How Charlotte Agenda reinvented advertising, got to $1 million on 2017 LION Summit agenda

By Matt DeRienzo | Sep. 26, 2017

Ted Williams, publisher of Charlotte Agenda.

Charlotte Agenda, a local independent online news startup in North Carolina, has generated a lot of industry buzz due to its success in engaging a millennial audience and getting to $1 million in revenue in just two years of operation. Publisher Ted Williams will be part of a packed lineup of speakers, discussions and workshops on the local online news business at the 2017 LION Summit Oct. 26-28 in Chicago. We asked him some questions ahead of his talk.

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1. Are you tired of fielding questions from other local online news publishers about how you got to $1 million-plus revenue in two years?

Haha. No, I don't get tired of taking about media. I love media. And local media is important, so figuring out sustainable models are worthy of time and energy. I do get tired of people looking for shortcuts and people that have ad-based models, but don't don't have an owner/operator that understands advertising.

2. What about your success do you think is unique to your market or staff, and what principles could be applied in almost any local news market?

Charlotte is a great market because of its growth and its size, but our principles can be applied in many markets. We're not special or unique. We do have a very talented team - but this is table stakes for existence at this point.

3. How have you approached the efficiency/scalability question about sponsored content and native advertising?

Sounds cheesy, but we think about "ROE" - return on effort - in everything that we do.

For example, this has led us to have automated ad products like $300 featured events, and to raise our campaign minimum to $10,000. We started off doing $1,500 sponsored posts, but that's not a fun (or good) business.

4. What kind of resourced do you put into producing sponsored content, vs. selling it, and what does this do to your profit margin?

We don't put many resources into selling it. Almost all of our clients are inbound leads - we don't even have an official sales person on staff, and nobody is compensated based on commission. We put a ton of resources into producing it, reporting on performance, and customer service. We've been able to maintain and expand margins this year, but yes, this is always something that worries me. I don't want to become an ad agency with an additional cost of a newsroom, that's stupid. So, we have to generate reader revenue (which we do through a membership program) and revenue from low-labor ad products (which we do through display advertising, newsletter advertising and text-based ads).

5. What is your take on the connection between audience development and engagement, and advertising revenue?

You need to have some scale in order to do decent-sized deals, but it's more important to have a certain taste and to dominate a certain market. Facebook and Google will always have more reach, more targeting and cheaper prices. Therefore, you have to differentiate based on an understanding of a certain market that is attractive to advertisers.

At the Charlotte Agenda, we dominate in reaching young professionals in Charlotte. We do about 400,000 unique visitors a month and have over 80,000 Instagram followers, with 29,000 daily newsletter subscribers. If you're an experienced digital media buyer, these numbers seem just OK - but if you're a media buyer looking to reach savvy 25-45 year olds with a localized message that's integrated into a media product with a team that knows how to execute, we're an efficient (and fun) way to spend a portion of your publisher-direct budget. 

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