new job with excitement and enthusiasm. But as we settle into a 9-to-5 routine, we sometimes get sloppy and lazy. Freelancers are always excited to score new gigs, and they’re more likely to deliver an excellent product, so that you’ll hire them again.
What are your total unique visitors monthly and pageviews (counting all the beach communities)?
It’s hard to say, because our 30A network is comprised of at least dozen websites, plus mobile apps for iPhone, Android and iPad, plus a new digital radio station, plus numerous social media platforms, including over 300,000 Facebook fans. Our Facebook posts reach anywhere from 200,000 unique users to 750,000 unique users per week, depending on the time of year and the viral nature of the posts. There have been times when we’ve reached over 1 million unique Facebook users in a single week. 30A.com is visited over 200,000 times per month during our peak spring and summer months, and about half that during off-season. Our mobile apps have been downloaded 60,000 times, and over 40,000 people have updated our iPhone app within the last 60 days. Over 42,000 fans subscribe to our monthly newsletter.
Your advertising sponsorships are a big source of revenue. Exactly how big are they and do you try to keep editorial content and sponsored content clearly separate, or does it matter?
30A generates about $400,000 per year in ad revenue. This is the first year that our retail revenue has overtaken digital ad revenue, and we expect our retail line to continue to grow dramatically in 2015 and beyond. We also expect that licensing will become a very significant revenue source for us in the months and years ahead. I don’t worry at all about blurring the lines between editorial and sponsored content. I just want to keep locals and visitors happy and entertained, and I want to help as many local businesses and charities as possible. And I want to have a whole lot of fun along the way.
You gross $1 million annually in total revenue. How much of that becomes profit?
2014 will be the first year that we’ve surpassed the $1 million revenue mark, and we’ve done it with relatively little overhead. For example, we don’t have an office, or employees, or a printer, or even business cards, for that matter. Of course, the retail side of the business has some hard expenses related to inventory. But overall, our strategy has been to minimize traditional overhead expenses, while continuing to explore and grow new revenue streams. I pour all profits back into growing the brand.
Are you thinking of extending your 30A concept to other areas in Northwest Florida, elsewhere in the state or even in other visitor-oriented coastal areas?
I’ve partnered with a team to create TownWizard.com, a company that provides entrepreneurs with the turnkey technology platform, tools, business knowledge and partner support they need to quickly start their own hyperlocal guide, with minimal expense or experience. So in that way, the 30A concept has already expanded to more than 100 other towns around the globe. No one does local better than a local.
Can community sites and other news publishing platforms adapt your “brand” approach.
Yes, I think local news organizations need to stop thinking of themselves as “websites,” “blogs,” “magazines,” “TV stations” or “newspapers.” Instead, they need to think of themselves as brands. Display ads alone aren’t going to pay the bills. Nor is e-commerce or special event revenue or advertorials or or licensing or mobile transactions. But when all of those revenue streams come together, it can be very powerful.
Community platforms need to become cheerleaders for their communities. So many local news organizations seem intent on relaying everything awful about their town — scandals, business closings, bad health ratings, sexual predators, etc. But when you become the cheerleader for the positive things happening every day in your town, the community will rally around you.
Tom 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.