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VOL. 38 | NO. 14 | Friday, April 4, 2014

Graves, Fox find formula for online success with StyleBlueprint

By Hollie Deese

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Liza Graves and Elizabeth Fox launched the online lifestyle publication StyleBlueprint.com in January 2009 with the goal of purpose of connecting women with their community.

The economy had seen better days, and they wanted to expose the small, unique, local businesses they loved to frequent and share them with women who would shop there – if they only knew about them.

“Nashville is getting all this notoriety right now, and it is fabulous,” Graves says. “But it was just a few short years ago that businesses were struggling every day to get the dollars in the door Monday through Thursday, not just Friday through Sunday.

“There are so many great, local places that are still hurting. We can be a voice for people who can afford to go into these businesses and spend money there as opposed to outside our community.”

Graves and Fox started out small, but laser focused. They wrote just a few times a week, shining a light on the restaurants, retail shops and activities around town they loved. By September 2009, they were writing five days a week, a pattern that continues to this day.

And by July 2010, the website began to take on the sleek look it has today.

“At that time, we got a little more intentional with the way that we wrote about things, and what I mean by that is we wanted to make sure we were getting more than just our neighborhood, and making sure that every week we were talking about food, that we were bringing in something about fashion, something about home décor, and that we were bringing in things that fell outside that realm,” Graves adds.

“Just interesting conversations anyone would have on a girl’s night out.”

Instead of taking on the identity of a strictly style or food blog, Graves and Fox decided from the start that the content they would cover would be the same topics you might expect to come up in regular conversation on a night out with friends – a genuine lifestyle blog.

But even the word blog bothers them since it evokes the sense that the content will be very much about the writer. And while all the picks are places Graves and Fox love, they keep themselves out of it.

“Online publication is a mouthful,” Graves says. “We need a new term, but we can’t figure out what that is.”

Steady growth

Graves, a Vanderbilt graduate and mother of three who had already opened, run and sold a café, kept running into Fox, who had decades of experience in broadcast sales and marketing.

They knew each other from Christ Church Cathedral and have children of similar ages.

“Elizabeth came to me with an idea about writing together,” Graves says. “From there, we just brainstormed about what that would look like – for a solid year.

“It was from those conversations we had every single Tuesday for a year that StyleBlueprint was born.

“We didn’t know each other very well, but through that we have learned to respect each other so much and got to know each other far more throughout this process.”

StyleBlueprint quickly expanded into new markets, adding Louisville (April 2011), Memphis (fall 2011), Atlanta (summer 2012) and Birmingham (fall 2012. They get emails from people who want to launch StyleBlueprint in their city, but they are currently concentrating on making sure each market is as strong as it can be in its own community.

“They [the sites] are just growing and are very popular, but we want to be sure we have each city well-grounded before we open up another city,” Graves explains.

Advertisers and daily deals

The first time money started coming into StyleBlueprint was in September 2010 when Graves and Fox decided to do what everyone else was doing and offer a discount deal special called StyleBlueprint Deals.

Groupon and Living Social were in their heyday, but they had heard enough bad things from area retailers to know that those who had tried them were not happy, but those who had yet to sign up were still curious enough to give it a try.

“Every newspaper that we read and every news report that we saw talked about how it was the best thing since sliced bread,” Graves says. “We felt like we could create a better mousetrap for this.”

Instead of emailing out a blast with multiple deals, StyleBlueprint offered deals just three times a week so that each one would seem special.

“We could curate it better, we could present it better, and we could give a better split to the businesses than what Groupon and Living Social were doing at the time,” Graves explains.

“We never wanted to be the biggest, we just wanted to be the best.”

It worked, and by limiting the number of deals that they offered, the first year they turned down many more businesses than they said yes to. “We wanted to make sure that anyone who got the deal would have a great experience going in to get the service or going in to the retail establishment, because we had experienced it ourselves,” Graves adds.

“And that was the premise of our deal. It was a deal that we would buy ourselves at a place where we would spend money.”

And while local deals have gone the way of the bargain bin, StyleBlueprint’s have not only remained strong, but have evolved into a new product, the SB Guide, which launched February 1. Similar to their SB deals, SB Guide is a curated version of online consumer reviews and listings.

“I don’t like being in a place that I can see 50,000 options,” Graves says of the vast landscape that can be online reviews. “We all feel very strongly that we wanted a strongly curated place online that had trusted opinions on where to go and what to do.”

The Guide is culled to fewer than 500 businesses, some who pay for an expanded listing and some who don’t, but all are handpicked by Graves and Fox.

“It is not a ‘pay for play’ situation,” Graves notes. “If it is a place we love to go, it needs to be in our guide.

“We do have paying members of our guide, and their page is going to look different. It’s been great and businesses have already told us they have picked up traffic off of being in the guide, and that is what we are trying to do. We are trying to put more feet and more dollars into our local businesses. And this is working.”

By the time Fox and Graves started bringing on advertisers, or “sponsors,” they knew they were able to offer them their money’s worth. That’s because they waited until the start of 2013 when they had already been developing content for years before selling ad space.

“We went into this saying we were not making any money for the first few years, personally,” Graves explains. “It wasn’t until January 2013 that we started partnering with premium sponsors. And with our premium sponsors, it was businesses we had already been working with for several years. It wasn’t like we started talking about a bunch of different places because they were advertising. We always wanted it to seem seamless.

“We know that our readers trust us and expect us to only write about what we think fits on SB, and we want to stay true to them. We know in the end if the reader knows we are being authentic, that the story we are writing about is a far better boost than if it is being paid for.”

Stacey Rhodes opened her Brentwood boutique in 2002, with print as the main way to advertise her business. She is now a sponsor on StyleBlueprint and loves that they are so prominent on social media, an advertising element she admits takes up more time than she thought it would.

“Everything is backing off from print and going more online, and I think they have done a good job of doing that and mixing it up with social media,” Rhodes says.

“You will see them on Facebook and Twitter and that’s good because if you are working with them they really help get your name and your business out there. They have really grown a lot, and I am impressed with what they have done so quickly. And I think their publication is great.”

Staying ahead of the curve

By launching without a coordinating print piece, the women ran the risk of being lumped in with the many other blogs launching at the same time. The risk of not taking ad dollars for years paid off because they had the freedom to write about whatever they wanted, including their “FACES of…” series.

Each Monday they start the week with a post about a woman in Nashville who makes the city special. She could be a musician, shop owner, CEO or philanthropist.

“We seek out women of all backgrounds, and it is not just a who’s who situation,” Graves says. “I think people like to break Nashville down into sections, but we really don’t want to do that. We think Nashville together is so much stronger if we are all supporting each other.”

The delay in taking ad dollars has also benefitted in reader trust. Today, Styleblueprint has more than 3,000 Twitter and 8,500 Facebook followers.

“We have a large group of readers who just need to be given a little bit of guidance about where to go so they don’t feel like they have wasted their time,” Graves says. “And we try to do a good job of helping them know where to go and what to do in our city.”

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