January 14, 2020

Pain Points, Communities and Monetizing Them

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.