Mar 01 2016
The Charlotte Agenda is just about as quirky as you would expect, being a media company that has primarily been funded by an orthopedic practice.
With an email newsletter, job board, Instagram account, and event-hosting system, the Agenda’s portfolio of offerings breaks off from the standard local news mold.
The Charlotte Agenda is a local news startup that makes its revenue primarily from sponsorships. It got over 70,000 unique views in its first month, April 2015.
Ted Williams, a founder of the Agenda, said the model is fairly simple. The cornerstone of the Agenda’s publication strategy starts with a daily email newsletter that is sent out every weekday morning around 6:30 and includes seven to 10 story links for the day.
The format is reminiscent of theSkimm, a news media company that produces daily email newsletters summarizing the important news of the day. Christianna Williams (no relation to Ted Williams), a real estate broker at Cushman & Wakefield who has a paid membership with the Agenda, said she used to be subscribed to theSkimm, but now finds it redundant.
“I really like their commentary,” she said of the Agenda’s newsletter. “And they’re not a boring news source. They keep their news short and easy to read.”
Editor-in-Chief Andrew Dunn said the Agenda tries to cultivate an almost-personal relationship with the readers.
“We really obsess over the user experience and the relationship between the agenda and our readers,” Dunn said.
A Charlotte focus
The Agenda’s content is driven by what readers want to know about Charlotte — where to eat, where to hang out on weekends, what the traffic is like.
For Christianna Williams, the Agenda’s thorough coverage of local businesses helps her with her real estate job.
“It’s a good way for me to keep track of growing businesses that may need space,” she said.
And though she has been living in Charlotte for five years, it was the Agenda’s coverage that brought her attention to a couple of breweries that were right next to her house.
Another way the Agenda is connecting to its readership is by hosting events. “Charlotte Agenda Live,” which had its first program on February 18, is a 10-part monthly speaker series. The first program featured prominent Charlotte historian Tom Hanchett.
“It was a social event where people could meet and mingle, but it was also a learning event,” Dunn said. “People kind of took away from it a new perspective on Charlotte history.”
The Agenda also has a membership program for $5 a month or $60 a year that has just over 300 members. The program offers incentives, including member meet-ups, op-eds that combine member opinions, and first dibs on tickets to events.
Reaching a young, busy audience
The events, job posting board, and daily newsletter give the Agenda various platforms for its now-25 sponsors. Among those sponsors are Uber, Bank of America, and its primary sponsor — OrthoCarolina.
“It’s a no-brainer for them because they’re able to reach a larger audience than traditional print media,” Ted Williams said.
The audience that the Agenda appeals to — the young professionals of Charlotte — is an attractive group for sponsors. And since the Agenda’s staff is made up of people between about 22 to 32, they know what young people want to read, Dunn said.
“Above all else, we want to be useful in peoples’ lives, especially for younger people who are very busy,” Dunn said.
The sponsorships tend to be a good parallel with the content, because many of the sponsors are providing goods and services that the Agenda’s audience is already coming to see, Ted Williams said.
Christianna Williams said her only complaint about the Agenda was a sponsored post from about two months ago that explicitly advertised a house being offered by a real estate agency that was sponsoring the Agenda.
“I read it for what their thoughts are,” she said. “And I don’t like to knowing that it’s coming from a different place, that they’re kind of being like a puppet.”
She added that in a survey the Agenda sent out to its members, there was discussion about the sponsored post, and she hasn’t seen any content like it since.
While some commenters seemed bothered by the Instagram post, others acknowledged the importance of sponsorship in the revenue model of the organization.
“In traditional journalism, there is a thick wall between the newsroom and advertising, but that’s just not possible in a small company,” Dunn said.
Brand awareness for sponsors
Another strategy the Agenda uses to increase brand awareness of its sponsors is a program called “Invites.” Companies can propose mini stories that prompt readers to take some action — which could be buying advance tickets to the musical the Book of Mormon, or take 15 percent off pants — for $500 an invite.
The invite program brings in some revenue, Ted Williams said, but not enough to make it the Agenda’s primary revenue strategy. Among all the sources of revenue, sponsorships by far bring in the most money, Dunn said.
With Charlotte projected to grow by 47 percent between 2010 and 2030, having a local news source that can cover the city’s amenities is crucial.
“There’s a lot of excitement in the city, you know, there’s cranes all over downtown,” Dunn said. “There’s a lot being built, a lot being opened, and we’ve kind of captured that excitement.”