‘If you ain’t first, you’re last’: The GVLtoday story

From left: Ryan Johnston, Ryan Heafy, and Mary Willson described the challenges of launching 6AM, a digital content brand.

If you’re one of the 22,000 GVLtoday readers, you might already know this story. The daily newsletter is a whole day’s news, events, and goings-on, plus a piece of original content. Every. Single. Weekday.

Last year, Ryan Johnston, UBJ publisher, was looking for a way to elevate the voice of the publication. He knew they were getting valuable scoops and impressive leads, but that the digital read of the publication was lacking.

“They way traditional media is produced has changed, the way that it is consumed has changed, and the way it is bought has also changed,” Johnston said.

Enter: 6AM, the brand that encompasses GVLtoday, COLAtoday, and CHStoday. The thought is simple: Aggregate, curate, condense, and deliver need-to-know local news, conversations, events, and hot topics, via a daily email, online, and across social media channels.


The other piece of the pie? Localization.

In order to maximize audience participation, the public is the publisher. 6AM is redefining how communities engage, communicate, connect, and experience our city.

“The highest level of engagement, we believed, was on a local level,” Johnston said.

By using the respected brand of Community Journals, he was able to produce a new, innovative way to reach Greenville: straight in their inboxes.

The actual implementation, though, wasn’t as simple. But, as Johnston explained last Wednesday at the Collaborators & Cocktails event at Endeavor, in a “Ricky Bobby” quote, no less: “If you ain’t first, you’re last.”

From concept to implementation

This is where Ryan Heafy, director and COO of 6AM, enters the picture. Johnston and Heafy met in Leadership Greenville and shared a passion for media and an entrepreneurial spirit. Heafy’s background is in manufacturing and scalability (read: engineer), aka exactly what GVLtoday needed to get off the ground.

From Gantt project-management charts and manually growing social media followings to creating a team and planning the design, the first few months were building the seeds for a July 2016 launch. Heafy is the first one to tell you that he is not a publisher, and had to learn on the fly. Even today, he reviews about 50 emails from other organizations doing similar initiatives each day.

The product development cycle was the most important lesson to learn here in Greenville before launching 6AM’s second site, COLAtoday. First, form a team. Then decide who is going to write a smart newsletter every day, run social media, manage partner relationships, and more. From there, get social media up and running, launch the email, and roll out the website.

For Greenville, this whole cycle was about eight months. In Columbia, it was just about four months.

One major challenge between the two markets has been creating relationships. In Greenville, advertising partners were easier to acquire because of Community Journals’ strong relationship with the community. With COLAtoday, the relationships took longer to build, which has turned out to be a valuable lesson as the Charleston market launch is right around the corner.

Creative content from our community

Since our launch day, growing our readership has been a lesson in listening to our audience. Every day, our staff answers dozens of emails from the community.

As I said two weeks ago (and it’s so true), our community drives our content. You ask us what the best fried chicken is? Let us poll you. What does affordable housing mean? We will ask the experts for you. What restaurants would you like to see in downtown? We will tally them up.

“There are enough think pieces out there about what you should think, what you should do. We want to be part of, ‘How can I have my voice be heard? My voice matters.’” I said that two weeks ago. And I still believe it.

Regularly, questions we ask on social media directly create the content for our main article on GVLtoday.

Before joining GVLtoday, I worked at daily papers. And the content I was creating was different than the content I was consuming. This is where our mission comes in: Create smart, witty, and quick content.

And thanks to our readers, it’s possible. Every. Single. Day.



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