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Billy Penn Turns 18 (Weeks)

As any entrepreneur can tell you, starting a company from scratch is like riding a roller coaster: constant motion, some ups, some downs, the occasional blood-curdling scream. But, every once in a while, the ride slows and allows you to catch your breath. For Billy Penn, that moment came February 26, when I looked around a teal-swathed Union Trust building and at the 260 people who were there for our launch party.

Billy Penn Party Overhead

It’s now been about 18 weeks since we launched Billy Penn, which we described as “a mobile platform for a better Philadelphia.” So far, the response in Philly has been wonderful. We’ve built a loyal following in a short time, forged some important business and editorial partnerships, produced some terrific journalism and experimented with many new storytelling forms. It’s been nice to see our early efforts rewarded with good traffic and positive feedback — not to mention being ranked No. 1 among Philly’s three news startups by Philadelphia Magazine. More important than the ranking, though, was this sentiment:

“Of the three sites that have launched recently, this is the one that seems to know best what it wants to be when it grows up. There’s a vision here that tries to do something a little bit different.”

We do want to be different. In fact, before we launched, we detailed six ways we wanted to differentiate ourselves. Here’s the slide from the deck I’ve been presenting to potential advertising partners, sponsors and investors:

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I feel good about the progress on the first four items. We have designed Billy Penn for mobile. It’s clean, simple, easy to scan and loads in a flash. We have targeted millennials by producing and curating stories that we think will interest them, being extremely active on social and ditching the traditional institutional voice for a more authentic one. We’ve delivered that news in a stream-based way that’s appealing to an on-the-go audience. And many readers have cited our strategy of curating good journalism about Philadelphia — both on the site and via social — as a core reason they start their day with us.

On the final two bullets, we still have work to do, though largely by design. The Oct. 22 launch version of Billy Penn was meant only to be the minimal viable product. Our launch party unofficially kicked off the next phase of Billy Penn, where we begin holding more events and engaging citizens to work collectively to resolve some of Philadelphia’s most pressing issues. For example, our next event – hosted by Comcast — will be focused on how to keep Philadelphia startups in the city. Other events will focus on core civic issues such as education, development and gentrification, while others will focus on lighter topics such as music and food. We have a handful of other events planned for the next few months, and you can get information on those as they are announced via the Billy Penn Meetup group. These events will work in tandem with the launch of our Communities initiative, where we’ll bring together newsmakers, experts, activists and interested citizens to push for solutions to longstanding city problems.

While this major civic push is still to come, much of the journalism we’ve produced has shown our civic mission. We’ve listed dozens of young people who are making Philadelphia better through their contributions in politics, community leadership, startups and kitchens and eateries throughout the city. We’ve shined a light on stories that have fallen through the cracks, from development of a major city hotel to the suicide problem at the city’s Ivy League university. We’ve tracked how millennials are moving in and out of the city. We’ve ranked the most livable and safest neighborhoods in the city, and we’re also highlighting the amazing history and culture of Philadelphia’s individual neighborhoods, featuring wonderful postcard images from our designer, Jayna Wallace.

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We’ve had plenty of fun, too. We’ve unearthed political candidates’ high school yearbook photos, and created candidate emoji as well. We’re doing a weekly playlist in case you want to put Philadelphia’s news to music. We partnered with Fox 29 Philly on a bracket contest to pick Philadelphia’s all-time greatest athlete. Here’s who won.

All of this points to what Billy Penn is trying to do: Tell good stories that aren’t currently being told, in nontraditional ways, all with the aim of helping people understand their city and how to make it better.

So we’re excited about all this. But I’m guessing some people are now asking: What about some hard numbers? No problem. I’m happy to report that, in the short month of February, we tallied 115,947 page views. Now, that’s not a huge number when compared to some other players in town, but considering we were at approximately 0 page views 18 weeks ago, I’m thrilled. Especially since we have spent less than $500 advertising the site — and all of that was used to find engaged users on Twitter and Facebook. No search engine marketing, no billboards. No nothing.

And, so far, we’re reaching exactly who we want. From launch through today, our audience breaks down this way:

  • 56 percent are under the age of 35
  • 51 percent are coming to us via mobile
  • 57 percent are coming from the Philadelphia metro area
  • 69 percent are coming from either Pennsylvania or New Jersey

But as happy as I am with the audience, I’m prouder of how we’ve built it. From the start, our philosophy has been simple: think of the user first, and then worry about everything else. What does that mean as it relates to page views? It means every page view we’ve received we have earned by producing stories and/or an experience people enjoy. Or put more simply: We’re utilizing no tricks to gin up page views.

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That’s not to say we’ll never do a relevant slideshow. But we won’t do them just for page views, since slideshows are often relatively valueless to a local advertiser. And we won’t paginate, because — let’s be honest — that’s never done for the reader. We won’t rewrite someone else’s story in order to hijack page views. The site that produces the original work deserves the traffic. Plus, every minute the Billy Penn staff spends “aggregating” someone else’s story is a minute we’re not producing our own. And while automatic page reloads have some benefit for the reader, they are more often used to generate additional impressions, often for a “reader” who isn’t even at their computer. In short, we want to earn every page view, and focus on increasing that number by relentlessly serving our users. By doing that, we think we’ll create a better environment for advertisers and marketers, since they’ll have a better sense of our audience and more confidence their ads will be seen by the right consumer. In a sense, we’re pursuing a strategy that treasures “time well spent” over any other metric.

On the revenue side, we continue to do the hard work of getting the word out in a crowded market, and it’s starting to pay off. We had two sponsors for our launch party – the Knight Foundation and Visit Philly. Comcast is sponsoring our March 26 event. We’re running native ads and display ads on the site. We’re still not close to being profitable, of course, but that will change as we get better known in the market and roll out the events and membership programs we project to eventually be more than half our revenue. It’s a matter of time, and time we have.

So, with that, it’s time to head back to the rollercoaster to continue what’s been a hell of a fun ride so far.

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