Disrupting traditional, old and obsolete business models is how many new entrepreneurs and startups gain success. Although they are often synonymous with Silicon Valley and other tech centers, disruptive entrepreneurs can also be found in places like Fishers, Ind., a suburb of Indianapolis.
There is where Tom Britt, founder and CEO of Towne Post Network (TPN), has taken a sharp saw to the community magazine model after what he learned during his early career. He and his team have developed a complete and successful integration of print, digital and social for his franchise system of local community magazines in Indiana and Kentucky.
The a-ha moment for Britt occurred during 2003 when he launched a community website for the Indianapolis suburb of Geist where he lives. The site generated considerable traffic from the community primarily because the content was short articles, announcements of local events and free classified ads.
With that early success, Britt did what many major print publications, newspapers and magazines still don’t understand: he added a complementary print magazine nine months after the launch of the website. Instead of trying to digitize an existing print (or any media entity), he reversed-engineered the process.
“It was the relatively simple combination of a community website and a community magazine, but with the website first, which quickly captured the attention of residents and advertisers,” said Britt. “Then, I distributed the first issue of my Geist magazine to 2,800 residents. People loved the information about new restaurants, all-star kids at local schools and community events, which they could also view on the matching website. I started selling more ads on the website and in the magazine.”
As with many other successful entrepreneurs, Britt quit his day job as a publishing consultant during early January 2009 and focused all his time to develop and expand his concept. Creating a franchise system for his business model was another wise choice. Since 2016, franchising has resulted in 13 local magazines in Indianapolis suburbs, two in northern Indiana towns and, more recently, three magazines in Louisville, Ky.
A Sharper Saw
Even with the early success of the Geist website and magazine, Britt realized he must constantly “sharpen his saw.” The challenge, however, was sharpening every tooth, each representing another component of why TPN is a successful enterprise today.
Because of his experience during the early days of social media, Britt added it to the website/print magazine combination. Not only is social media another channel to promote the digital and print content to residents, but also is an added boost to local businesses/advertisers. They can purchase an affordable sponsored-content story about their newly launched or existing business. To readers, these stories appear no different than articles about local events and people; it’s more news about what is occurring in the community.
TPN publishes the sponsored-content on each community’s website and magazine and then creates a seven-day social media campaign on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Britt also quickly understood the added value of video content. During spring 2020, TPN created a video for a local jewelry designer and a two-page story for both the website and her community’s magazine and promoted it online. The combination generated a total reach of 39,703, but, more importantly, motivated 68 people to click on the designer’s link and visit her online store.
Excellent results, but Britt next sharpened another tooth on his saw to overcome one of the oldest challenges for print media: how to present accurate reach numbers for advertisers. He and his team developed its real-time analytics report, which combines print count; Facebook, Twitter and Instagram impressions; and Web analytics. The nine-page report for the jewelry designer included both the total reach for the first 14 days of April 2020 and all the elements of the campaign: the two-page sponsored-content, the video on Facebook and all its performance data, the Facebook and Instagram posts/data, and the website exposure and views.
“Generally, small business owners don’t have the time and, frankly, the knowledge and experience to create content, post it and review the various analytics,” said Britt. “Our system gives them a level of exposure they would not otherwise ever have and allows them to use more of their time operating their businesses and serving their clients. Our total transparency with advertisers creates a level of trust, which we know maximizes retention.”
Total Franchisee Support
The franchise model is central to many business types—from restaurants to carpet cleaners to pet-care services. Britt’s vision of the right person to be a TPN franchisee has a B2B sales background and with the accompanying skills, such as setting appointments, communicating well with clients and being a face in the community.
“Our franchisees are not writers, editors, photographers and designers,” said Britt. “They are entrepreneurs and prefer working unsupervised. Many have some digital experience, especially selling digital media. The ideal candidate, therefore, is mid-30s to early-40s years of age, with plenty of confidence and faith in himself or herself.”
Britt realized the TPN model had to be very attractive to potential franchisees, and the key was a comprehensive plug-and-play system. Not only does it create and provide all the content, but also invoices advertisers and collects their payments; pays writers and photographers; and postage, printing, and all other vendors. TPN is essentially the business bank for its franchisees. They receive a transparent, monthly reconciliation and their profit allocations and TPN doesn’t have to spend time and money collecting its royalties every month.
“To the best of my knowledge, no other magazine franchise system in our space does business this way. It provides a very scalable model for TPN to grow and continue to support our franchisees,” added Britt.
That support extends to weekly virtual meetings, which were a regular part of the system even before the pandemic. These meetings include discussions about the nuts-and-bolts of sales, production deadlines, TED-talk-style seminars, and an open forum to address franchisees’ issues and challenges and to obtain honest feedback.
After less than four years as the first TPN franchisee outside Indiana, Corey Boston has been so successful with his three Louisville magazines he was named the company’s 2020 Franchisee of the Year.
“My TPN franchise allows me to work when and how I want and enjoy a level of freedom I couldn’t find climbing the corporate ladder in the healthcare industry,” said Boston. “I also discovered being involved in my community has been very satisfying. I particularly like finding local stories of a historical nature and helping residents learn more about their community.”
More than 50 percent of prospective advertisers contact him after they’ve viewed the magazines for Jeffersontown, Ky., Middletown, Ky., and St. Matthews, Ky.—a testament to the quality of the content and its value for advertisers.
During August 2020, TPN launched a training portal to share social media trends and provide step-by-step tutorials about its cloud-based system. Britt is confident it will be very attractive to new franchisees and help them quickly benefit from TPN’s unique model.
All of that effort and the success of TPN franchisees was duly recognized during late 2020 when TPN received the Most Innovative Media Franchise System Award from Corporate Vision Magazine. TPN was recognized for its “expertise within its given field; dedication to client service and satisfaction; and a commitment to excellence, quality and innovation.”
A Focus on Content Quality
The quality of the magazine’s cover photography is what one notices immediately and why so many readers are compelled to open the magazine—and read it. Each article/story is purposely limited to approximately 500 words, so they are very readable and allows for more content.
To achieve content excellence, Britt realized it was necessary to organize, manage and screen professional photographers and writers. He wants franchisees to focus on selling advertising while knowing their magazine(s) will have a superior look and content compared to many typical local publications.
“As part of our franchise support system, we have initiated a selection, training and certification program for interested writers and photographers, who almost all live in the magazines’ communities,” said Britt. “To be certified, all of our writers (60 currently) and photographers (15 currently) must attend a 2.5-hour training course with lessons and quizzes via our online training portal. Once a franchisee submits a story idea, a writer and photographer receive the assignment and submit their content via the cloud. Our streamlined system relieves our editors from constant management of the process, and we pay our writers and photographers very well. The quality of their work attracts more people in the community, which directly benefits our advertisers.”
The Constant Saw Sharpener
The more you saw, the more sharpening your saw needs, and Britt revealed approximately 20 percent of his time is spent doing just that. He’s learned that success can be fleeting, and it’s critical to expand the services of TPN to remain competitive.
After the first of the year, he launched the next iteration of the townepost.com website. The previous version offered content by state and community, but the new site will recognize the user’s location and automatically customize the content (event announcements, coupons and directory listings) for site visitors.
During 2020, TPN initiated an online media kit, including print, social and digital advertising opportunities in an online store. Advertisers can shop and order ads in all the various channels without having to interact with a sales representative.
Brandon Baltz is the franchisee for the Noblesville and Westfield suburbs of Indianapolis and has been working closely with Britt and his digital team to test the online media kit and the new version of the TPN Website.
“Towne Post Network is the first print publication in the country to offer such a comprehensive system,” said Baltz. “It’s partially a response to pandemic restrictions, creating a true ‘contactless’ sales experience, but also it will generate micropayments, adding to franchisees’ revenues without them doing much at all. We expect it to become a much more major revenue stream during 2021 and beyond.”
Because of the pandemic, most spring 2020 student graduation ceremonies/parties were canceled, leaving parents and other family members and friends with almost no means to celebrate students’ success. TPN promoted the inclusion of affordable ($45 to $75) celebratory announcements with a photo of the graduate and a message in their magazines. During a three-week period, approximately $30,000 in announcements were sold in 12 of the 18 franchised magazines.
Britt also reported he has been investing the company’s royalties to expand its digital team. TPN has an SEO strategist and branding strategist on retainer to provide franchisees with even more support. They can concentrate on selling, and enhance the customer experience with optimal exposure through the local marketing platforms.
Although QR codes have lost some of their luster during the past few years, Britt is planning to add the technology to his system during 2021. Like the most successful entrepreneurs, Britt is not afraid to try new ideas. He added augmented reality (AR) to an issue of the Geist magazine during 2016, with a cover photo of two men who started talking once readers scanned the cover. AR certainly has a bright future, but it was too early and too advanced for TPN readers and advertisers and Britt abandoned the idea after four months.
“I’ve learned you must be aware of new technologies, and even the older ones that are still valid, and experiment with them and adopt those which are acceptable to readers and advertisers,” said Britt. “Even though we’ve had a few franchise growing pains, we’re always positive about our failures and even happy they occurred.”
Britt is very confident his team’s efforts have created a new model for local print, with a robust digital component, and is an excellent foundation for future expansion. Even with future growth, you’ll find Tom Britt most days in his “workshop” sharpening his saw.
Advertising Success Stories
Britt shared three local businesses’ stories of how well their ads attracted new customers, although the ads of two of these businesses worked so well, they had to suspend them temporarily.
A lawn treatment company in Indianapolis started advertising five years ago in two of the magazines as a test. Just two months later, they wanted to place ads in all the Indianapolis magazines, and for the entire year, because the owner said he had never experienced such a response. He then called during June and had to stop all his advertising; he was totally booked and couldn’t accept any more customer jobs. The owner said he would be buying more trucks and hiring more people, so he could resume advertising in the TPN magazines the next year.
Britt related a similar story that occurred during December. A home-contracting business had to pull his January and February 2021 ads because he was booked through March after only three months of advertising.
“Obviously, we don’t want to lose the ad revenues from these local businesses,” said Britt. “The upside, however, is much more beneficial to us and these businesses. It’s almost a guarantee they will return to advertise with us again. Many will likely share their success with TPN with other local business owners they know and generate powerful word-of-mouth advertising that is priceless.”
An advertising agency, which represents larger advertisers, such as banks and hospitals, and has been a TPN client for approximately 12 years, contacted Britt during December. The woman at the agency shared the budget she had allocated for her clients in TPN publications and digital channels. He told her it would be difficult to use her entire budget without adding more markets to her buy. He quoted her a total price $200 less than her budget. The new contract was signed and returned five minutes after their conversation.
During his 46 years in marketing and advertising, Bob Sillick has held many senior positions and served a myriad of clients. Since 2010, he has been a freelance/contract content researcher and writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.