Content Strategy & Events — One Way to Think About the Funnel

Thank you to everyone who became a paid subscriber to A Media Operator over the past few days. The response has been incredible and I am unbelievably appreciative.

A few people reached out asking a bit more about what the difference in content will be for free subscribers vs. paid, so I wanted to explain quickly.

  • Free: Tuesday news analysis post. This linked post is an example. I’ll pull some of the big stories of the week, contextualize it and offer my thoughts on what’s going on.

  • Paid: The Tuesday news analysis post and posts like the one below. These are essays where I get strategic about specific topics. Sometimes I’ll get tactical, like I did here. These are meant to dive deeper than news analysis.

I’ve been a bit ad hoc with the types of stories I do week-to-week, but with the new paid plan, I am going to add structure to it.

Along with the two pieces a week, paid subscribers also get access to the community, which right now includes commenting and discussion threads. As time goes on, I am hopeful Substack will build more advanced community functionality. They are executing at a fast pace, so I’m excited to see what’s to come.

A paid subscription is not for everyone and I understand that. For those that want it, I’m keeping the cost 50% off for life since you, as the early subscribers, are all friends of A Media Operator. On March 12th, a subscription jumps up to full price and that’ll be the last time I discount. If you’re still unsure, I do offer a month-to-month plan. You can try it out and then upgrade before the 12th.

The first “paid only” issue will publish on February 7th, so you still have a little more time to decide. I’ll remind you until then. Interested in being a subscriber? Sign up now.

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Now onto what you really want to read…

I’ve been thinking a lot about content strategy from the perspective of launching new events. A lot of publishers see events as this panacea for generating diversified revenue without stopping to ask a simple question: does my audience need this event?

Events are great. They are a physical representation of your brand, they bring together some of your most loyal readers and, if done right, can generate strong margins for the bottom line.

But events are also risky. They come with inherent fixed costs that you can’t get rid of even if you want to cancel the event. Venues, especially hotels, are notorious for locking you in and, come hell or high water, you’re paying the bill. Or, if you do have a cancellation clause, the fee is egregious.

One of the ways I believe you can minimize the risks associated with doing an event is to think about it from the perspective of a piece of an overall content strategy—and in many cases, the most expensive piece. Before you invest in doing an event, step back and identify the audience and see if you’ve been serving them in other ways first.

Let’s use a hypothetical target audience of commercial real estate investors who are learning about opportunity zones. I created this loose funnel to illustrate how I think about this.

The end state is that event. It’s the major monetizable outcome that we all want. We’re going to charge $799 for a one-day event, have a few sponsors, and if we succeed, we’ll generate $279,000 in revenue. After costs, we’re left with $150,000 in profit.

The thing is, while we might think that commercial real estate investors want to know about opportunity zones, does the audience trust us with the topic? Maybe commercial real estate investors aren’t our target audience just yet. A third option is that we haven’t quite zeroed in on the audience amongst the overall audience, so we don’t know exactly how to market to them.

Whatever the reason, each of the possibilities in the previous paragraph are weaknesses that could interfere in our ability to profitably host this event.

The way to reduce the risk for this event is to give your audience an opportunity to self select what their needs are. Here’s how I’d break it down…

Free content — Starting the funnel

The first thing to do is take a look at the content you’ve already published on the site related to opportunity zones. Over the past 3-6 months, is that content showing more or less engagement relative to other stories that you’ve published in the same time frame?

If the answer is no, that it’s performing weaker than other content, perhaps you’re not doing a great job with that topic and the desired audience. And if you have no content, then it’s time to get focused and start having your editorial team cover that topic.

There are two goals here:

  1. You’re showing the audience that you’re now going to be a resource about this important topic

  2. You’re funneling the users to a newsletter about the topic as well.

Each of the stories tagged to “opportunity zone” should have a very clear call to action to sign up for a newsletter that is also about opportunity zones. This model is particularly helpful because the user is self selecting. They’re telling you that they explicitly care about the topic. On the other hand, a general “real estate” newsletter wouldn’t really tell you a ton of information about your audience.

It’s no secret that I feel newsletters are core to any media company, so a key metric that you should be tracking on your editorial is the number of people that sign up for a newsletter. If you’re producing specific content that is getting more organic sign ups than other types of content, you might be onto something.

Newsletter & Reports — Middle of the Funnel

You’ve now converted a decent percentage of people to the topic-specific newsletter. The conversion rate should be pretty high because you’ve created a conversion event that is related to the content that the user was already reading.

The first purpose of getting the newsletter subscriber is to simply have a relationship with them. Now they don’t have to seek you out; you’re bringing them the information they want.

In an earlier piece about how to do newsletters right, I wrote:

I believe that, to do a newsletter well, it’s important to think about it as its own standalone product. Said another way, if your audience could only engage with your newsletter, how would you create it?

This is actually how to think about launching a new media company. A newsletter is a standalone product that can be a good place to start, especially in the niche world.

Treating the newsletter as a standalone product means you’re serving the newsletter audience the right information—where it was published doesn’t matter. This remains one of the big problems that many media companies struggle with; they would rather have a weaker newsletter than drive traffic to a possible competitor.

You’ll know if you’re doing a good job. Open rates and forwards are good indicators that people are valuing what you have to say.

At this point, you’ve approach a fork in the road and need to pick a direction…

The first is that you can announce an event. At this point, you’ve demonstrated that people trust your brand with the topic, so it’s possible that a percentage of your audience will fork over cash for the event.

The second is that you dive even deeper with the audience and product produce an in-depth report about the topic. In exchange for more information about the reader, they can get the report for free. If you don’t want to give the report away for free, you can use it as a bolt on to the ticket price. I’ll explain about that in a minute.

Launch the event — Bottom of funnel

At this point, you have an engaged, self-selecting audience. Your top of the funnel news has resulted in many of your users to sign up for the newsletter.

Now you announce the event. The message to your audience is straight forward.

Over the past few months, we’ve seen a ton of interest in these new, tax-friendly opportunity zones. With how big of an opportunity this is, Real Estate Media Company is excited to announce the launch of Opportunity Zone Investment Summit, a one-day event for investors and entrepreneurs looking to understand how they can take advantage of this market.

At this point, though, the people on the list know that your publisher knows enough about this topic to support the event. So, when they see the price of the ticket, they’re not as likely to balk. In marketing talk, we call these people warm leads versus going completely cold.

Because we’re a multi-revenue stream business, you can take this announcement one step farther and announce the report along with the event. Normally, you’d price the report at $499. In this instance, you dangle an add-on to the event. If the subscriber buys a ticket to the event, they can get the report for only $299.

On its own, you’re not earning $200 per report. On the other hand, you’re earning an additional $299 per attendee to your event, which expands the revenue from $799 per person to $1,098. If we have 300 people coming and each of them takes advantage of this, your revenue goes from $239,700 to $329,700—an extra $90,000.

Why I like this model

This model feels right to me primarily because it gives you multiple steps to check your assumptions about the audience. Let’s say that you start producing additional content about the topic and no one engages with it. Your journalists are doing their job, but the audience just doesn’t care.

At this point, you can reassess whether this is the right approach. In this case, launching a paid event that’s going to cost you six figures to put on is probably not a smart play.

On the other hand, if you start producing additional content about the topic and engagement goes through the roof, it gives you actionable data.

The same can be said with the newsletter and the report. If no one engages with the newsletter or, you launch the report before the event, and no one buys it, you might know that your audience isn’t prepared to trust you with their credit card. That’s also good to know.

Here’s the other reason I like this model… If you do all of the work listed above, by the time you announce the event, your audience is going to be incredibly excited to attend. I’ve seen some publishers announce an event and be sold out a few weeks later simply because they did a great job warming the audience up with fantastic information. Had they started cold, I don’t know if they would have been so successful.

Getting ideas for events

In some instances, you may have no idea what kind of event to throw. Your engagement data can give you ideas.

Just start going through the stories published on the site and pay attention to what categories are getting the most engagement. You want to see if there are any changing trends. Here are a few possible trend changes:

  • Your journalists are writing about the topic more often than they used to

  • Stories are getting more reads, more shares, or longer time on page

  • An increase in newsletter subscriptions on those pages versus others

If you’re seeing more happen in this category, it might be time to start moving users down a self-selecting funnel with the ultimate goal of putting on an event.

Summing up…

For many B2B publishers, events are a core revenue stream that helps fund the rest of the operation. To make these events easier to execute, though, focus on the engagement data on site and lead the user through a funnel.

This will reduce your risk and increase the likelihood the event is a success.

Thanks for reading today’s post. As I mentioned above, this is an example of a “paid” post when I launch the paywall on February 7th. If you want to make sure you don’t miss any of these pieces, consider signing up for a subscription now. If you act before March 12th, you’ll get 50% off your subscription for life. And as always, consider sharing this with your colleagues and friends. Thanks!

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Buying Media Companies for Audience... or Vice Versa

Plus... A Media Operator is going paid on Substack. Yup.

Before we jump into why you actually opened today’s newsletter, I want to talk a bit more about A Media Operator because I’ve received a ton of email from readers about this specific topic.

A couple weeks ago, I talked about how I was preparing to leave Substack. It is important to me to build A Media Operator with optionality and keep the brand secure.

Long story short, I was able to get things squared away here on Substack. My long-term goals appear to be in-line with what Substack is building.

I owe thanks to a few people for ultimately giving me the right counsel. Alex over at Morning Brew, who has in quick time become the person I bounce most ideas off; Nathan who talked strategy with me (obviously, have you seen his Substack?); and Austin at Morning Brew, who gave me the ultimate push in the right direction:

Pick the tech that is going to let you control your brand, but is not going to get in the way of you doing what you’re good at. You don’t want to manage the tech.

That’s what I have done. Substack works. My newsletter and website get sent/published simultaneously without me having to worry about a thing. I get to focus on writing and they get to figure out how to ensure everything is working. For someone who is doing this in his free time, that’s a real luxury.

The other thing they do well is let independent writers generate revenue from their readers. It’s with that note that I announce that A Media Operator is going paid. I’ve been thinking about this for a while and I think it’s time.

What does going paid mean?

Currently, I send two issues out a week. They are a blend of long-form essay and analysis on the news. Free subscribers are only going to get the news analysis, which I will start publishing on Tuesdays. Paid subscribers will get both issues each week.

Paid subscribers will also have the ability to leave comments on my posts, which is the start of forming a community here. Not only can you reply to me, but you can reply to each other. Expanding on community, Substack supports a feature called discussion threads. Essentially, I’ll start the discussion with a short topic and then where the conversation goes from there is up to the community.

Finally, I’m based in New York. A lot of subscribers are as well. From time to time, I’ll organize dinners where 10-15 of us can get together, meet each other and talk about what we’re working on. Each person would pay their own way, but I’d get the people there. Anytime I travel, if there’s enough subscriber interest, I’ll set up dinners in those places as well. I like to think of this as an add on because they’ll be ad hoc, but only paid subscribers will be invited.

My hope is that with these additional features, subscribers will see enough value to want to hang out.

Another thing: I plan on charging $200 a year for this. However, because you have been the first people to sign up for the newsletter, I am giving everyone who signs up 50% off for life—so long as you act by March 12th. That means that, in future years, when people are paying $200, you’ll still be paying $100. You ate friends of A Media Operator.

I look forward to seeing the community grow over the coming years. I anticipate I’ll take a couple weeks to get everyone comfortable with subscribing. In February, though, we’ll be going paid. So, sign up!

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Enough about me…

A couple weeks ago, Peter Kafka at Recode reported that Penn National Gaming was looking to acquire Barstool Sports. He wrote:

The deal would tie Barstool, a well-known company with a passionate audience, to a casino company you may have never heard of, which is part of the logic of the tie-up: Industry observers expect Penn National, which operates properties like the Hollywood Casino in Bangor, Maine, and the Greektown Casino-Hotel in Detroit, to adopt the Barstool brand for at least some of its operations.

The rationale for the acquisition is straight forward. Penn National, which no one knows about, expects to see additional competition for new customers as online gambling is legalized across the United States. Especially with gambling, customer acquisition costs are high, so finding an organic way to gain customers is a smart play.

Enter Barstool Sports. Say what you will about the founder, Dave Portnoy, but CEO Erika Nardini has done a strong job growing this business with some people suggesting it’s already pushing $100 million in revenue.

Kafka explains:

Barstool already has a Barstool Bets site, which publishes sports-betting stories and videos, and runs free sports-betting games; the company also has deals to direct its users to betting operations like MGM Resorts.

So, what we have is a product company (Penn National) now looking for a way to bring tens of millions of potential customers to those products and realizing that a media company (Barstool) already has those prospective customers. It’s a smart play.

There’s no denying that the rise in direct-to-consumer businesses has seen a serious jump in customer acquisition costs. Early DTC brands built their entire business on the back of Facebook’s incredible ad targeting. Today, you can’t even open Instagram without seeing a dozen different products being marketed.

Unfortunately, the ease in which these brands launch has resulted in a lot of competition to get customers. In this Modern Retail report:

The online retail adage of 2019 has certainly become “CAC is rising.” It’s more expensive now to run ads on Facebook, Instagram and Google than in recent memory. Meanwhile, a bunch of businesses rely on these channels for growth.

There are plenty of media brands that are stuck in this middle ground where they have a decent sized audience, but don’t have the scale they need to really push to the upper levels of media business. I’ve compared these to the middle of a barbell. They’re not niche enough, but they’re also not large enough.

But if they have a loyal audience, that might be enough. For larger DTC brands, could they start looking to acquire these media brands that might, in turn, help push customer acquisition costs down?

I think it’s possible. However, I believe that the publisher, for the first time ever, is in the driver seat. This time, publishers might be buyers.

How would that work?

As publishers start to spend more of their time learning about their audience, they’re going to start learning about what their needs are. For example, a parenting website probably has parents trying to figure out what baby food is best.

In the past, the parenting website would simply advertise various baby foods. It’s not in a publisher’s DNA to create food. However, by purchasing one of these DTC baby food companies, the publisher doesn’t have to worry about creating the product. Instead, they are able to focus on building the audience and have a separate company that is focused on building the product.

Ironically, we saw this happen in the gambling world. In May 2019, Bloomberg reported that Fox had purchased 4.99% of The Stars Group for $236 million. Bloomberg reported:

The companies will jointly launch Fox Bet later this year, offering two products designed to stake a claim in the growing world of online betting. One will be free to play, offering customers cash and prizes for predicting the outcome of sports games. The other will offer the chance to place real money wagers in states with regulated online betting.

Additionally, Fox Sports within the next 10 years will have the right to acquire up to 50% of Stars Group’s U.S. business. Domestic sports betting, online casinos and poker could become a $9 billion revenue market by 2025 when wagers, sponsorship and advertising are all tallied up, Fox Sports CEO Eric Shanks in an interview.

Fox has the audience. As opposed to Barstool, which might get purchased, Fox decided to buy the product that its audience wants.

Purchasing is obviously not a necessity, but I see a lot of publishers trying to emulate what Complex and Buzzfeed built with their commerce initiatives and fall flat on their face. It’s just not in their DNA.

It’s not as simple as buying a brand and selling goods. Acquisitions are hard and most of them, ultimately, fail. But if the primary thing these DTC brands want is a less expensive audience, how does that give DTC leverage over the publisher?

It should be a fun 2020 to watch all of this unfold.

The Right Customer Data Platform — Request for Info

In my last post about the end of cookies, I mentioned that people might want to invest in a customer data platform (CDP) so they could unify their first party user data.

There are so many CDPs out there (my inbox is actually full of people pitching their product), but I wanted to hear from the other operators here. What CDPs have you used that have actually helped?

Hit reply and let me know because I am definitely interested.

That about wraps it up! Thanks for reading today’s issue. If you find value in A Media Operator, consider becoming a paid subscriber so you don’t miss a single issue and get access to the community. In the future, comments will be turned on and you’ll be able to post questions right there. I’m looking forward to seeing what we can build here. See you on Friday!


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Google Finally Says Farewell to Cookies

Business Insider is a seriously legit business...

Welcome to all the new subscribers! If you’re new here, I send two issues a week—Tuesdays and Fridays. The styles are either long-form essays or, in this case, analysis and opinion on what others have written. If you ever have thoughts, feel free to reply to this email. I typically answer everyone (and if I don’t immediately, I will soon).

Before we jump in, share or subscribe here.

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Google picks a date to go cookie-free

It appears that the final nail in the coffin of 3rd-party cookie-based advertising is upon us. According to a blog post published by Google, it has picked a time to start phasing cookies out.

…we are confident that with continued iteration and feedback, privacy-preserving and open-standard mechanisms like the Privacy Sandbox can sustain a healthy, ad-supported web in a way that will render third-party cookies obsolete. Once these approaches have addressed the needs of users, publishers, and advertisers, and we have developed the tools to mitigate workarounds, we plan to phase out support for third-party cookies in Chrome. Our intention is to do this within two years.

What has worked for so many years is finally coming to an end. But fret not because Google thinks that it will be able to come up with a solution—of course, with publisher and advertiser involvement—that will make everyone more money.

I can guarantee that Google will make more money. Google will do nothing that does not guarantee it makes more money.

What about the publishers, though? Will this just be another cut against publisher revenue in a time when there is already so little?

Apple and Mozilla have already gone down this path of blocking cookies. Microsoft has released its new Edge browser, which comes with cookie tracking automatically turned off. But Chrome accounts for 68% of total global browser usage. Without cookies, won’t this destroy publishers?

Matt Keiser, founder and CEO of LiveIntent, told StreetFightMag:

However, you know who else has access to first-party data? Anyone who drives audiences to their websites: Publishers and advertisers. If entities with audiences are smart and willing to work together with their first-party data, they’ll finally be able to mount a defense against the triopoly (Facebook, Google, and Amazon) and own their own destinies.

This is an important point worth discussing. Publishers have, for so long, been uninterested in collecting their own first-party data. But that apathy appears to be changing, with the most advanced publishers getting more serious about knowing who their users are.

Consider how much data you could collect on a user. You know where they are, what stories they’re reading on your site and if you’re smart about getting users to give data, you can continue to collect more.

But it’s the second point in Keiser’s quote that is worth mentioning. “If entities with audiences are smart and willing to work together…” What’s to stop two major publishing companies from working together from a data perspective?

This is technically referred to as a second-party cookie. Whereas a third-party cookie is dropped from a separate domain, a second-party cookie is when publisher A shares user data with publisher B. If the two publishers agree to share data back and forth, this could create even more information about those users, which in turn allows publishers to help advertisers target the right audiences on their properties.

That means publishers need to start thinking about these problems now. What kind of data are you collecting about your audience? If there is none, that needs to change.

It doesn’t stop there, though. Publishers are going to need to start figuring out how to use that data. That is going to require a few steps:

  1. Start developing the systems now to collect and store that data. I would wager many customer data platforms are emailing operators desperate to get your business.

  2. Figure out a relationship with the engineers and data analysts to figure out how to package this data into an actionable format.

  3. Work with sales to create specific products that advertisers want to buy. By targeting based on first-party data, publishers should be able to charge more.

This does create an interesting hiccup, though. For large publishers, this is going to be an easy transition. They’ve got the infrastructure in place. However, for smaller pubs, this sort of a “pivot to data” as one person said to me recently is going to prove very difficult.

I would not be surprised if we see many of the same ad-tech companies that got rich on cookie-based advertising make a pivot to helping smaller pubs work with their first party data.

Fortunately, we know when it’s all coming. Google said that it wants to turn cookies off in two years. At least now, publishers have time to figure out the ultimate strategy. I wouldn’t wait, though.

Business Insider gives reminder of its legitimacy

I realized while reading a recent Poynter story that I have a bit of an inherent bias against Business Insider.

When I think about BI, the first thing I think about is those 40 or 50 page slideshows that had an ad between every third or fourth slides. I don’t know if they invented these online ad slideshows, but they certainly perfected them.

Without me really realizing it, though, Business Insider has turned into a legitimate business that has ambitions that I can’t help but admire.

Henry Blodget, founder and CEO of Insider Inc., told Poynter:

Insider Inc., the new umbrella name for the businesses, just hit a target for revenue diversification, Blodget said, with about a third from ads, a third from subscriptions and a third from data and research. “We’re not necessarily trying to be the fastest growing or biggest,” (even if the story seems to read that way), he told me. “We aim to be sustainable and are investing all the time in that.”

While other publishers are struggling to figure out paid strategies, Business Insider already has multiple lines of business there. First, it has its premium intelligence unit, for which it charges thousands of dollars for access. Second, it has BI Prime, which is a standard subscription business.

It’s going really well, too. According to the article, there are currently 200,000 subscribers. But how much revenue is that?

Back in February, Digiday reported that Business Insider had crossed $100 million in revenue in 2018 and was profitable.

Advertising is still driving a majority of the revenue for Insider. The company is working toward a goal where a third of its revenue comes from all forms of advertising, a third from subscriptions and a third from the other, aforementioned areas. “I’m not pegging a date to it, but let’s call it by the mid-2020s,” Spande said.

Business Insider ended 2018 with over $100 million in revenue. Now it generates a third from subscriptions. With the two subscription products, I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s earning at least $35-40 million in subscription revenue alone.

It’s clear that Blodget has lofty goals. He believes in the next five years, BI will hit 1 million subscribers. He also thinks that, across all of its sites, Insider will hit a billion users. Finally, he wants Insider to employee 1,000 journalists and analysts—double from where they are today.

They seem audacious to me, but honestly, I’ve been sleeping on Business Insider for a while now, so I’m not about to bet against Blodget now.

The story also offers a hint about where Blodget could see Insider Inc. headed over the coming years.

“Local journalism is going to be the last piece of the puzzle, but we are beginning to see the seeds (of success). It’s a market we hope to get into in another few years.”

Local journalism has proven to be a very difficult business. This wouldn’t be the first time someone tried to do local journalism at scale. Apparently is now profitable, but at one time, it was a disaster of a business. Even though it is profitable, I don’t get the feeling it’s a huge business.

According to a Digiday article about Patch:

Key to its model is that it started requiring small advertisers to use its self-serve tools to promote themselves and goings-on. (Those wanting full service would have to spend $4,000 and up.) It created three DIY products, to promote jobs, announcements and events, and it’s improved their usage by putting a relentless effort into user feedback.

If full service kicks in at $4,000, it doesn’t sound like the deal sizes are ever going to be terribly large. How much additional revenue would Insider have to earn to justify the big expenditure into local?

But again, what started as a small site with a bunch of slide shows has turned into a profitable media business with nine figures in revenue. So long as they continue to preach sustainable growth—which many of the other nine figure revenue publishers still can’t figure out—I have no worries about their business.

Thanks for reading this week’s issue. If you have thoughts about either of the topics, be sure to hit reply. Please share A Media Operator with your friends and colleagues that would benefit from it. And if you’re new here, be sure to subscribe! Have a great weekend and see you on Tuesday.


Pain Points, Communities and Monetizing Them

Welcome to another edition of A Media Operator. I hope everyone had a great weekend and your week is productive so far. Thanks to everyone for sharing last week’s post. If you’re new here because someone shared, consider subscribing.

Now that that’s done, let’s go…

I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about communities. I don’t mean where we live. I’m thinking about communities that form, quite naturally, around specific topics and industries.

For long-time readers, none of this is new to you. But for those that are new to A Media Operator, I’m really talking about your niche and the people that participate in it. There are thousands of them—maybe even more.

Each of these has the potential to be a community. They’re not all scalable and they certainly don’t all have business models, but many do. Pinpointing how to serve that community can ultimately become the paid product you’re looking for as a publisher.

What’s the pain point?

Depending on the type of community will dictate how you want to help treat a pain point. Let’s look at communities through two lenses:

  1. An interest-based community: These are people who have similar interests as you. Perhaps it’s travel like The Points Guy.

  2. A work-based community: These are people who have similar jobs as you or work in similar industries as you. An example could be Endpoints News, a publication focused on biotech and pharma.

At a high-level, a publisher serves each of these communities through content. That’s credit card reviews with The Points Guy. Or, it’s the latest news on people and deals in the pharma space with Endpoints News.

Ask yourself: “what’s the pain point a person who visits these sites trying to cure?” Answer that and you’re on your way to identifying a new paid product opportunity.

To be clear, paid products can just be your content. Content is absolutely worth paying for. But you have to think about the content you’re creating through the lens of solving a pain point.

Here’s what I mean…

The Points Guy

For The Points Guy, what’s the pain point they’re trying to solve? There are two that I can think of and one they haven’t started working on.

The first is all about the world of churning credit cards. Which cards are the best, what’s a point worth and how do you actually redeem them so you get value? The second is about identifying the right airlines and hotels to use points on.

This brings a large audience to the site where they are then able to get a significant number of people to open new credit cards for the goal of accruing points. How well is it doing? According to a Digiday article:

Begun eight years ago as a blog for the airline travel loyalty program obsessive, The Points Guy now employs close to 100 people across four different cities, including New York, Austin, Charlotte and London, which anchors a U.K. operation launched last year. TPG has been profitable every year of its existence, and in 2018, the site grew by its top-line revenue over 50%, according to founder and CEO Brian Kelly, with virtually all of that revenue coming from affiliate commerce fees, which it earns by getting readers to apply for credit cards or rewards programs.

Obviously, all of the revenue is coming from the affiliate deals. That’s fine. It’s a viable business and since they understand how to turn that large Google audience into affiliate fees, it’s healthy.

But when thinking about community, who are the people that are actually visiting this site?

If you say that it is people that want to churn credit cards, I would say that’s wrong. The community is people that want to travel. They want to travel so badly or so often, they’re looking for ways to subsidize that. Enter churning credit cards. Churning is the means to an end (traveling), not the end itself.

Therefore, if the community is travelers, what’s another pain point they have and how could The Points Guy help? I believe it’s helping travelers find deals.

Let me introduce you to a fascinating business called Scott’s Cheap Flights. You create an account, pick your departure airport, and then Scott’s sends you alerts when there are serious deals.

The deals are so good, people are willing to subscribe to it. It’s not a hefty subscription—under $40 for a year—but the travel community is large enough that it generates significant revenue.

As of 2016, the business was doing $1 million a year in revenue. Fast forward to today and you have to imagine it is doing many times that number.

As someone who has accrued a ton of credit card points, but doesn’t actually know what to use them on, it would be pretty great to receive an alert from The Points Guy anytime there was a serious opportunity for me to exchange my points for travel. I would even pay for this service.

The people that receive these alerts can then be invited to a private forum of sorts where they’re able to share tips and tricks for finding deals, talk about new churning opportunities and an assortment of other travel and point-related topics. By adding the cost for sign up, you’re automatically removing those that are not serious, leaving you with a community of people who are passionate about the topic.

By solving a pain point that all travelers have—finding cheap deals for either cash or points—The Points Guy could build a paid community that generates additional revenue from users. How many credit cards are their most loyal readers signing up for? Probably not many. This is a new way to monetize them.

Endpoints News

On the professional side, we’ll use the example of Endpoints. Here you’ve got a publication focused on biotech and pharmaceuticals. The audience is small, but focused entirely on a massive business.

The community is crystal clear: business and science leaders. It’s obvious that their content is top notch since so many people subscribe to them. But what is their pain point from a community perspective?

I would argue the primary pain point the community has is the need for connection. It’s a big reason why the company does so many events. By bringing everyone together, they’re able to facilitate connections that would otherwise be tricky to do online.

To be clear, many b2b publishers have a community of people with this exact same pain point. Endpoints is a good example, but it’s not just them.

This need for connection is what makes the event business so lucrative…

When the only thing you’re offering is information, it’s hard to make the case that a person should pay for it, especially if it’s not 10x better. If anyone else has it, you’re in for a tough ride.

But connections are not something that anyone can just replicate. If you have an audience of the right people and you can then convince them to come to an event, you’re solving a key pain point.

Once people understand your event as a place to meet other people, getting them to renew becomes so much easier. Suddenly, you’re able to build into your budgets a predictable revenue stream that otherwise might not have existed.

What kind of connections are people looking for?

  • For executives: They’re looking to close deals. These people are likely to be your sponsors in many respects.

  • For employees: They’re looking to learn and meet new people and build a network that can result in a new job.

  • For entrepreneurs: They’re looking to meet investors that might want to invest in their new drug idea

All of these people are likely to show up at one of Endpoint’s events. The community then becomes a flywheel for the business. As more of these high quality people show up to the events, more people are likely to express interest because of the connections that they can make.

But the flywheel is stronger than just the event. By bringing these people together, your journalists have face time with these people in bulk. That helps with sourcing, which means your reporting gets better, which only amplifies the overall quality of your business.

If you’re running one of these niche, professional publications, I’m sure there is a similar need for connection. How can you facilitate that?

Events are obviously a great way, but I would caution against getting overly excited about them. They can be a lot of work and, since they’re in the real world rather than online, they are often a huge representation of your brand.

As you’re first starting out, I would recommend starting small. Figure out a sub-audience within your overall audience and cater to them specifically. It doesn’t have to be large. 100-200 people is a solid size.

Your focus for these first few events is to facilitate connection. Don’t pack the event with sessions. Instead, provide some educational panels and leave ample opportunity for networking.

And most importantly… Do not be cheap on the coffee. You’d be surprised how upset people get if there isn’t enough coffee at an event.

Community solves pain

When we think about communities and turning them into monetizable opportunities, we want to think about the pain point that a specific member of that community has.

For The Points Guy, it could be someone, like me, who has a lot of points, but doesn’t know how to use them and never knows when there is a good deal. This presents a new product opportunity.

For Endpoints News, it could be a mid-level employee at a pharmaceutical company who is looking to meet other people and whose company will pay for her to attend an event. This is their existing events.

In both cases, these companies can or already have built a thriving community and monetized it along the way.

But why am I spending time focusing on this concept of a pain point?

I’ve seen a lot of publishers start charging for content or launching events without first going through the exercise of utility. An event is a fantastic way to generate revenue and extend your brand. But there has to be a reason for it. Without that reason, you’re going to struggle to convince people to come and spend money with you.

By identifying your community’s pain point, you’re then able to craft community products that help with that pain and can then start charging.

What’s the A Media Operator community?

As I continue to plan out the next steps of A Media Operator, I want to make sure I stay focused on the fact that this is a great community of operators.

There are executives from companies large and small; junior members who work in ad ops, audience development and sales; agencies and ad tech companies looking to better understand what publishers think; and investors who are looking at new opportunities.

The community of A Media Operator is people who take media very seriously and who, I think, believe that there is a future. Maybe not for the big venture back behemoths, but for those of us operating in the niches.

But what’s the pain point? As readers of A Media Operator, what do you need that you can’t find somewhere else?

My thoughts around community for A Media Operator boil down to providing a place for serious media operators to discuss topics online and meet their contemporaries—make connections—to discuss issues.

But what’s the right way to orchestrate that? There are a few options I can think of:

  1. I facilitate weekly conversations around specific topics and invite members of A Media Operator to chime in. These conversations can then spiral into other conversations, creating a lively discussion.

  2. I set up a private Slack channel. As part of the membership, I would pay for a seat for each person so that messages are never lost. This would give people an opportunity to, once again, have a good discussion in a light environment. It also wouldn’t depend on me to pick the topics.

  3. I create a forum. Rather than slack chats, these are static discussion threads where people can continue to chime in.

All are viable options. But maybe this isn’t the pain point.

I’d like to know what your thoughts are. I’m obviously continuing to plan out A Media Operator as the year goes on and this is not an imminent introduction. But, you are the community and my first readers. So, if I’m going to build something that works for you, I want to hear your thoughts. We’re just getting started here.

Thanks for reading today’s A Media Operator issue. Communities are really interesting and can be tremendously lucrative. As they continue to go niche, there are going to be great opportunities for entrepreneurs and media operators to identify new lines of business.

Please consider sharing this issue with your colleagues and friends. If you’re new here, hit subscribe and sign up. The next issue will be sent out on Friday.

Have a great week, everyone!


Two Pages Publishers Should Consider Reworking

Thanks to everyone who replied to Tuesday’s email with thoughts on my predictions and with words of encouragement. It’s good to be back from holiday and I am looking forward to continuing the discussion about building and growing media businesses in 2020.

I want to spend some time getting really tactical. I believe that will help grow audience and get your newest visitors really engaged. But first, share and subscribe!

Share A Media Operator

Now let’s jump in…

The enhanced category page

I’ve always found Google to be a more predictable source of audience compared to social platforms like Facebook. While the ranking algorithm is a black box, I find the quality of audience to be far greater because there is some user intent backing the visit and rankings are not drastically changing. Unless there is some sort of major algorithmic update, if you’re doing well in one month, you’re probably going to do okay in the next month.

That said, there are best practices to help turn low quality pages into high quality ones; creating opportunities to grow audience with keywords from which you might not otherwise get traffic.

I call this the enhanced category page, but it’s basically taking any page that lists stories and enhancing them.

Let’s first look at a simple page. The keyword we’ll be discussing is Lockheed Martin News (which gets some searches, but not a ton). When I search for that, the first three results are Lockheed webpages. After that, it’s BreakingDefense and then Politico.

Both of these pages just list stories. If I were to look at a different company on BreakingDefense or Politico, they, too, would just list stories.

What we understand from Google is that having unique content on a page contributes heavily to it ranking for target keywords. A category page, on the other hand, only includes headlines and excerpts. There’s nothing unique about it.

How could you spruce it up?

Add something unique to it. The Verge does a great job with this. Let’s use the Disney page. Every story that they publish about Disney is listed there. But when a user comes to this page, the first thing they see is this:

It’s a short, unique, catchy blurb about Disney. They also have one about Hulu, Netflix and HBO to name a few.

Now you’ve got a page that has something unique. Theoretically, Google should pickup on this and give you a little more influence in the result pages. Obviously it’s not a guarantee. Going back to BreakingDefense and Politico, they’re both probably strong sites with a ton of domain authority and link equity. If Politico added 200 words about Lockheed Martin up top, could that be enough to jump the rank?

Backlinko has a great chart that shows the number of clicks depending on your ranking:

The first result in Google has the highest organic CTR

Obviously, moving up one or two positions can have a real impact on your traffic.

What makes these searches useful for publishers is the user’s intent is to read news. If someone searches for Lockheed Martin News, it’s possible they’ll read multiple news stories on your site. This will either earn you additional ad revenue or, if you’ve got a reg wall, the user will hit it faster.

It’s not just company news either. I also think that this works nicely with people. Up top, put a short biography about the person.

How do you decide what to prioritize, though? There are two ways.

The first way is to look in your analytics and identify which category pages are already sending traffic to you. Whichever ones are sending the most traffic should be the ones you prioritize first with one caveat. If the top ranking ones don’t have a ton of news, the traffic that comes to the page will bounce, which isn’t helpful. I would find pages that have traffic and news.

The second way is to pull a list of all the companies that you report on and use a tool like SEMRush for keyword research. You’re looking for a blend of low keyword difficulty and high keyword volume.

And that’s it.

Get Started Page

I hadn’t thought about this kind of page until very recently. Although I’m not a hunter, I wound up on MeatEater the other night. In their top navigation, they’ve got a link where they basically call out to the newbies on the site. Here’s what it looks like:

Clicking the link takes you to a page that is all about MeatEater, but it’s delivered in a way that is very user friendly.

With an easy scroll, the user gets a quick understanding of what MeatEater is all about, a list of newsletters with easy sign up, all the podcasts in the network, social links with a CTA to follow, a section for shopping and, finally, the latest events. MeatEater, in one page, shows the user the various ways to engage with the platform.

When I was first getting started in internet marketing (pre-media), a common piece of advice I received was to optimize the About page of any site I worked on. Why? For people new to your brand, the About page is how they learn who you are.

With so many people hitting the page, it’s a great way to get new people engaged with the brand through various channels.

I believe there is another way to capitalize on this page, but it really only works for niche publications. Let’s keep using MeatEater.

Right now, the page talks all about MeatEater and the ways a person can engage with MeatEater. But how many people come to the site who are completely new to hunting, fishing, etc.? Create a clean, useful page that has a ton of great information for people who don’t have experience. The call to action in the navigation would now say “New to hunting? Get started” or something like that.

On the page, you collect the most important information that’s already been published on the site, but aggregate it in a format that is useful for someone brand new. Throughout the page, you can put similar calls to action to sign up for newsletters and listen to podcasts, but now you’re doing it along the user’s educational journey.

I can’t help but believe that a page like this sprinkled with product reviews could result in a boost in commerce revenue. If someone is new to hunting and wants to get involved, they’re going to need to get gear.

If you’re a larger or generalist publication, a “New to the site? Get started here” page would make a lot of sense. It gives new users easy information on various ways to engage with the site. If you’re a niche publication, both methods work, but I would wager that a page targeted to newbies would be better.

Here’s the thing… It works for all sorts of niches, consumer and business. At some point in our lives, we were all new to an industry. Imagine if the publication of record for your industry included a “New to the industry? Start here” on their website. Very quickly, I can get up to speed on what’s most important. That creates a loyal reader and helps you get early people into your funnel as their careers are growing.

Two simple pages

Both the enhanced category and getting started pages are simple and easy to create. The good thing about the category page is that the content is evergreen, so you don’t have to worry too much about maintenance. And the getting started page is a great way to get people into your funnel across your various products.

Do you have examples of these pages on your site? Hit enter and let me have a look.

Thanks for reading! Please share this post and A Media Operator with your friends and colleagues who would benefit from what I write. If you’re new here, subscribe and start receiving updates every Tuesday and Friday. As always, I appreciate you all and hope you have a great weekend. See you next week.


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