By Kath Walters

The High Tea Society is an accidental masterpiece. Well, not completely accidental. It’s just that the website’s founder, Michelle Milton, never really expected her creation to turn into such a runaway success.

With an audience of 70,000-plus, the High Tea Society is a content marketing case study: how to build an audience, turn them into a community of raving fans, and turn the whole gig into a money-making venture.

Riding the first digital wave

Milton, who trained in PR and marketing, got a lucky break early in her career. Back as far as 1995, when most of us didn’t have email, Milton’s employer trained her in HTML and she started building websites.

When she chucked it in to travel, her training landed her a great job at Westminister University, training traditional advertising agencies in the new digital skills.

“I saw the dotcom boom and bust in London,” Milton says. “It was an exciting time: going to launch parties for, and [entreprenuers’ network] First Tuesday.”

It was there in the mother country that Milton unearthed a dormant passion. “In the UK, high teas are amazing,” Milton says. “My favourite is the Savoy Hotel in London. It is such a very stylish experience.”

When the bust hit and the fun evaporated, Milton returned to Australia and began freelancing as a digital marketing consultant.

Case study proves a point

In 2009, when interest in content marketing began, Milton began the site to teach herself the ropes. She started The High Tea Society as a test site and case study.

It’s the choice of topic that proved serendipitous. Milton loves high teas. And she uncovered fellow fanatics the world over.

The style and panache of the Savoy wasn’t easy to find when Milton returned home. “When I came back to Australia, I went to a couple of high teas and was a bit disappointed,” she says. “I started trying to find out where there were good places to go.”

She turned this crusade into the content for her blog, and it has proved a rich vein. Milton has uncovered more than 200 high teas on offer across Australia and New Zealand.

A turning point

A year into the project, a story about The High Tea Society featured the website of Australia’s multicultural TV brand, SBS.

Interest bounced. Milton’s site grew in popularity, as did her Facebook community. “That one story on the SBS website turned it into something completely different. I got so much exposure; so many people looking to make contact,” Milton says.

Then one venue contacted Milton and offered to supply a prize if Milton ran a competition. The event was such as success that it has become the business model for the site. Regular sponsored competitions, targeting a segment of the active and engaged fans on her database, bring in about half of Milton’s annual revenue. The remainder comes from her digital marketing consultancy.

The business model

Every competition is sponsored. Milton runs the Facebook competion and a social media campaign. “When I run a competition, they get three posts, and those go out on Twitter and Facebook, and then 10 days of mentions, sharing, and photos on the newsletter.”

In the past two years, electronic direct campaign (EDMs) have become more important for revenue than running competitions.

“In August, The Hotel Windsor wanted to launch a new menu. They offered a special gift if someone booked and mentioned The High Tea Society: a special tin of tea, branded, to take home. I have 5,500 subscribers in Melbourne, and targeted to the right location, that email had a 42% open rate, and no unsubscribes. People want that information, and there are bonus special offers.”

Restricting the number of competitions to about 15 a year keeps their value high, and doesn’t saturate subscribers. “The value is better if I run fewer competitions at higher value,” Milton says. “Then, when the email list got big enough to segment it, it just offered a better marketing solution.” Milton charges a set-up fee per EDM and then a fee per email. Most campaigns cost between $1,000 and $3,500 each.

Raving fans create their own content and value

The content marketing model demands businesses put their audience first.

“Money and whatever else comes second. For me, the path has been driven by my community and by my sponsors. If you have a loyal, highly-engaged audience that trust the content you are sharing and trust by following you on social and handing over their email address, you need to make sure quality of the content is well balanced. Then work with brands, and sponsors on campaigns and offers. Don’t do things for money that your audience doesn’t want.”

Milton keeps the site’s credibility and independence by reviewing only the venues that have a good quality product. If she doesn’t like it, she doesn’t review.

Milton’s fans keep her informed of new venues, closures, or venues that fail to keep their standards high.

They provide leads, and they provide buzz and excitement around her brand.

“The critical social media for me is Facebook,” Milton says. “That is the platform that works. When a feature goes onto the Facebook page, my followers comment, share and send to friends, who go the site and have a look. The people opt-in and sign up for my newsletter.”

Milton doesn’t offer inducements to subscribers; the competitions drive sign-ups. “I run them as a Facebook competition, using the proper app. If they answer the question, they opt into my newsletter.”

Milton’s reach of close to 70,000 is spread across the different platforms: 18,700 email subscribers; 40,000-plus Facebook fans, and 6800 Twitter followers, as well as about 3000-plus Instagram devotees. A keen photographer, Milton makes sure she documents the ambience of each venue.

About 80% of her following is in Australia, but she has international contributors and reviews of many international venues.

“Some of my Australian contributors were going overseas and said, ‘Hey I have a stopover in Singapore. Would you like me to do a review?’ The reason my readers want those stories is because high tea is now a destination travel activity.”

In no small measure, Milton’s website helped spark a global travel phenomenon. The power of content marketing.