How a partnership with the Economic Development Authority grew revenue for a local news org and local businesses in VA

By Twumasi Duah-Mensah, CISLM intern

Every year, Tom Lappas has an $80,000 problem: finding at least 20 partners who will buy a $4,000 advertising package from the Henrico Citizen, a digital news site based in Henrico County, VA.

Lappas, the owner and publisher of the Citizen, heard about Connecticut-based newspaper Meriden Record-Journal’s partnership with its local Chamber of Commerce to give grants to small businesses to advertise with the Record-Journal.

That gave him an idea.

“My goal really was (to) find a larger scale partner that will provide us with more sustainable revenue so that we’re not trying to nickel and dime our way to paying our expenses,” Lappas said. In other words, a work smarter, not harder, approach.

In January 2023, Lappas approached the Henrico County Economic Development Authority with a plan: a partnership to offer advertising grants to local small businesses. For each $4,000 advertising package, the EDA would pay half and the Citizen would grant the other half in services.

The initiative, called the Small Business Boost program, chose 20 small businesses from an applicant pool of more than 50 to receive a three-month email and social media advertising campaign and training from the Citizen on how to improve advertising reach. The Small Business Boost program brought in $40,000 for the Citizen — $2,000 from the EDA for each of the 20 partnerships.

“It’s always easier to make one $40,000 sale, if you can, than 20 $2,000 sales,” Lappas said.

Before its partnership with the Citizen, a UNC Table Stakes participant in cohort six, the Henrico EDA had never spent money on advertising for businesses. Ebonie Atkins, managing director at the EDA, said participants in the Small Business Boost program have told her the partnership with the Citizen has increased their visibility, as they’ve seen greater engagement on their Facebook posts and expanded their customer base.

“It’s given folks more understanding that we exist, too,” Atkins said. “Because a lot of residents don’t even know that there’s an economic development authority (and) that we exist here to connect them to resources and to partners to help them grow.”

The Citizen has an in-progress survey to participants to quantify the program’s impact on their business, with feedback to come soon for the success of the Small Business Boost. Still, the Henrico EDA and the Citizen are planning to re-launch the program later this year.

So what worked well, and what is the program looking to improve for its next iteration?

How it worked

The program accepted 20 organizations out of 53 applicants, from nonprofits to ice cream trucks. Participants gathered for a kickoff meeting during which the Citizen encouraged businesses to identify their ideal clients for which to tailor the three-month campaigns.

“How often do (these clients) do business with you?” Lappas said. “Once they start, do you keep them for five years or do they just buy from you one time, and then they’re gone?”

From the kickoff meeting, the Citizen’s business development manager, Lauren Modelski, met with each business owner to learn more about their targeted audiences, the notes from which Modelski and Lappas used to devise ads and sponsored content articles.

The meetings also helped businesses determine when to run each campaign. So how did an ice cream truck business decide it would be best to run its campaign in the winter?

Success: ELITE Treats and Eats

For George and Donna Williams, the owners of ELITE Treats and Eats caterers, even posting pictures on social media during their events can be a hassle.

To spread the word about their catering, the couple mostly relied on its personal network to secure invites to events. So when Donna heard about the Small Business Boost program through the Citizen’s newsletter, she took the opportunity.

“When you first click to read through any of the (Henrico Citizen) articles, there’s our advertisement right there,” she said. “I had so many people who were like, ‘Oh, I just saw you in the Citizen.”

The Williamses had yet to consider how they could cater without driving their ice cream truck until meeting with Modelski. Per Modelski’s suggestion that ice cream is in demand year-round, the couple started using portable freezers and thermal bags to cater indoor events during the winter campaign.

A winter campaign also allowed interested clients to book ELITE Treats and Eats in advance for events in the summer months. Donna said the program has increased ELITE Treats and Eats’ revenue by at least 20 percent.

Donna said it is difficult for an ice cream truck to differentiate itself from the competition, so the Citizen’s campaign was crucial for the revenue growth.

“Instead of being more one-dimensional, they showcase us as the owners,” Williams said. “They showcase the business. They showcase the products. They really showcase the business as a whole.”

Limitations

The Citizen’s staff capacity was a big limitation for this program.

Modelski, who is currently a part-time employee, was the only person consistently involved in the program, with Lappas helping in addition to his newsroom duties. Managing 20 different campaigns ate up much of Modelski’s time, while Lappas designed campaign social media graphics.

Lappas said many participants in the program also didn’t have a website prior to the program, so they were starting from scratch.

“That’s probably been the hardest part of the program for us is keeping everything straight,” Lappas said. “We have a couple spreadsheets of who’s running when, where (we are) with these people, what’s been approved, what hasn’t, what do we still need to do.”

Andrea Starr, executive director of the Forward Foundation, a nonprofit that assists single parents in Virginia, said more follow-ups after the initial meetings with the Citizen would have been helpful.

Forward Foundation holds its annual gala — its largest fundraiser of the year — at the end of February, so it asked for the campaign to run from November through January. But Starr said she didn’t know if the campaign was effective because she never received a report on the analytics.

Going forward

For the next iteration of the Small Business Boost program, Lappas said he will consider outsourcing graphic design and having Modelski run the program as her full-time position. Atkins said the program also hopes to have a midyear gathering as another touch point to get feedback from participants.

Atkins said the EDA hopes to secure funds or find a third partner to help businesses build websites before they touch base with the Citizen. Lappas said Virginia State University has offered free web design for the next round of the program.