ASB Award Shortlist for Small City, Big Personality

Her eye was on the prize and she knew if she could get it over the first year then it would stand a good chance of being sustainable.  This focus was all encompassing and enabled her to keep going.

We are thrilled to bits to announce that our sister company has been shortlisted in the prestigious Association of Scottish Businesswomen (ASB) Awards 2018.  Up for Most Enterprising Business, it seemed only fitting that we share the story of how The Red String Agency created a platform which is now widely regarded as an essential part of the media mix in both Perth City and wider Perthshire. 

Now four years old, www.SmallCityBigPersonality.co.uk was dreamt up and created by Red String founder, Nicola Martin, and her long-term web associate, Anna Ford of Liberty Engine

We thought we'd share our award entry with you all as it sums up perfectly the hard work and effort - warts and all - that has gone into making Small City such a huge hit. 

Originality of new business idea and or boldness & creativity applied in expansion/ diversification

Small City, Big Personality burst onto the scene 4 years ago as a new type of online media.  Situated between a local magazine and the hyperlocal journalism model, Nicola Martin was determined to fill the yawning chasm created by the decline of local newspaper sales.

Most hyperlocal sites operate on shoestring budgets and have low turnover, with the bulk of articles coming from community volunteers.  She believed that done well, a local site could fulfil the wants of local residents, visiting tourists and advertisers, all while securing a tidy profit and with paid staff generating great content.

With 20 years of experience in PR and Marketing, Nicola had confidence in her abilities to deliver quality reading material for consumers and brand opportunities for business.  She threw aside the usual approach to monetising a local platform – no syndicated click bait, no handing over of ad control to Google, no second rate articles just because they were free – and started from the standpoint of the reader.  She knew that if the content was good then the page views would come, and if she could nail those down, the advertisers would follow.

It was – and is – Nicola’s belief that people have grown tired of the doom, gloom and hate-mongering that has spread its way across the media.  Of course we need hard-hitting journalism but we also need a place for celebrating life and all it has to offer.  Stories that make you smile because they are heart-warming, tales of the people who do remarkable things every day, and the small wins that make us realise we are all cut from the same cloth after all.

Investing her own time and money, she approached a long-standing business contact, offering sponsorship for 12 months at a low, low rate!  It was enough to get things moving, and using social media to drive traffic – in the first 6 months over 95% of referrals came from Facebook! – and her extensive local network to share articles, Nicola launched in July 2014 with a ‘Big Personality’ story on Lorna Bruce from The Bean Shop.

With budget at minimum, big competitions started the page views coming and also became the data gathering mechanism for weekly newsletters.  Within the first six week she launched the #PerthLoveFest hashtag, encouraging local trade and winning the lasting support of Perth’s wide range of independent retailers.   In the first two months Small City recorded 22,000 page views.

Since then, the site has grown to become a hot bed of local info! Covering all of Perthshire it now hosts a family section, food column with original weekly recipes, sports, property, galleries and most recently, recruitment.    In 2016 they launched a city wide map with original doodles of Perth’s most iconic landmarks, as well as their first printed magazine, Small City Food and Drink (see here>>>).

They have repeated the map three times, printing 150,000 copies this year, and now offer six printed publications per year featuring the same great photography, quality writing and local advertisers.

Resourcefulness of the marketing strategy and business development activity

Starting with the Big Personality stories – essentially abridged biographies of local individuals – was key to the success.  Nicola knew that most people are nosey by nature, and the desire to read about the folks we saw every day in their shops or singing in pubs, would be too big to resist!

The launch budget was minimal - around £500 - and was ploughed into Facebook. However, alongside some serious networking it was enough to gather the momentum required.  Once reading the articles, the site’s sharing mechanism ensured people could easily repost onto their own social accounts.

The web build was obviously a big part of the initial strategy and was entrusted to Anna Ford of Liberty Engine web who has been integral to the success.  Investing in a system that worked with Google’s schema.org tags was essential if they were to maximise search engine ratings.  This also led to a (much discussed!) directory section, something that has proved to be a profitable decision and sizeable page view generator. ‘Shops in Perth’ was their 8th most viewed page last year with over 12,000 of these views coming from organic search results.

SEO continues to dominate strategy and the technical side of the website has seen much in the way of development as budgets have increased.  They have a slick user interface that allows the team to optimise each and every article, photograph and event and this is reinforced through regular training opportunities. 

In the past two years a proportion of the marketing has moved offline.  Strategically, they needed to reach the audience who didn’t engage in social but who would read online magazines.  There was also a need to build direct traffic and reader loyalty.  To this end you will now see city centre poster sites, print products (aforementioned maps and magazines), sponsorship of a kids’ football team and coming soon, sponsorship of hospital radio. They also like to get with stands and recipe demos at events such as The Game Fair, St Andrews Day and Christmas Light Switch On.

Campaigns targeting individual sections with joined up offline/online spend rotate on a quarterly basis. For example, they have just targeted the family section with social media adverts, a stand at the National Childbirth Trust fair, city centre posters, a concentrated promotion of their family Facebook group via other similar groups and the launch of a monthly children’s craft column. Family article page views are up by 12% on average year on year (the site is up 15% YOY overall).  

In terms of business development and revenue growth, Nicola has improved revenue streams and profit margins by developing advertising opportunities that can be delivered quickly, efficiently and well, ideally generating Google juice as they go! The high ranking, high engagement, highly profitable property section is a perfect example of this!

As she looks towards the future, Nicola sees other towns benefitting from a Small City platform and she has been working with their web developer to create a licensing opportunity for rollout.

Innovative & imaginative communication and use of social media to promote business

Social media remains a key driving force behind Small City – 39% of their traffic comes from social media, with 37% coming from organic search and 19% direct.  The balance is referrals from other sites.

Whilst social has dropped in % of traffic, this is down to the sustained efforts to bolster their organic search and direct traffic.  Page views generated from social media (they are active on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and more recently, You Tube and LinkedIn) have in fact seen an increase of 13.11%.  Facebook is by far the largest of these platforms, generating 80% of all social traffic.  

They have a specific social media content strategy, using it in the same way newspapers of old used daily columns.  EG On Mondays they do reviews, on Tuesdays it’s sports and stop press, on Wednesday it’s a family article and so on.  They do a ‘What’s On’ post every day at 12 noon and feature page posts at 5pm – this all translates to Twitter for tweets although they we are currently trialling a ‘multiple tweet per article’ strategy.

Small City has two Facebook groups – Family and Food & Drink – which represent two of the strongest sections on the website.   Engagement in the groups is high and audience specific.

In terms of newsletters, there is a mailing list of circa 10K and a rotational strategy to ensure all content is covered.  After some time trialling best day and time, these are sent on Saturday mornings.  In February this year they started an additional ‘events only’ newsletter which is sent out every second Wednesday, bringing the total sent to six per month.  The open rate is around 24% - 30% and click through sits around 8% - 10%.

Nicola also does a ‘weekly round up’ email to tourism groups, council depts and other interested parties who may find Small City’s content useful for their own social.  She simply give links to the week’s articles and a very brief overview of the content.  She knows that the articles and events chosen will then receive an additional boost as they are shared out through many different channels.

In 2016 Anna Ford developed a Recipe Section plugin aimed at self-catering accommodation providers.  With a small piece of code pasted into their own website, these businesses enjoy a ‘recipe of the week’ which includes seasonal ingredients with tips on where to buy them in Perthshire.  This received a lot of attention and was endorsed by Visit Perthshire at the launch. (see Cloag Farm Cottage’s page here >>>).  They’ve since rolled it out to delis and other relevant businesses and are working on an events plugin that does the same.

This year’s big development will be notifications on phone for specific section updates: EG foodies can be notified when new recipes go on, sports fans can get the local footie news and parents can find out when family themed events and news goes up.  They are very excited about this!

A demonstrated ability to ride out and overcome challenges

The largest challenge was the speed at which Small City became a hit. For the first 18 months Nicola worked from home with freelance support (more below) but that was never going to be sustainable - and in fact was probably about 12 months too long!   From there, once employing people, Nicola’s innate understanding of how marketing, sales and storytelling worked meant she underestimated what might be required and as a result made a couple of bad employment decisions!  

She is a woman who believes there is only one way to fix such things – learn quickly, dust yourself off and go again.  Nicola now employs a freelance HR consultant and coach and has developed her own personal skills base by attending leadership courses.    This year, Red String Ltd, the parent company behind Small City, underwent a cultural analysis and this has underpinned the foundations of the business in preparation for the growth period to come.

Being recognised as a media outlet was not only tough but also incredibly frustrating to Nicola on a personal level.  You can call yourself a magazine all you like but it doesn’t make it true!  They were turned down by Google the first time they applied for media outlet status but she was determined to have one of those coveted news spots at the top of page one.  

This led Nicola to another route and last year she worked hard to ensure Small City was compliant with the Press Regulator, IMPRESS.  On December 23rd 2017 they were approved.  They are currently redoing their application to Google and this time she is confident it will be successful.  As well as the SEO potential, being fully recognised by IMPRESS also gives a deeper credibility and puts Small City on the radar of out-of-town PR agencies doing work for Perthshire based businesses.

Striking a balance between paid-for advertorials and editorial has also been a challenge, with many local businesses expecting to advertise for free.  They now have a dedicated sales department skilled in creating feature opportunities and building packages that people want to buy.  There is also an established base of repeat business (including that first investor who continues to enjoy the best rates on the site!) which is good both for cash flow, and for offering up examples of why spending a little with Small City is a good marketing decision.

The ongoing challenge is the double edged sword of social. Firstly, there is a notion that these stories and events are all magically stored in Facebook.  So although brand awareness is high, there is a certain demographic (Nicola’s mum!) who still doesn’t realise you can just click straight onto the website and read things from there.

And of course, like many online businesses the ever-changing algorithm on Facebook has been its own drain on headspace.  Hence their focus on direct traffic building – Nicola is firm in her belief that she has given too much of her money to Mark Zuckerberg!

Individual energy, pace and resilience applied

Small City runs alongside Nicola’s marketing agency business and for the first 18 months almost every word on the Small City website was written personally by her.  She renamed images, uploaded recipes and worked seven days a week, 10 hours a day.   Looking back she doesn’t really know how it was even possible!

However, her eye was on the prize and she knew if she could get it over the first year without a big loss then it would stand a good chance of being sustainable.  This focus was all encompassing and enabled her to keep going.    

As well as delivering on self-set goals and content targets, she was also cultivating a close circle of quality collaborators. Anna Ford is the brains behind the website’s technology and since day one she has worked as tirelessly as Nicola to perfect the engine that keeps it all running.  Gill Murray was on board just two months after the launch ensuring a stunning original photography recipe section using local produce and featuring chefs from the area.  Colin McSloy writes the best music reviews in town and Alice Gall has taken her child all over Perthshire in pursuit of the perfect family day out!

There was a wobble towards the end of the first 18 months.  The site was sitting at around 40K page views per month – double the local authority numbers at the time – and Nicola was knackered.  She talked to PKC about buying it from her but after one meeting and a long hard think, knew there had to be another way!   From a holiday in Portugal she secured offices, an interview with the woman who is now her second in command, Holly MacDonald, and wrote the plan for expansion. 

Nicola is a passionate, driven, ambitious businesswoman who has had both successes and failures in her 25 years of working in her industry.  Small City is her dream – in 2003 she worked up a business plan to launch a local magazine but the cost of typesetting and print at the time meant it never went further than the planning stage. 

Fast forward 15 years and the resurrection of an old idea, together with the ingenuity and foresight of both herself and Anna Ford, meant that dream of owning a magazine came true.  In 2017 Small City reached 670,000 page views from 170,000 regular readers.  Turnover for advertising sales hit well over six figures (and was 15% up on projections), and 2018 is on target to smash all of this!

The business now employs six people, they proudly boast Living Wage Employer status, and all contributors and freelancers are paid a fair rate for any articles or reviews.  Nicola remains the sole shareholder in the business which sits under the Red String ltd parent company.  Sights are now firmly set on expansion into other areas at the end of 2018.  

If it weren’t for the energy, pace and resilience of Nicola and her now perfectly formed team, none of this would be possible.

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