Small-Market Best-Of Ballot Updates Drive 5X Revenue

by Vince Johnson The Sumter Item

Case Study Highlights

  • Increased votes by more than 10X and revenue by more than 5X in 18th year of Readers’ Choice program
  • Hosted newspaper’s first-ever event with a venue capacity of 300 attendees and multiple sponsorships
  • Launched video production arm of company with ‘Best Of’ commercials


The Idea

The Sumter Item is a small-market, 125-year-old family-owned newspaper with a circulation of 12,000. Publishing five days a week, our goal is to provide the Sumter region with the best in print and digital products and showcase the community’s progress.

For 17 years, The Sumter Item’s Readers’ Choice awards were a community staple, with a printed ballot sent in by readers and tabulated by our staff, culminating in a successful print tab recognizing the winners. Contest revenue peaked at about $27,000 – one of our better-performing products each year.

In our 18th year, we changed everything. We re-branded our contest and magazine, revamped our nomination and voting process, rebuilt our sales strategy, added an event and launched our brand-new video capabilities. Take a look at our hype video for Best of Sumter 2018!


The Execution

After running the 2017 Sumter Item Readers’ Choice awards in a tab in June 2017, we pre-emptily launched Best of Sumter 2018 in January of 2018.

First, we redesigned our logo to make ‘Best of Sumter’ stand out, and we added a historic area landmark to the logo to separate its significance from any other local, regional or national awards program.

Best of Sumter 2018 Ballot

For the first time, we utilized Second Street’s contesting platform and opened up nominations online, promoting nominations, and then voting, via print, social media, and email. We sold ‘Vote For Us’ print, digital and video ads for the first time during the voting period, with packages ranging from $199 (expanded listing) to $1,099 (print ads, category ad, expanded listing, video).

Open nominations led to hundreds of new leads for our advertising staff. In addition, we put an email sign-up form for business representatives in the Contest Description. This led to more than 800 local business owners/managers providing us their complete contact information for follow-up, a process that has led to ongoing sales

One hurdle we immediately had to overcome was the expectations from our advertisers and our sales staff based on long-standing contest traditions. Previous advertiser packages had been priced from $155 to $595, and the advertisers had expectations for performance based on the previous year’s print ad as the sole advertising option.

Best of Sumter ad packages

To combat this, we added value at every turn. We turned a one-day print product into a year-long community celebration of Sumter’s best. Specifically, branded content from the advertisers thanking the community for their vote, Daily Website Takeover ads, Top Email Ads, Video ads and expanded listings to different packages – all inventory that was previously unsold. We wanted everyone in our region to know all 264 winners so we created Winner’s Packages between $249 (1/8th page) and $2,999 and sold out all of our premium inventory in three days.

We celebrated our winners at Best of Sumter 2018: The Red Carpet Event, the first event of any kind put on by our newspaper. The event was at-capacity with 300 attendees, and every winner received a framed photo and window cling. The event has become an on-going talking point around Sumter.
Best of Sumter 2018 Awards

Best of Sumter now holds a regular space on our website, in our daily email, and is regularly featured on our social pages year-round.

The Results

Best of Sumter direct revenue grew from $27,000 in 2017 to nearly $140,000 in 2018, more than 5X growth in the contest’s 18th year. It was more than double the largest single project in company history.

The ballot received 101,934 votes in 264 categories, including 7,188 email opt-ins.

The videos produced inside the Best Of platform led the launch of Studio Sumter, a video production arm of our company that now holds the majority of the video production opportunities in the Sumter region. We’re producing videos for the city, county, chamber, school system and economic development board, and we have an agreement to produce a regional documentary.

The changes made to our Best Of program have continued to improve our overall success. We’re garnering daily attention from business and community leaders for our enhanced capabilities and audience growth and receiving daily emails and calls from advertisers who want to be a part of what we’re doing.

The benefits of Best of Sumter have not only been a turning point for our company, but for much of our community and region overall. Building on that momentum and without some of the initial hurdles to overcome with changing a long-standing contest, the program continues to expand. In 2019, Best Of Sumter collected more than 17,000 nominations and 400,000 votes, sold out with more than 400 event attendees, and generated more than 230k in revenue. We also added a successful Best Of Clarendon contest and event in a nearby community, helping us bring Best Of to our entire region.

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