In April of this year, online city guide Charlotte Agenda arrived onto a shifting Charlotte, N.C. digital scene. The site’s eclectic mix of five-to-ten quick-read, mobile-friendly stories and a distinctive conversational style of commentary is standing out among local media players eager to reach a young audience.
Publisher Ted Williams, the former director of digital audience for the Charlotte Observer, is laser-focused on creating a platform for local advertisers to engage this market, build their brands, and extend reach into the coveted 18-44 demographic in a big way. The site’s content focuses on the latest restaurant openings, quirky artist profiles, neighborhood development plans, news on tech-oriented startups, and community-oriented features.
And some recent 30-day analytics are attention getting: 97,600 unique visitors, 272,500 page views, 2550 daily subscriber base, 4933 Twitter followers, and 9236 Instagram followers. 74 percent of the site’s readership is between the ages of 18 and 44. Those are strong numbers, but a recent report on the state of “indie” local sites suggests that Charlotte Agenda may have a tough road ahead in order to get to sustainability.
Street Fight recently spoke with Williams about what he’s planning for the site and how he got it off there ground.
What were your start-up costs, and did you look to outside backers?
No outside backers, it is a bootstrap startup. I want to maintain equity. Our startup costs were legal, website design and development: this was less than $10,000.
We have an exclusive launch sponsorship with Ortho Carolina for 2015 that allows us to have cash flow for writers and the small amount of operating expenses we have. We’re not bleeding cash — I planned no salary for myself for 2015.
How have you been able to build your audience so quickly?
I worked in the advertising and digital space in Charlotte for six years, I’m familiar with the market and understand what works.
Several weeks prior we put up a splash page, launched a Twitter account and began fun promotional campaigns that played off the local Charlotte angle — i.e. “Don’t sign up for Charlotte Agenda if you prefer national brand donuts vs. local brand.” We did fun things centered on local and had extensive social media promotions that drove people to sign up for our newsletter. When we launched, we had more than 500 newsletter signups on day one.
It seems as if your strategy has been to use freelancers with very large social audience and also to prominently feature social influencers — each bringing audience to you.
We understand social and culture and so do our writers. Our content is designed around newsmakers and they have large followings. A lot of our topics and focus is on very social stories, lists, food, Q &A — these lend to audience development. [New business/retail] openings, behind the scenes tours, all have social components. We are also very visual. Instagram is huge for us and builds audience.
The best way to grow audience is to tell compelling stories on the web.
What type of businesses are you finding make good advertisers for the site?
I view (advertiser partnerships) in three different ways:
First are large companies that understand digital brand marketing. These are companies with brand dollars to spend. They are not generating leads; they are trying to build their brand. Ortho Carolina (one of the largest orthopedic practices in the country) is an example. I have an exclusive sponsorship with them for 2015 as we’re building our audience. I modeled this on the way GE partnered with Vox Media.
The second area is growth companies that understand brand. A local example is NoDa Brewing. They know how to plug in at a grassroots level to build an “Apple type” brand in Charlotte, where customers have a relationship with the brand; they understand the story and people behind it and can’t wait to tell friends about it.
The third focus is small businesses that are more lead/generation oriented. They’re trying to tie back specific customer counts, traffic, promotions et cetera.
Tell me about your ad products.
While there is overlap with ad products for these markets, there are differences.
For example, display ads wouldn’t have much value for lead generation clients. Selling several thousand banner impressions doesn’t do a whole lot for them. But display is very applicable for some of the larger brand-building companies that may have creative agencies in New York and may need to tie (ad efforts) into their systems.
Focused sponsored content. I like things that are creative, yet within boundaries. “Q&As” or “Tours” are two types of offerings we have.
Really old-school are straightforward text ads — With local, people really want the content. If you stop being fancy and just say “15 percent off your chicken salad on Mondays” people like that.
It lives in our newsletter. The newsletter is also published on the site. We think about distribution a lot. Social media, for example, is very big for us.
I don’t think about where it’s going to live, I think about what form it’s going to take. The technology could all blow up tomorrow. The goal is advertising that is short and straightforward.
We look to get into the job space. Not a job board, but the idea of linking to the career section of a sponsor. Career is arguably the number one topic on young people’s minds.
Your model is heavily based on brand development, but your traffic doesn’t lend itself to programmatic advertising. Is your plan to sell primarily premium CPMs?
We are doing only direct buys for a premium CPMs and were going to do high impact ads, integration, premium offerings. Advertisers with this kind of budget care about different things than programmatic advertisers. Share of voice on the site, exclusivity in certain sections. I think about these things a lot — I plan on selling a very high CPM and selling on more of a sponsorship, heavily integrated-type plan — and never have ad network offerings because the economics are terrible. I want to keep my advertisers limited and make people feel special.
What kind of pricing are we talking about?
CPMs will be more than $50. Plan is high-share voices, a lot of ad units; therefore we’ll charge a premium. That is our strategy.
What justifies that pricing with no back-end data offerings?
They’ll have high share of voice, association with growing media company, exclusivity.
Why is Subway on Grantland? People notice the ads there. I want to limit the number of clients, charge a premium price and provide extreme value.
Do you look at [national pure-plays digital marketing sites] like Yelp and Groupon as competitors?
I don’t think that Yelp or Groupon get digital brand dollars. It is a different type of customer (in those relationships). In my conversations with agencies, marketing directors, business owners, it doesn’t come up. Their offerings are so different from our primary focus.
I mostly look at larger national players many look at as not strong on news. Thrillist for example – is this journalism? It doesn’t matter; they are going to grow every single day and every year.
Eater, from Vox. They scare me. I look at national players that are bringing in beautiful verticals locally.
Is this a sustainable business model? Are you going to be profitable?
This business is brutal. It’s like walking into a burning fire. I don’t think anyone gets into this because they think they are going to cash out.
There is not a lot of revenue out there right now. This is a lifestyle business for me. Is there a viable model for local? I’m betting with time, energy and opportunity cost yes. But it’s an unsettled question. Check back in 2 years.
Michael J. Solender is a Charlotte-based freelance writer focused on business and pop culture. Follow him on Twitter @mjsolender.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.