||NC Digital 'Town Square' Gets Lift From Radio
The one-year-old story of Chapelboro (http://chapelboro.com/), the sister website to Chapel Hill, N.C.'s WCHL-AM, begins most dramatically by skipping to the end: This site nets 25% of the company's overall revenue.
The path by which it got there was cut by a combination of location (at the periphery of the Raleigh-Durham DMA, the city tends to get shorted on coverage), innovation and a boost from radio's microphone.
And Barry Leffler, CEO and managing partner of the site and the station, has been the story's principal author. Having come to the radio station as a co-owner two-and-a-half years ago after 25 years in television, Leffler took a long look at its existing site and found just about everything lacking, offering only radio headlines, no ad serving capabilities "and it was built on an old CMS held together by Scotch tape," he said.
Given that his market was only directly served by a weekly newspaper, Leffler saw an opportunity to develop a digital brand that could serve the community on a daily basis. And so he sought to draw on the audience from his left-leaning talk station (the local market skews blue in red state North Carolina), using its bullhorn for promotion to hawk a site with a wholly different Web identity.
"We thought we could build something that could try to capture the community spirit and ultimately becomes a kind of digital town square online," Leffler said. "We thought that would serve the community in a better way and would give us a better business proposition to try to monetize it and put a second revenue stream in place."
He landed on the Chapelboro moniker because of the two cities -- Chapel Hill and Carrboro -- that it principally serves. And while the site still streams the AM station live, the visible connections between the two entities are minimal.
What is visible is plenty of community content, from a highly popular "Scene Around Town" series of photo galleries to a "Local Buzz" blog network of nearly 20 local (and unpaid) contributors waxing about everything from science to comic books to the art of photography. A comprehensive community calendar also plays a major role, Leffler said, noting that until Chapelboro came along there was no one place to go for comprehensive local listings.
One other, peculiar standout anchors the homepage: A list of 200 "Chapelboro Names" rendered alphabetically and with no graphic fanfare taking up a sizable piece of real estate right in the middle of things. Leffler said this has become one of the most important parts of the site, though an initial glance would easily leave a visitor in head scratching mode.
"It's intended to create some social interaction," Leffler said. "It's a live module of the last 200 names of people who have appeared anywhere on the site. People come to the site to see if they'e there or who they know."
There's a democratizing simplicity to it, he explained, that doesn't make one local figure -- say, the town mayor -- stand out any more dramatically than the octogenarian on the obits page. "Here it's level-loaded, it's alphabetized and everybody is equal," Leffler said.
While he concedes that the list is graphically-challenged, he said it's also extremely sticky, drawing in more regular visitors and holding them longer on the site. Along the way, it has also created a kind of "digital history of the community, told by the people who live, work and play here," he said.
Leffler said local businesses have also begun using it as a resource, such as the realtor who began to send emails out to those who appear on the list, congratulating them for making news.
Connecting with such small businesses has been key to the site's rapid revenue growth, Leffler noted, as his community is far more SMB than big box. For that reason, he employs a digital-only sales staff to walk potential clients through their buys closely, selling ads by share of voice. He also keeps digital sales packages simple -- offering a section's home page and all related pages behind it -- and refuses to use an ad network for any backfill sales.
"We want all of the ads to be local in nature because that adds to the 'localness' of the site," he said.
Chapelboro has diversified its digital revenue by adding some pre-roll sales to its video offerings, along with some display tied in to its new iPhone app with apps for Android and iPad in the pipeline.
And Leffler makes ample use of his AM microphone to constantly drive users to the Web, promoting stories heavily on the air to continue to give his fledgling site a lift.
But what will ultimately sustain Chapelboro's growth, he said, is its laser focus on a community that was too long underserved with the kind of granular local content for which it has an endless appetite.
"The smaller we go, the bigger we'll be," he said. "That sounds a little counterintuitive, but the further and deeper we can go into a community, the more relevant our content becomes to the people who are going to consume it here."
Leffler ran down the site's vital stats.
(Re)Launched: May 2011
Updates: Seven days
Monthly unique visitors (average): 43,000 (OneStat)
Mobile platform: Mobile optimized site, iPhone app (versions for Android and iPad in development)
Content focus: Community news and sports, local blogs, local photo galleries
Geographic focus: Chapel Hill and Carrboro, N.C.
Target demographic: "It's a targeted geographic sell. We're trying to connect local consumers with local businesses."
Annual operating budget: "The website is profitable. On a month-to-month basis, we are bringing in more revenue than it costs us to operate it."
Annual revenue: N/A
Revenue streams: 80% display ads; 10% video; 10% newsletter and app
Ad sales: Handled by a digital-only sales staff of two-and-a-half; no ad networks used for backfill
Staff: Five full-time
Social media: Facebook and Twitter to promote content and contests
Most popular features: "Scene Around Town" photo galleries, local news, blogs, special sections (UNC Basketball -- Drive to the Championship was a recent hit)
Media partnerships: WHCL 1360
Primary digital competition: Leffler said he considers Google and Yahoo, social media and SEO services as bigger competitors than any local media outlet in terms of competition for SMB dollars
What distinguishes it from the digital competition: The radio station's ability to drive Web traffic, which Leffler uses daily; the site's daily focus on local, community news
What's next: Leffler is adding an FM transmitter to the station in August that will boost listenership and (he hopes) site traffic in the process; more design tweaks to the site; more video and advertorial content
(Source: Michael Depp, NetNewsCheck, 05/07/12)
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