Interview with Peter Hapgood, whose membership website capitalizes on his years of professional experience in the public employee retirement industry
In this exclusive Mequoda interview, Peter Hapgood explains how he and his business partner, Thomas R. Lussier, took nearly 50 years of combined professional experience in the public employee retirement industry and launched PublicPensionsOnline.
MEQUODA By way of background, what should we know about you personally or professionally?
PH I received my BA in Public Administration from Nichols College and my MA in education from American International College. I started work for the Massachusetts House of Representatives, working on the Public Service Committee which handled all retirement legislation.
I later taught and coached at Southbridge High School. I became the Deputy Executive Director of the Massachusetts Teachers’ Retirement Board and served the teachers for nine years. I was then recruited by Freedom Capital Management to sell investment product.
I’m presently running by own “consulting firm,” Public Pensions, Inc. representing a variety of firms and interests that are all part of the public pension fund industry. I am also the appointed trustee on the Southbridge Retirement Board.
MEQUODA What best describes your position with PublicPensionsOnline.com? Are you the founder/sole owner/president/webmaster—all of the above—or what? Was this website your creation?
PH PPO was my creation along with my partner Tom Lussier and Senior Editor Ron Hawkins. We created PPO to provide information about every facet of the public pension industry. Our past professional experience and industry knowledge drove the bus while creating PPO.
MEQUODA How did you come to start PublicPensionsOnline.com?
PH I wanted to create something that would help the public pension industry. I like to make a difference, no matter what I do.
I’ve dedicated over 25 years in different professional positions to this industry and simply believed that public retirement knowledge and information is important and necessary. PPO was designed to assist pension trustees, administrators and pension professionals better understand the issues in their pursuit to provide a secure retirement for public employees across the United States.
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MEQUODA How long has your site been active and what is your subscription fee structure? What is included with a subscription?
PH PPO was launched in February 2004. Subscription fees are based like other industry resources. On the plan sponsor (retirement system) side, assets under management determine fee.
For larger retirement systems (over $1 billion) the fee is $1200 for one subscription. Additional subscriptions per system run $300 for five subscriptions.
Smaller plans (under $1 billion) pay $250 per subscription and $100 for each additional. The professional vendor community fees are the same as a large retirement system.
MEQUODA Now to the technical details. To build your site, what tools did you use, and how long did it take?
PH The best thing that happened to me, allowing this dream of mine to happen, was finding out about MemberGate. Working with Bill and Sonya Myers was unbelievable. With their help the technical issues were handled quite smoothly. Their software program and personal service approach is terrific.
The site took six months to build. We needed to feel comfortable with enough information so that the site contained enough value for the subscribers as well as support the subscription fee.
I also contracted with NexisLexis who provide PPO’s daily publishing feature.
MEQUODA How often do you add new content?
PH PPO is live 24/7. We add new material in some form or another each weekday.
MEQUODA Has your site changed significantly since you launched it?
PH Significantly…I’d say no. The concept we had at inception still holds true, but we’ve worked very hard to make the site as user friendly as possible.
Therefore, we have made changes to enhance our delivery of information. We are presently looking to refresh the look after seeing the same artwork, etc. for the last year. We have also added departments and are working with individuals who are willing to write a monthly column, adding more original material to the site.
MEQUODA What’s the single greatest tool that helps you get your new content out every week?
PH The NexisLexis research tool is quite helpful. MemberGate also allows us to take a (Microsoft) Word document and convert the original to the site quite easily.
MEQUODA Marketing and promotion seem to be a great challenge for most subscription website publishers. How have you approached this task, and what kind of results have you experienced?
PH I agree that marketing and promotion is THE challenge. After a year, I have learned that I needed to narrow my focus and concentrate on more defined organizations and geographic areas.
Broad brush marketing was neither efficient nor rewarding. It was also a little surprising that e-mail promotion is not readily accepted (especially with SPAM screens being installed). I’ve found you still need direct mail and telephone contact to obtain subscriptions.
MEQUODA Do you have any advertising on your site?
PH PPO does not have direct advertising. However, one of the major reasons why the vendor community will subscribe is that they are given the opportunity to publish industry white papers or opinion pieces that educate their primary marketplace…the pension trustees and administrators.
Firms who participate have direct links to their websites and e-mail addresses for their contact personnel. Works just like advertising but has an educational theme to the information process.
MEQUODA How do you find new subscribers, or how do they find you? What’s the process like for increasing sales and memberships?
PH PPO has access to membership lists through its association contacts, retirement organizations and past professional contacts made over the 25 years of working in the public pension industry. Increasing subscriptions is constant work.
MEQUODA For Mequoda members who are devising premium content strategies for their online properties, any advice you would offer?
PH If you think you have an idea or dream…follow it, but create a business plan for at least a three-year period. Your initial expectations for income probably will not be realized, but remember your subscription price can always be reduced or discounted…it would be hard to raise the subscription fee if you felt that you weren’t reaching income expectations.
After my first year, I feel I have a much better understanding of who to market too and how I should market. I’ve changed pricing strategies, but have stayed with my initial fees.
I would also recommend that you need to use a professional ad agency to help develop marketing materials. The investment is well worth it. Your image needs to be professional!
MEQUODA What’s your best advice to Mequoda members?
PH Stay the course and remain focused and in touch with your subscription base. Develop surveys that can be e-mailed and answered by your subscribers. Additional revenue streams can be created from your industry knowledge and experience.
MEQUODA What has been your greatest challenge to date, doing business online?
PH The greatest challenge is marketing…having people realize the value that is added by your site. I also believe that email could almost be categorized as “junk mail”. You still have to have a direct mail and personal contact strategy.
MEQUODA What’s the best or smartest thing you’ve done? What’s the worst?
PH The smartest thing I did was to develop a focus group while developing PPO. The advice received was valuable in developing the site and deciding on the subscription fee.
The worst thing I did was to have expectations that the site would just take off. It takes a little more time than you expect. I firmly believe that if your business plan extends over three years before real profit sets in and your expectations follow suit…you’ll have great fun and your site will be a success.