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July 2006
It’s Not Mere Child’s Play
By Lisa Hoffmann

The tag line for the Peace Corps used to be “The Toughest Job You’ll Ever Love.” The Peace Corps may be tough, but it can’t be tougher than going from diapers to preschool to dating to college with a tenacious toddler-turned-teenager, loving him or her every step of the way. Today’s busy parents welcome anything that makes their lives a little easier as they navigate those sometimes harrowing, nevertheless enchanting years. Carolina Parenting is a significant resource in that regard, targeting parents in local communities across North Carolina, providing a treasure trove of valuable information in its three area publications and a vehicle for advertisers to reach a specific audience.


A Passion for Parents

It was in the ’70s that Mark Ethridge became an investigative reporter for The Charlotte Observer because he wanted to serve the public. And serve the public he did. He worked his way up to managing editor and led Pulitzer Prize-winning investigations into the scandal that plagued PTL leaders Jim and Tammy Bakker and the textile industry’s role in causing debilitating lung disease.

Then, in the ’80s, Ethridge became president and publisher of the Charlotte Business Journal, just as the local business community began to boil over. From his position at the helm of the business publication, Ethridge, ever the pulse-taker, noticed a trend. Niche media was slowly expanding, nudging mass media aside. The number of television channels rose, radio stations catered to every taste, and magazines covering everything from cooking to canoeing popped up across the nation.

When word hit the local industry that the publishers of Our Kids magazine, a Charlotte parenting publication, were looking for a buyer, Ethridge was interested. He had seen the magazine around his own house and asked his wife what she thought of it. She described it as a useful and unique resource filled with just the kind of advertising that interested her. A short time later, in 1990, Ethridge closed the deal on what is now Charlotte Parent. Since then, he has acquired Carolina Parent, a magazine catering to the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill (Triangle) area, and Piedmont Parent, covering the Greensboro, Winston-Salem and High Point (Triad) area.

“Throughout my journalism career, my passion and vision has always been to help inform the public,” Ethridge says. “I can’t think of a greater public service than helping people be better parents. I saw the ‘mom market’ was becoming very powerful and serving such a worthwhile niche market just made sense to me in a lot of ways.”

Today, Carolina Parenting’s three publications have a combined total distribution of 151,000, reaching hundreds of thousands of parents across the state.


Focusing on Families

Carolina Parenting’s main demographic is women 25 to 54 years old, but about 20 percent of readers in some areas are men. Just like national publications, these magazines provide features covering timely issues such as health and nutritional concerns, sports and other activities and opportunities for fun and learning. What makes these local publications unique is their local slant.

“Our greatest value is the extensive local directories and calendars filled with valuable, heavily researched data that parents and visitors find useful,” Ethridge says. “The staff works very hard to provide parents with a comprehensive resource.”

Readers are just as passionate about the magazines as Ethridge and his staff. When issues don’t make it to the stands on the first of the month, the office phones start ringing.

“Parents just love our publications, which is so satisfying and reinforces what we’re doing,” says Sharon Havranek, publisher for Charlotte Parent and Piedmont Parent. “We have a less than 5 percent return rate during our distribution audits. That rate is unheard of for a free magazine and a real source of pride for us. It drives us.”

The publication’s unique content and focused distribution help insulate it from ripples in the economy.

“We’ve got a natural cushion, because even when the economy’s down, the last thing people stop spending money on is their kids,” Ethridge says. “They might stop going to expensive restaurants and shopping at boutiques but they’re still going to send their kids to summer camp.”

“When times get tough, people reevaluate their priorities,” Havranek adds. “The same goes for advertisers. We strive to reach parents with no waste, as opposed to a newspaper ad or television commercial. So if advertisers find themselves with less money to spend, they’re more likely to stay with us because they know we’re reaching families.”

Carolina Parenting magazines don’t have many national advertisers, who tend to favor big media players, Ethridge points out. So when Toys ‘R’ Us or Gymboree slashes its budget and starts pulling ads, free and regional publications generally aren’t affected.

Ethridge strives to surround himself with people who share his vision and Havranek, who worked with Ethridge as a sales manager at the Charlotte Business Journal, says she had to seriously consider the implications of working for a free magazine, something she’d never done before, when he offered her the publishing job.

“I thought back to when I was raising my son, who’s 25 now,” she explains. “I wish there was something out there like this for me back then. Now this isn’t just a job for me, it’s something I look forward to everyday.”


Paging Mom - and Mr. Mom

Havranek, who oversees distribution, has become skilled over the years in reaching the magazine’s target market. Free publications have to work a little harder than subscriber magazines, Ethridge says, because they aren’t delivered to readers’ mailboxes.

“We have a much higher obligation to make it great,” he says. “If we don’t do a good job, it’s just going to sit there.”

Distribution is limited to reduce waste and keep the budget in check. You won’t usually find Charlotte Parent in a restaurant or auto repair shop. Look for it at the pediatrician’s office or your child’s preschool or daycare.

“We have more than 900 outlets in Charlotte and I’d like to narrow it down to be even more targeted,” Havranek says. “We do a great job for our advertisers because our distribution sites are very specific to our market, so an ad for a children’s entertainer isn’t wasted on a student or young professional.”

The magazines’ readers have real purchase power. About 80 percent of readers have a combined annual household income of greater than $50,000 and are the primary shoppers for their homes. That translates to a lot of bang for the advertisers’ buck.

“Moms, by and large, control the spending habits of their families,” Ethridge adds. “We run a lot of information about summer camps, private schools and children’s parties which dovetails nicely with our advertisers’ products and services.”

Although the magazines do a superb job of reaching their intended market, it can still be a challenge to secure ad sales.

“If you went into the top of one of Charlotte’s tall buildings, you’d most likely find a male CEO who hasn’t read our magazine,” Ethridge says. “Once we present ourselves, they understand the value of placing an ad in our publication, but reaching the decision-makers can be a challenge.”

The company has made leaps and bounds on this front in recent years through community events, according to Havranek. The annual Moms@Work luncheon held each fall at the Westin Charlotte always features a well-known keynote speaker and attracts about 600 people, and many are big shots in the Charlotte business arena. This year’s guest speaker is Sheri Lynch, co-host of the “Bob & Sheri” radio show and author of two humorous books that look at the trials and tribulations of parenting. She is sure to carry widespread appeal.

“We didn’t start the Moms@Work luncheon with the express intention of reaching the big decision-makers around town, but it has had the side effect of increasing awareness about the publication among businessmen over the years,” Havranek says.

The Family-Friendly 40, an annual award program that recognizes 40 companies across the state that go out of their way to make life easier for their employees who are parents, is another way Carolina Parenting makes itself known to the business community. The nomination process considers things like schedule flexibility, maternity and adoption leave and on-site childcare.

Companies hoping to attract employees with families would do well to examine how Carolina Parenting manages its offices.

“We offer very flexible schedules and avoid micromanaging peoples’ time,” Ethridge says. “I’ve found that when you are careful to hire the right people, left to their own devices they will meet and exceed your expectations. If staff members are able to occasionally bring a child to work with them or take time off to attend a school function they appreciate it and pay the company back with their passion and enthusiasm.”


A Little Magazine Grows Up

The first issue of Our Kids magazine was probably about 16 pages, Ethridge estimates. Current issues of Carolina Parenting’s magazines top 100 pages. And that’s still not enough room for all the information the publishers and editors want to share with North Carolina’s families.

“Every month I hear ‘Sharon I  need more pages!’” Havranek adds. “But since it’s just not practical to  create a magazine that’s hundreds of pages, we’ve decided to concentrate on upgrading and improving our Web site.”

Carolina Parenting’s Web sites also offer the opportunity to reach many more people, serving as both an informational outlet and a gathering tool.

“Publishing is a constantly evolving process,” Havranek explains. “Expanding our Web site’s capabilities gives us opportunities to communicate more effectively with our readers, for information sharing that flows both ways. We don’t want to make assumptions about what’s going on in the parenting world.”

Carolina Parenting takes a unique approach to new ideas, one that doesn’t tax staff members’ time and resources. Since Ethridge is not a publisher or editor, he takes on the role of “beta tester” for new projects. If he determines that the idea has legs, he gets the ball rolling, hires new staff if necessary and then hands the project off.

An annual college guide for parents and students is a recently launched project. Ethridge managed the development process, helped sell ads and sponsorships and made sure costs stayed under control.

“The great thing about that arrangement is, if it doesn’t work out then it’s not a big deal,” Ethridge says. “Right now I’m working with a Web site consultant for our new format, doing some behind-the-scenes work. Our company’s staff consists of some of the most talented people on the planet. Why would I want to distract them from their work?”

Ethridge is content with the way things are progressing and doesn’t feel the biggest growth opportunities presently involve acquisitions. But he’s not closing the door on the possibility either. He keeps a close eye on and maintains good relationships with other regional parenting publications. For now, ramping up Web sites, launching special publications and sharpening the focus on their target market is keeping them busy and on the map for many parents.

“To some degree, our publications go beyond just being information outlets,” Ethridge says. “They provide a sense of community, creating an understanding that somebody is out there thinking about what parents want and need. I consider them touchstones.”

Lisa Hoffmann is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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