Ben Aston chats with Ian Bell, founder of the successful bootstrap media company, Digital Trends Media Group about how to build the world’s biggest digital technology publication.
- Ian Bell started his digital journey back in 2001 when he and his friend Dan met and shared their passion for internet businesses. At that time, Ian is working at Intel while Dan is working at Microsoft. [1:31]
- A few years later somebody came to them and offered to advertise their site. [2:13]
- Digital Trends was launched in 2006. [3:00]
- Their first big break was through an ad agency called Dentsu. [3:32]
- They got an RFP from Seagate hard drive manufacturer. [6:09]
“Don’t be afraid to go in there and pitch your company.” — Ian Bell
- Ian Bell always loved technology, but he also liked the design element of it. [10:28]
“We were very fortunate to be at a time where technology was being adopted a lot quicker than what it had been in the past.” — Ian Bell
- The audience that they are targeting is the Henry Millennial. [12:27]
- When launching new sites, they already created a formula around it. They launch a new site, monetize it, show some banner ads, etc. [14:17]
“There are no overnight successes with digital media.” — Ian Bell
- When looking at their content, they make sure that it’s going to be really engaging. [16:47]
“The biggest mistake that people make when it comes to digital media is assuming.” — Ian Bell
“Success happens super slowly. It certainly does with digital media. Take your time and don’t go bankrupt in the process!” — Ian Bell
- The most effective in terms of tactics to bringing people back to the site is through Newsletter. [19:00]
- When running an AB testing, see how people are engaging with your brand. [21:08]
- The most important metric in assessing the health of a media business is more of a philosophy. You have to ask yourself if your readers are willing to give you money or are you taking it from them. [23:12]
- The most useful tools for Ian are social media channels. [24:44]
- One of the most important metrics to consider is returning visitors because it demonstrates so many different things including how good your brand is, how strong your brand is, the brand equity that you have, the effectiveness of your marketing as well. [27:05]
- Ian’s personal favorite monetization model is a subscription model. The smart model is diversifying your revenue streams, not being so dependent on a single one. [28:43]
- Find something that’s working at your business and amplify it as much as possible. Re-invest a good chunk of capital into new ideas. [34:32]
“There might be a success path at some point, but you’ve just got to pull that capital out and try something different and then revisit it down the road. I think that for us, that’s been the key.” — Ian Bell
- Ian talks about the process of content creation and publishing promotion. [39:54]
- You can use Google to see what the search volume is on a particular product or topic. [43:02]
- A news article can cost up to $50. That’s 300 to 500 words for a product review. [47:42]
- Ian’s team uses Asana with anything around projects and timelines. [48:44]
- The biggest challenge for Ian is covering a trade show remotely. [49:43]
- The best advice that Ian has ever received [52:43]
“Just be patient and persistent. People seem to think success happens overnight, a total cliche, as you know, it doesn’t. If you enjoy doing what you’re doing, just go hard with it.” — Ian Bell
- Ian’s personal habits that has contributed most to his success [53:17]
“Routine I think is a big one. Just constantly learning, like literally just learn as much as you can from others out there. Don’t be so prideful that you’re afraid to talk to a competitor in the space and learn from them.” — Ian Bell
- Ian’s recommended book is “Culture Code by Daniel Coyle“. [55:15]
- Ian’s advice for someone who’s at the start of their digital media journey. [56:30]
“You really have to ask yourself why you’re doing it right. I think that’ll be your North Star that’ll help you with your decision-making process.” — Ian Bell
Ian Bell co-founded Digital Trends and serves as the company’s CEO and Publisher. Ian was the recipient of the Microsoft MVP award for Digital Media from 2004 through 2011. Prior to Digital Trends, Bell has held positions at Intel, Lockheed Martin, and The Ostler Group, a strategic marketing firm.
“Success happens super slowly. It certainly does with digital media. Take your time and don’t go bankrupt in the process!”
— Ian Bell
Resources from this episode:
- Apply to join the Indie Media Club
- Check out Digital Trends
- Connect with Ian on LinkedIn
- Follow Ian on Twitter
- Send Ian an Email at [email protected]
Related articles and podcasts:
- Podcast: How To Build Niche Online Communities (with Andrew Guttormsen from Circle)
- Podcast: How To Build A Successful Social Learning Community (with Jared Falk from Drumeo)
- Podcast: How To Develop A Content Strategy That Actually Works (with Jeff Coyle from Market Muse)
- Podcast: How To Build A Sustainable Business Through Content (with Benjamin Ilfeld from VentureBeat)
- Podcast: How To Drive More Organic Traffic To Your Website (with Bernard Huang from Clearscope)
- Podcast: How To Build & Scale Successful Revenue-Generating Online Magazines (with Jon Dykstra from Fat Stacks)
- Intro Episode: Welcome to the Indie Media Club
- About the Indie Media Club podcast
We’re trying out transcribing our podcasts using a software program. Please forgive any typos as the bot isn’t correct 100% of the time.
Read the Transcript:
Ben Aston So today I'm joined by Ian Bell and Ian is the founder apart, perhaps the most successful bootstrapped media company out there, digital trends, media group, they serve more than 125 million unique visitors each month across their platforms and partners. It's an award-winning publishing company. They're millennial focused with brands, including digital trends and the manual, and a number of other titles that maybe we'll talk about today.
And the interesting thing about them. That's it they've grown as a bootstrapped company. They're a huge media company now, but since 2006, when they started, they got some angel investment, but they are bootstraps. They have not, not had any external funding whatsoever. And now they've transformed it into a 50 million media giant.
Uh, so keep listening to today's podcast to learn how to build. If you want to do this, the world's biggest digital technology publication.
Ian Bel Hey, and thanks for glad to be here, Ben.
Ben Aston And I want to, I think this is a fascinating story because most of the big media companies out there obviously took on venture funding.
You've avoided that managed to do it. Bootstrapped. So I'm curious though, your, with your origin story, how it all started when you, when you started. Okay. I'm going to build a, a competitor to the likes of, I guess, CNET, Mashable, um, deciding to get into that space. What, what happened on day one? How did this all start?
Ian Bel Uh, by accident. So wasn't intentional. So, uh, you know, when Dan and I met, uh, back in 2001, we just had a share. Um, we just shared a lot of passion for, uh, internet businesses, you know, um, we were both big into gadgets. I was working at, uh, Intel at the time. He was at Microsoft. And, um, if you remember back in the day, blogs were just starting to take off, right?
You can get on these platforms, you could write about whatever you wanted to write about. And that's what we did. And, um, you know, we had a bunch of these goofy little websites. We even had a little internet radio station. Uh, that we, uh, kind of set up so we can share each other's music. Dan was up in Seattle.
I was here in Portland. We'd upload our music to the shout cast media server. I could listen to his titles, he can listen to mine. So we were really just kinda messing around. And, um, you know, a few years later somebody came to us and said, Hey, you know, I'm a huge fan of the site. I've been reading you guys for awhile.
And I want to advertise, I remember asking him questions and he goes, yeah, you know, I'll give you some money. We'll put this banner ad up on your site. And, um, here's what you would use for your ad server. And every month, you know, we'll pay you. And I said, Oh, okay. That sounds simple enough. Like, what are we talking about as far as money?
And he goes, you know, we'll start small, like five grand a month. And I remember thinking, wow, that's not small. Like, that's a lot of real money there. And, um, So we took that money and we just kind of figured it out. And, um, you know, it wasn't until about 2006 that I said, you know what, let's make this a real business.
And we launched a new cycle, digital trends.com. We got rid of all the little, like, you know, messy kid sites that we were goofing around with. And, um, you know, That's that's how it started. And, uh, I'd go on these road shows where, uh, you know, I'd fly from Portland to New York and I'd go into the, you know, I'd meet with these big ad agencies and I'd get laughed out of the room because I'd go in there with our a hundred thousand readers a month.
And they were like, are you kidding me? Like, I can't, I can't believe I even set aside an hour to listen to this guy. And, uh, I just kind of kept doing it over and over again. And, uh, kind of our first big break was, uh, through an ad agency called Dentsu. So pretty large. And so you've probably heard of them.
And, uh, they had a client called, uh, uh, their client was cannon, so cannon uh camera's and they said, look, you know, we'll start, you know, you've been persistent, we'll give you $50,000. And I remember like my mind was blown and I remember sitting down with the team and I was like, all right, how do you want that spread out over the course of the year?
And they go, no, that's for a month. And I remember going, Oh, how am I going to serve these ads? Like, that's, that's a lot of money for a month. And, uh, so I call up a bunch of my friends that I knew had websites as well. You know, like, you know, Hey Ben, I've got this ad campaign can run ads on your site. I'll give you 50%.
And, uh, then I went back to Canon and Dentsu and said, look, I've got these five other sites. They're all really good. I'd love to spread your ads out over these sites. And they said, yeah, no problem. We'll give it a shot. And. That's where I think for Dan and I, you know, we really cut our teeth on that and said, okay, you know, we figured it out to a degree.
Uh, let's replicate this. What other companies can we go to? And look, if we get laughed out of 20 rooms and get one deal, that just means, Hey, look, we've got to, you know, we've got to hit a hundred companies to get enough money coming in. And, uh, that's really how it started. And, uh, you know, we just kept.
Kind of fine-tuning the site, looking at what our readers were interested in, what type of content would take off. Um, and it just kind of went from there, you know, a lot of trial and error.
Ben Aston Yeah. So I'm, I'm intrigued though, that you started with, when you decided to get serious, you started with trying to find, um, advertising partners to work with and you were going and you were trying to source direct deals.
Yourself or your, I guess you're going through the advertising agencies, but what made you decide to go? Cause that's quite a direct route. I think most people when they're starting out, we'll try and get ad words or something on the site. What made you think that was? Uh, what made you choose that route?
Ian Bel You know, that's a good question. Uh, I don't think. Google was around back then, as far as like ad words, I don't think that product was around. Um, I think there were some ad networks maybe that were starting up. Um, I think for Dan and I, we were just super naive in the space. We didn't know any better. Um, we just said, you know, wow, if this, if this company came to us and wants to advertise for five grand a month, you know, I think it was a small computer case manufacturer.
Then we just got to find more people like that, you know, and we'd reach out to, you know, contacts at these companies. And oftentimes they'd say, look, uh, we're interested, but you have to go through our agency. So that's really how it happened. And, um, you know, I remember we got an RFP once from Seagate hard drive manufacturer.
And I looked at the RFP and I put together, like, you're going to laugh, like a three-year marketing plan for them. And, and, and really it's, you know, it's just this dumb little RFP, you fill out a spreadsheet, that's all they were looking for. I put together this whole marketing plan and, uh, of course they were like, Hey, you know, these guys know what they're doing.
You know, they look big, but they're really not. So just a lot of trial and error, but, uh, yeah, I think, I think the mindset was. You know, don't be afraid to just pick up the phone. Don't be afraid to go in there and pitch your company. Um, why share 50% of your revenue with an ad network, if you could just go directly and do it?
Um, yeah. You know, it's scary. I think that's the truth, right? I think a lot of people are afraid to do that. Um, but for us that was, you know, we were, you know, 75% naive and 25% probably overconfident. Yeah.
Ben Aston Yeah, no, Ian, I think what's fascinating is that is actually quite similar to my story in that I think actually I did try with AdSense.
Um, Early on, on my websites and was massively disappointed when I at the end of the month would get $10 or something. And so decided, Hey, well this is this just isn't worth doing. So I'd rather not have the ads and have $10. So, um, so then yeah, then I got people began contacting me directly and asking to be on the site.
So I thought, Hey, well, yeah, why don't I go directly? And I think actually this whole. Acid developing direct partnerships is super interesting. And also I think really rare in the world of digital media today because most people think, Oh, well, I need to use an adequate network. And I don't think you need to use an ad network at all.
You can build your own. Um, and then you get a lot, you make a lot more money because you're developing these direct deals.
Ian Bel That's right. Yeah. I always laugh when I see some sort of new startup pitch for a digital media company and their model is based. On Google ad words or some ad network, right? I mean, it's literally on there, here's the CPM.
We're going to get to $2 CPM based on Google. And I'm like, why don't you just go and talk to a manufacturer directly, right. Or a brand directly and get that from $2 to 10. Right. Like really go in there and show the, you know, the value proposition and why your audience is important and, and get that up to $10.
And, uh, it's, it's interesting how it kind of just naturally gets ingrained in the minds of, uh, you know, digital media founders.
Ben Aston Yeah, definitely. And there's so much that when you're developing direct deals as well, the other massive benefit. For us, at least has been that you're able to track ROI much better.
So you, you know, how effective your ads are because you can give your partners tracking pixels and you can track conversion rates. So the whole thing's a lot more effective than you have a story to tell about how effective your media brand is, is in order to so it's yeah, it's, it's, it's a no brainer to me.
Yeah. And so. You obviously, you were kind of dabbling in building websites, um, playing around with the, the world of the internet, but what's kind of your, why, why did you decide on, um, I mean, you talked about, you were kind of interested in technology and gadgets. Uh, but why, why start a digital media company though?
I still, what, what gets you out of bed or what made you think, Hey, when you decided it's time to get serious, we're going to do this. Why? Why start a digital media company?
Ian Bel Yeah, good question. Um, it's a lot of fun. I mean, it really is, right. Uh, the digital media landscape is changing every single day. You know, I think for us in general with technology, um, when we started the site, you know, Dan and I of course have a tech background.
My, you know, I grew up, uh, in a household, my father, uh, engineer at Intel for 30 years. Uh, I always loved technology, but I also liked the, kind of the design element of it. The, um, yeah. You know, the way, the way products looked and interacted with you. So, you know, Dan and I. You know, we focused on that when we started digital trends, usability, how the product makes your life better.
Um, the design aspect of it. And I think, you know, we were very fortunate to be at a time where, uh, technology was being adopted a lot quicker than what it had been in the past. Right. You know, when I was growing up, it was. Beige desktop computers. And you kind of had to know how to load windows on them PC.
And it was, it was, it was quite the feat to even get a game to work on a, on a, on a PC and, um, You know, we hit it at the time where cell phones were starting to take off TV's are starting to take off. And, um, you know, I think a lot of people just shared in that interest, right. It's, you know, you talk to most people nowadays and they use technology for everything, right?
Whether you're a parent picking up your kids at a soccer game and you're using snap or you're using ways, um, uh, or a team snap rather. Um, but nobody really knows the processor in their phone. Right. Um, and they certainly don't know the details of that processor. And why is it important? What they do want to know is that that phone can stream, you know, the latest football, you know, the new football game on there, or, uh, it has the technology to just get through the day.
Um, so I think we're, at a really cool kind of inflection point with technology, right.
Ben Aston And so tell, tell me a bit about what you're trying to build now, like digital trends as obviously been super successful. You've launched other sites, including in Spanish, the manual, but what's your, what are you trying to, what are you trying to build now and who you trying to help through them?
Ian Bel Yeah. Good question. So for us, you know, the audience that we're really targeting is the Henry millennial. Uh, Henry's an acronym that was kind of, uh, coined by wall street, uh, Goldman Sachs, high earners, not rich yet millennials. So when you think about that median age, right around, you know, 30, 30, four years old, um, they have their first nice paying job.
They started to pay down student loans. Maybe they have their first car that they're buying. Um, and what we've found is particularly through digital trends is that the content we create really resonated with that, uh, with that reader. And so we looked at the data there, uh, to really understand why the continents resignated.
And we said, look, if, uh, you know, use a metaphor, if digital trends is the home theater in the technology you have in your home. You know, the manual would be the food, the place you travel, uh, the clothes you have in your closet, all around that Henry millennial lifestyle. And so what we found is, uh, you know, the manual taking off, we said, okay, what are some other interests that, you know, these Henry millennials have?
Um, where are they traveling? Um, when it comes to pet products, we just launched a pet site called dot com. Uh, and so it's kind of a hub-spoke. Uh, you know, model of really tapping into those interests.
Ben Aston Interesting. So, yeah, I mean, tell us about the process then. So you're launching new properties. Are you, is your process the same?
I mean, you talked about this hub and spoke model, but you're, you're launching sites. You're trying to build visibility. You're trying to build your readership. Can you explain, um, yeah, th the process around that and how. What you're actually trying to do when you're, when you're launching something new.
Ian Bel Yeah. Uh, so good question. Um, you know, we definitely have created a formula around it now at this point. Uh what's you know, what are the, uh, you know, the interest that, uh, Henry millennials are, are into, and if we launch a new site, can we monetize that user more than once? Right. Um, You know, so we look at kind of that site, that model, and we say, okay, you know, Ben's coming to the site.
We can show him some banner ads. Can we get them signed up on a newsletter? Are there some affiliate links that we can get him to click on? Um, how do we really monetize that user multiple ways? And, um, I think that's the key. You just, you start out that way with a model. Uh, you have to understand that there are no overnight successes with digital media.
I mean, there just isn't um, you really have to take your time. So don't put it, don't put a lot of, uh, you know, capital into that new model. Get the site up. Um, start AB testing, how people use that site, what type of content resonates well with them and, uh, you know, take your time, you know, it's going to take what a year for Google to really pick you up.
And, you know, if you know, you're trying to get users, uh, to come to the site via SEO, it takes time. So sit back, be patient, um, start to see how people interact with that site. And when you get traction in an area, amplify it, keep going there. Um, I think too often, digital media, you just, you get people, you know, founders that go out and they raise a ton of money.
And a lot of that really doesn't matter, especially if you're dependent on Google for traffic or building your social media audience, uh, you can't fake it, real engagement wins, and you just have to take your time.
Ben Aston That's it? I mean, so time is one of the ingredients that the strategy, the strategy though, I think is interesting where you're saying, okay, well, let's look at.
The kinds of things that we think people are engaged in and interested in and things that are emerging. How then are you deciding how much content to write out of a kind of SEO orientated perspective versus a more, I guess, lifestyle or editorial perspective on the site? Because you've got a bit of a, you've got a blend.
You want a blend there. And so, yeah. As you're building out the audience, how are you kind of, um, mixing those things together. And do you have a kind of a strategy that you employ to get that balance right?
Ian Bel Yeah. Uh, we do. I think, you know, the biggest mistake that people make when it comes to digital media is assuming.
That people use the internet for one thing, right? People use the internet for research. They use it for entertainment. They use it to find answers to their questions. And there's no reason why you can't solve for all of those. Right. And so for us, when we look at our content, we go, okay, what's content that we know is going to be really engaging.
For a user that, um, is going to come to the site on a regular basis, write opinion pieces, op-eds branding your writers. Um, we know that that resonates really well with people that are a fan of the site. Now, on the other hand, people might just go to Google and type in, you know, how do I get free lies on candy crush?
Right? Like that's just a real basic one. Um, and you know, Put that up there, create an article around that and know that there's a high likelihood that that user might not come back. If you're lucky they go to that article and they get the answer that they need right there for the game that they're playing.
And, um, you get them to sign up for a newsletter or a web browser notification, um, or they're just really like the site. And if you're lucky they go, you know what, I'm going to bookmark this. I'm going to come back again. Right. Um, so you really want to create all these buckets for all these different types of users.
Some users. You're just gonna, you know, they'll stumble across you through a link from another site, bookmark you come back. Oh, wow. This is amazing. I'm going to come here. And a lot other users, you know, you're going to have to convince through multiple visits. Right. Um, but you, you know, you shouldn't choose a single approach.
You should really try to do it all. There's no reason why you can't.
Ben Aston And so you talked about yeah. Getting people to subscribe and sign up to browser notifications. What, what has been the most effective tactic, uh, for you in building that audience to try and encourage that repeat visit apart from the editorial content, obviously, um, what's been most effective in terms of tactics to be bringing people back to the site.
Ian Bel You know, for us right now. Uh, newsletter's a big one, right? Um, it's funny how the newsletters coming back 10 years ago, it was like, you know, newsletters were spam and they were garbage. Yeah, exactly. And now of course, they're, they're great tools and resources, um, you know, to kind of filter through the noise and create a curated experience.
So we find that that does really well. Uh, just in getting our readers to come back, um, our content on other platforms, whether that's social media or YouTube or our YouTube, uh, audience super engaged, right. Um, you know, they're, uh, engaging with our, uh, video creators, our editors, uh, they're on YouTube. It's a great way for us in the video or in the description down below to say, Hey, look, if you want more detailed information around this product com click on this link, go back to digital trends and check it out.
Um, so I think you really just have to keep an eye open, see where, where people are engaging with your brand, uh, figure out ways to get them back to the site, let them know. Hey, there's more great content over here. Um, this video that you saw on Twitter, it's only a fraction of the video that you would see on the site.
It's a lot longer, more in depth on the site. Um, so that's really the key there. It's, I mean, there's no simple hook. You just have to keep, you know, engage with your viewers and your readers.
Ben Aston So, yeah, so stacking traffic channels is a, yeah, it's a blend and do everything, try everything and see what works.
But in the, as you see, I mean, you just mentioned that you you've seen kind of the effectiveness of email change over time. Obviously you're harnessing new. Tools like browser notifications, I guess, maybe not new now, but it was a few years ago. How do you, I mean, there's all, there's always options out there, right?
Things to you, you read about things, people trying things. And um, everyone says, okay, you got to jump on this bandwagon, send everyone texts. Um, and or whatever it might be. How do you, what's your kind of approach for AB testing? I'm curious how you decide what tests are run and then how you kind of execute them or that you quite scientific about it, or is it more kind of a gut thing?
Ian Bel You know, uh, so the answer is, yes, it's kind of a little bit of both, um, you know, use, optimize, lead, do your AB testing, uh, you know, on your own sites. See, you know, how people are engaging with your, uh, with your brand. Are they scrolling down the page or they go into another article, move things around? Um, I think that's just super basic common sense.
You can use Google for that as well. And then I think, you know, uh, there's definitely a gut approach. Look, if you're an entrepreneur in that space, Um, look at what other brands are doing right. For us on the newsletter. We need to be doing a lot better. Like we get people that sign up for it. Um, we don't monetize it as well as we could.
If you look at brands like morning brew or the hustle Zol report. Uh, the Skimm, like these are brands that rely solely on a newsletter product, right? They don't really have a YouTube page. They don't have, you know, really a good destination site, but they've managed to turn these newsletter products into real businesses.
So. You know, do your digging read you know, read industry news, look at what others are doing, and, you know, stop telling yourself you can't do it. I mean, that's really the big issue, um, that I find most people have. If you see somebody doing it, tell yourself we should be doing this. There's no reason why we can't and keep at it until you figure it out.
So it is a little bit of a mix between kind of that, that gut check and then using technology to AB test.
Ben Aston Yeah. And so when you're, when you're assessing therefore the effectiveness, what metric for you is the most helpful or useful in assessing the health of your media business? Is there one, one metric at the bottom of your, of your chart or dashboard that you're like, okay.
Yeah. That is revenue per visitor or is it just. Bottom line revenue. What's, what's the most important thing for you when, when you're looking as you look back over the last year and you're deciding whether or not you did a good job, what, what are you looking at?
Ian Bel Yeah, look, I think there's, there's a ton of great message tricks out there.
You know, the industry stays at a standard as ARPU. If you've heard of that one revenue per unique, um, are you able to monetize that user more than one way, whether they're on the, on, on the site or not, but I think the most important metric is, is more of a philosophy. And I think you have to ask yourself, are our readers willingly giving us money or are we taking it from them?
Right. And I think a bad user experience is where you're taking it from them, right? When this user comes to the site and I'm tricking them into a newsletter sign up or a web browser notification, or getting them to click through multiple pages, you know, because they're not getting the answer that they want right off the bat.
You're, you're taking it from them. Right. They're not giving it to you when you get a user that is really engaged with your brand that is willingly signing up for a newsletter that, um, is spending time on your site because they want to that's that that's a customer that's, that's opening their, their pocket books intentionally insane.
I love what you're doing. Here you go. And I think that's really the most important metric to be honest.
Ben Aston Interesting. So you use that kind of brand. I mean, what we're talking here about is brand value and brand equity, right? In terms of building trust with your audience so much so that, you know, they want to come to your site.
And so it is net promoter school, something that you look at?
Ian Bel Yeah. Uh, we, we, you know, we don't use net promoter score, uh, although we probably should, um, you know, I saw one of your questions on here. It was like, what's the tool that's most useful for you? Right. And I think for me, it's, you know, going through our social media channels, going through a YouTube channels, reading the feedback forms, you know, the emails we get from readers that come to the site, um, are they engaged?
Are they happy? Um, Yeah, I think that's the, that's the biggest key, uh, the brand value. It's really easy. I think online in a lot of ways to be disconnected from your reader or your viewer, right. Um, you're not engaging with them in real time. Um, you're not seeing them face to face. It's not like a storefront where they come in and return a product and tell you, Hey, this is, you know, this is really crappy.
You know, I want my money back. Um, and you have a sense that look, if people are not emailing me, they're not. Given me negative feedback online, they must be okay with it. And that's, and that couldn't be further from the truth that people are not happy with your brand. What do they do? They don't need to come back.
Right. They vote with their web browser. That's what it is. Um, so I think, I think that's where it's really easy to get blind and not really pay attention and go, Oh wow. We've got. You know, a million signups on our newsletter this month, but if you look at how you're doing it, it's, you know, are you, are you blocking them from content?
Ben Aston Definitely. Yeah. It's I think a lot of, yeah, a lot of the conversation that I have is, is more about yeah. How to make a quick buck rather than how to build a brand that.
Well last, you know, a decade and I think it's a different mindset, right?
Ian Bel Yeah. I think that's right. And look for us, you know, we, we write product reviews and, um, you know, if we recommend a product that people are not happy with, we're going to hear about it, right. In most cases. Uh, and if we don't hear about it, they're just not coming back.
So that's a problem. And, you know, let's be honest when you are doing e-commerce online, it's really easy to want to recommend a crappy product, knowing you're going to get a big commission, but, um, you know, again, are you, are you taking that from the, from that reader or are they giving it to you? Which one is it?
And you have to kind of take the right approach there.
Ben Aston Yeah, I think this is so important because one of the, uh, Metrics that I've actually started paying a whole lot more attention to is returning visitors. And what percentage of our traffic is returning visitors versus yeah. First-time, first-time users.
And I think it is a super interesting metric because it, I think it demonstrates so many different things, including how good your brand is, how strong your brand is the brand equity that you have the effectiveness of your marketing as well. But if you have. At growing number of returning visitors, which could be hard if you are releasing a lot of content, that's driving a lot of new traffic.
So it's, it's a difficult metric, but I think there's a useful metric when looking at the health of what you're building, because if your returning visitors are high, then you've got something you've built, something that's worth coming back to.
And I want to talk about, I mean, you, you touched on this before, but when you, um, different monetization models, when you're looking at a property or a potential area or site to create, you talks about, uh, different monetization models. And we've talked at the beginning right there about direct deals with, uh, brands.
Um, but you also mentioned affiliates. Um, so I'm curious as to your favorite monetization model, we've been talking about the importance of not taking money from people, um, but having them give it to us, but, um, what is your favorite monetization model and how do you see that evolving.
Ian Bel Yeah. Yeah. Good, good question.
You know, I would say our favorite, my personal favorite model, um, is when we don't have yet. And that would be a subscription model. I think that's the ultimate truth. That's, you know, that's really a model where you're looking yourself in the mirror and saying, am I creating real value value here that people are willing to pay, uh, every single month for.
Right. And I think for us, we're trying to figure that out to an extent, like there's, there's a lot of tech. You know, review sites out there. How do you create one that is so unique that people want. You know, to pay monthly for that. Um, do you make it where look for a small fee, we'll take the ads off the site.
Uh, we'll give you an unboxing before anybody else sees it. So I think for us, we're still trying to figure that out. Um, you know, there are great companies out there, uh, like the New York times, they do a really good job and, um, you know, I think that's something we're exploring right now. I think that's the ultimate model.
Um, I think, you know, the smart model is again, diversifying your revenue streams. Um, not being so dependent on a single one, uh, you know, for us e-commerce and the team that we have, it's just such a phenomenal team, uh, that Linda has built over [00:30:00] there. Um, you know, they got us through COVID. Right when advertisers were holding off on advertising because they were, you know, there were uncertainties regarding supply chain around the products.
Um, you know, our e-commerce team really stepped it up and helped us. So I think, look, if you're in digital media, you need to build a moat. Like you need to protect your brand and you need to figure out, uh, you know, how you're going to survive tough times. So, you know, for us. You know, we make, you know, we generate revenue about four different ways subscription model.
Like that's probably next we'll figure that out. That's that's probably my favorite. That's recurring. That's that's every business owner's dream, right? Yeah.
Ben Aston Well, yeah. So I, I think this is interesting cause yeah, I. I thought the same, um, with a subscription model or we introduced a subscription onto our site.
And I think it's interesting, we've now been doing it for about 18 months. Um, and yeah, I think kind of this goes back to like how much value are you creating? Like people are willing to pay for value or where they see value and trying to. Trying to position it in a way that you are creating value and it's something that's worth paying for.
It's so much, this is about just a user customer insight and. A there's two different things. It's like what people think is worth paying for and what people actually use. So, and those are two D those are two different things. And I think philosophically people gonna think, yeah, I really want, I really want to X, but then when it comes to it and they have access to it, actually, they don't use it at all.
They just use Y and M. People people say things and do different things. And I think that's a massively challenging thing for us. It has been, as we built out our subscription it's okay. How do we make something that's actually people use? And to be honest, it's just been trial and error. We've just been AB testing, different things and seeing what gets the most engagement, um, and building out the product that way.
But I think I totally agree with this. Building this moat that you talk about and stacking monetization models. So yes. Do direct deals. Yes. Do affiliate yes. To subscription because the higher your stack is of, um, monetization models, the kind of the wider, the deeper, uh, the motives that, that gives you strength to kind of get through difficult times like we've had in the past year.
Ian Bel Yeah, that's right. And I think, look, you know, when it comes to subscription, we need to think about, um, why people subscribe and you, and you kind of touched on it a number of ways. Um, you know, when you look in particular around millennials, they are more connected to the brands that they purchase than any other generation.
Right. They're looking into that company. Are they using, um, sustainable, uh, resources? Are they using environmentally? Friendly dye on the clothing brands that you buy. Um, and so for us, it's, you know, the value and why you would pay for something at digital trends. What are we, what are we giving them a value?
Is there a social currency element where they, you know, they pay for it and they're so excited about paying for it that they tell their friends about it. They're bragging about it. Right. Um, You know, you see that now with so many people, like what books have you read this week? And, um, so I think for us, we're trying to figure that out.
I think great brands do that. They're proud to tell people I subscribed to this podcast or to this media brand. Here's why it's important to me. And it gives them, you know, kind of that, uh, you know, that confidence, uh, that social currency. And so I think for us, we're trying to figure that out. I think a lot of brands are.
Ben Aston Yeah, I think, yeah, I think that's, that's so true. Now I want to talk about, obviously in building a, a big media company, you generate profits and profits that then you can reinvest into the business. So I'm curious how to find out how you've most successfully redeployed that capital that you've generated.
What's been, yeah. Have you, have you spent your money and reinvested it in the business walls? What's worked? What hasn't?
Ian Bel Yeah. You know, a good question. We, uh, we definitely have made a lot, a lot of mistakes in our investment, but that's okay. You of course always want to pour fuel on the, and what does that mean
That means find something that's working at your business and amplify it as much as possible. Right. Um, so we, we always do that when we reinvest the capital, uh, what are areas that are growing that, uh, are accelerating and how do we keep that acceleration going? And then of course we reinvest a good chunk of capital into new ideas.
And I think the key to success there is. Uh, failing very quickly. If you can, what's an MVP, minimum viable product that you can get off the ground with minimal investment to just AB test and see if it's working. And if it, if it does take off, then put more capital there. If it doesn't then just pull the plug as quickly as possible.
Even if you know, you need to revisit it at some point and try over again. Right. Um, for us, that's been, that's been the newsletter. Like we have, you know, over the years we've got out and spent a lot of money to get subscribers onto it, to try to figure out how to monetize it. And, you know, we have stumbled and failed and we'll, we'll pull the plug, reinvest that capital somewhere else.
Um, and then later on, come back to the newsletter with a fresh new perspective, a new team, et cetera. So, um, I think that's the key. You have to be. Sometimes your gut can be right and your execution can be wrong. And I think for a lot of digital media entrepreneurs, they do that. They go, you know what? I just know I can succeed here.
I've got to keep putting money into it. And, um, they might not be wrong. There might be a success path at some point, but you've just got to pull that capital out and try something different and then revisit it down the road. I think that for us, that's been the key.
Ben Aston So, how do you, how do you balance that with theirs?
Because on the one hand we know like, I, and this was one of your ingredients that you talked about right? At the beginning time. Um, how do you balance time, time and like tenacity with, um, Yeah, w with failing fast and, um, cause I, I didn't, this is one of them that I find a challenge is like, is this working or is this failing or is it just not working yet?
And there's a difference between those two things. So how is there some kind of yardstick that you use to decide how long to try something for w before it, uh, Before we pause on it.
Ian Bel Yeah. That's uh, so it is more gutted than it is formula. I, although I would say we're definitely getting more, um, you know, kind of process driven in those decision-making processes, but, um, you know, um, Yeah, it's funny.
Just encourage, encourage people that work with you to try new things, right. Encourage failure. I think that's super important. Um, our, our web browser notifications, I remember, uh, back in the day, somebody mentioned, Hey, we should be doing this. We're seeing it online. And there was a lot of individuals in the company that were like, look, we don't want to throw this into the, you know, the engineering timeline.
This is, we have no clue if this is going to work. Um, And we just kind of pushed it through very quickly. Uh, somebody had a good idea to try it. And I remember sitting there looking at it going, wow, we're getting a thousand signups an hour. It was ridiculous. Um, wow. And, and you know, now of course we have over 6 million subscribers on our web browser notifications.
Uh, over half of that, uh, you know, active on a regular basis. So you really just have to encourage, uh, people that you work with, uh, to go out and take those risks and to try them. Um, do you want to give them a whole year to try something out? No, that's probably a bad idea. Right? Um, But if you could, you know, deploy something very quickly, uh, by all means, try it and see what happens.
And, uh, you know, maybe, maybe you don't have the team to make it successful. Maybe, you know, you don't have the vision or the knowledge, uh, to make it work. But at some point you'll run into somebody that knows how to do something better than you. Right. Because everybody does. And you'll learn from that individual.
And you can go back and revisit say, Hey, I ran into Ben. He really knows how to, you know, crush it with podcasts. You know, I was able to get some knowledge from him. This is something we can take back and try to do. And so I think you have to be. Uh, willing to acknowledge that failure, you know, and try it again.
And, and too often, uh, people just say, Hey, we tried it. It's never going to work. And they're never going to try it again. So you've got to get beyond that, that mental, uh, roadblock.
Ben Aston Yeah, no, that's good. Now. Um, also, I mean, you, you talked about process and operationalizing things. I'm curious in a, in a media company, the size of yours, what have you been able to operationalize?
And I guess I'm really curious as to the things that you haven't. So I'm talking about the whole process of writing, deciding what to write about writing content, creating content, publishing content, promoting content in that. In the kind of ecosystem of content creation, publishing promotion, uh, as well as the kind of infrastructure that supports all of this, what, what in your, uh, organization is still kind of fuzzy and what's, what's really quite, uh, dialed.
Ian Bel Yeah. Um, so for us, you know, we had the benefit of really writing for enthusiasts right. Of particular categories or products. Um, and so once you kind of, uh, you know, strike it with that reader and you find that that reader, you know, is really interested in that particular product. Um, for us, it's definitely an ecosystem around that product.
Right. Um, what, what does that mean? That means, okay. A new iPhone comes out. We will do a product review. We'll do a comparison. How does that new phone compare to competitors in this, you know, uh, in the space, what do you do with your old product? What are the best apps for that product? So you really can go deep.
So that works really well for us. Um, just really tapping into that and enthusiastic user base. Um, I would say what doesn't do well for us is when we have a tendency to, um, try to go too wide and not deep enough, you know, a mile wide and inch deep, we get into new categories and. Um, we really just focused on surface level content and we don't go deep into where that enthusiastic, uh, really, um, is interested.
So that's where we fail. Um, I think too, with, with technology, you have new, uh, you know, new technology that's coming out. That people just really haven't adopted yet. I would say virtual reality. That's a big one, right? I mean, how many companies out there have, have invested in that, in that category? But what we've found is a lot of our readers, they don't obsess over it.
Like they might a game console or a cell phone or a laptop. And so, you know, we definitely fill in those kind of fringe categories. Um, but yeah, I mean, it's not a, you know, again, it's always going to be half of your gut and half of a formula. Um, you know, I think for us, we also, you know, take pride in really trying to introduce our readers to, um, kind of these up and coming brands that are not.
Super well-known yes, of course everybody knows Apple or Microsoft or Samsung or LG, but there's a lot of really cool companies out there that are, uh, making products. And, you know, for us, no, we're not going to get a lot of traffic on those because you know, the search volume is not there on Google.
People haven't necessarily heard about them. They're not easy to buy. You're not going to find them at best buy, but we really take it upon ourselves to introduce our readers to those brands. And so it's definitely more of a long game. Uh, the value is, um, you know, it's going to happen six months or a year from now where your readers really appreciate you for that, but it's not, you know, it's not a turnkey buck that you're going to make. So...
Ben Aston Yeah. I mean, let's kind of dive into that. I mean, you, you touched on working out what to write about and kind of going deep on topics. Can you talk through your process of deciding that, that kind of backlog of content that your, that you have, like the nuts and bolts of, how are you deciding what to ride's about?
How are you commissioning the pieces, getting them back? What, what tools are you using? What's your process around getting content out the door?
Ian Bel Yeah. Um, I mean the tools you can use of course, Google out there to see what the search volume is on a particular product or topic, um, you know, for us, or we just have such an amazing, uh, edit team and they really just know what's going to hit right, right now, uh, of course in COVID, uh, it's a no brainer, like, you know, anything related to working from home is going to be huge monitors, web cameras, laptops, printers.
Um, you also have the holiday season right now. Everybody's snatching up PlayStation five, the new Xbox series X. Um, so I mean, you could focus on that content all day long and, uh, you know, get a lot of traffic. So there's definitely that, um, you know, for us, our, our edit team of course has close relationships with the brands, the manufacturers out there, they know which, uh, you know, new products are gonna come out in the coming months.
Uh, you know, of course they're under embargo on that, but they, they get to see, uh, new TVs that come out six months from now. Right. So they kind of get a sense for what's going to take off. What's not going to take off. So there is a big intuition factor there. And then once the products are announced it's yeah, I mean that edit team is working with our data analytics team to see what's taken off on.
You know, social media what's taken off on Google and then, and then of course covering those topics. So it, a little bit of, of data science, you know, with, uh, you know, kind of your gut and intuition.
Ben Aston And so in terms of calculating the ROI on content, because again, one of the things you said was, you know, you're trying what's most effective is going deep on topics.
Um, so how do you, how do you calculate the ROI? How do you decide whether yeah, no, not some, you know, obscure Chinese brands, um, would their new widget is worth writing about, um, yes. It's interesting for us, but is anyone else can be interested in it? Yeah. How did you decide? Okay. We could write about a thousand things, but we only have capacity to write about a hundred. So, how has he had you made that.
Ian Bel You're really digging in on this formula. All right. All right. So, so take a look at your, you know, if you're a digital media owner, this is it. Take a look at your site. Um, you know, what are the RPMs that you're generating? That's uh, most people don't understand what that means.
Okay. So you have one banner ad on your site at a $5 CPM. Uh, that means you're getting $5 for every thousand views. If you have four of those ads on your site, you're getting $20 per thousand views. That's your RPM. So take that right. If you have e-commerce on there and you know, what your conversion rate is, uh, you can factor that into your RPM.
Know if you're spending $50 on a news article and you know, you're only going to get. 2000 views on that news article, are you making money? Are you losing money? Right? That's the formula. That's the key. Um, sometimes you have to just lose money because, you know, what's the best thing for that reader. And when you look at the lifetime value of that reader, you're going to make it back on the back end, whether that's six months or a year from now, um, if you're doing, uh, you know, a product review and, you know, you're.
You know, spend a lot of time on that. Let's say your time's worth $400 to do that product review. And you know, it's a hot product and you're going to get, you know, um, a a hundred thousand views on that. You're probably going to make some money on it. Right. So that's the formula dig in there. Um, if readers are really interested in what you're creating, they will, um, You know, they'll spend time on there.
You'll get multiple pages. Is it your you through? We'll be good on your videos. That's the formula. That's that's the secret. That's the key. Um, The biggest mistake I would say that you don't want to make is quick buck. I'm going to get somebody in on a Google search that is really off topic. It doesn't really make sense for my site, but I figured out how to rank well for that, it gets somebody on there.
Uh, they spend, you know, half a minute on that content and they leave. Yeah. Maybe I made some money on them. Great. Um, but is that good for your brand down the road? So you have to factor that in, uh, you have to kind of, uh, you know, at the end of the day, it's, it's no different than any sort of investment.
The 10 home run articles you're gonna, you know, create around your product reviews that really do well have to cover the losses on the thousand other articles that you just know are good for the long game. So, I mean, that's the, that's the formula in a nutshell. Yeah.
Ben Aston Can you tell me how much, I mean, you threw out some numbers there about, you know, rising a piece $50.
How much does it, how much typically does a piece of content cost you to produce?
Ian Bel You know, it again, it depends on kind of industry rates. Um, you know, we're right there in that bucket. Um, it could be, you know, $50 for a news article. That's 300, 500 words for a product review. You know, it could be, I could be totally wrong with us.
I need to check the edit team, but you know, it could be 400, 500 bucks to do a product review. Uh, you know, why is it a lot more, well, you've got to test that product. You've got to run benchmarks against it. You have to take it out in the real world and use it. Um, so it's not a, you know, a one and done, right.
Um, so really depends on the type of content that you're creating, the length of that content, how much work goes into it. Yeah.
Ben Aston And can you talk a bit about your stack that you're using internally to manage that content production and even your, your website itself? What, what tools do you use to manage all of these production of the content and the publishing of the content?
Is there anything that you've found that's cool? That works really well.
Ian Bel We use, yeah, we use Asana edit team uses the Asana engineering team uses Asana. So, um, anything around projects and timelines, we find Asana works really well. Um, you know, we use WordPress. I mean, it's not, you know, secret out there where a media company, we're not out to create our own content management system.
Um, now our engineering team, um, you know, really. Amazing team, a bunch of wizards. Of course, we do things like, you know, we cash our pages and, you know, we have some custom features there on our CMS. That's really unique to us, but, um, yeah, that's really the nuts and bolts of it out there.
Ben Aston Cool. And now I'm curious as you, we've obviously had a challenging year in 2020, but as you kind of.
Consider right now, what your biggest challenges are, what would, what are, what is difficult for you right now? And, and what what's on the roadmap for the year ahead?
Ian Bel Yeah, I think, you know, look when, you know, from an editorial perspective, um, you know, CES is going to be very different this year, right?
Coming up next month, it's going to be virtual. I don't know how you do a big trade show like that, but, um, you know, Our marketing team has done a phenomenal job. You'll see, uh, I'm not going to spoil anything now, but we've done a great job of working with these brands and working with the CTA specifically to create a really good user experience on the site where we can show our readers, the new products that are coming out.
Um, but that's tough, right? Covering a trade show remotely. Um, you know, you also have, um, mobile world Congress at South by Southwest. All of these trade shows have gone virtual, so that's a tough one for us. Uh, the edit team's going to have to, uh, try to figure out what the hot new products are without really getting their hands on these things.
Right. Um, so that'll be a big challenge. Um, and I think, look, you know, from an advertising perspective, um, You know, consumers are, uh, purchasing different lead than they have in the past. Right. As I alluded to before, uh, they're buying products that they would normally, uh, you know, By so frequently. Um, I don't think anybody's really thought about web cameras.
Right. But when you have to do a zoom meeting on a laptop, like laptop webcams that are integrated are pretty bad, right. So people are purchasing different, um, differently there. So I think that's key. Um, I think those are probably going to be the biggest challenges for us. Just trying to keep, you know, your, your finger on the pulse of consumer behavior.
Ben Aston Right. And for you personally, what, as, as leading this company, what are you, what are you working on? What are you, what are you trying to get better at and improve in the year ahead? What's your, what would your focus be?
Ian Bel Yeah. You know, for us, it's really, um, I think we could always do a better job of being in touch with our readers interviewers.
Right. Um, you know, really going deep into that enthusiast, uh, you know, into those interests, uh, you know, some of our categories, um, that we cover right now, they're really fringe categories. And for us, uh, you'll see over the next, you know, six plus months, We're really going to go hard into, uh, you know, uh, categories like home theater and computing, uh, gaming entertainment.
So really getting back to the culture of technology and, uh, and, and really trying to create that destination for our reader. Um, you know, I think you find in general that most people, the way they consume. Content online is they're going to five or 10 different websites in a day. Right. I go to this site for theater information.
I go to this site for entertainment, you know, how do we become a destination for all those interests? So that's really going to be our focus in the coming years.
Ben Aston Nice. Let's finish off with a quick lightning round. Uh, I want to know what is the best advice that you've ever received.
Ian Bel Um, I would say like, look, just be patient and persistent.
I think that's the key, right? Um, people seem to think success happens overnight, total cliche, as you know, it doesn't, um, you know, you know, if you enjoy doing what you're doing, just go hard with it. I think that's the best advice be patient persistent, um, learn from others.
Ben Aston And you built a massively successful media business.
What do you think of your, which of your personal habits do you think has contributed most to your success?
Ian Bel Um, routine I think is a big one. Um, and I would say, uh, just constantly learning, like literally just learn as much as you can from others out there. Uh, don't be so prideful that you're afraid to talk to a competitor in the space and learn from them.
Um, You know, if you, you know, aspire to be like somebody in your category, that's a lot bigger. Get to know them. I think that's the biggest mistake that people don't, you know, don't do, but that's part of my routine. That's, you know, uh, I'm talking with folks at business insider and CNN and complex media and, you know, uh, I mean, there's just so many great people learn from, so I think that's, I think that's it.
That's my routine. Like who can I do? Who can I network with, you know, today? I think that's a big one.
Ben Aston And, you know, talking of continually learning what, uh, internet resources, or where do you go, um, apart from, apart from your own sites, obviously, are there any tools that you particularly would recommend or that you use regularly?
Ian Bel Yeah, you're there more sites than tools? Um, you know, I definitely, you know, spend time, uh, listening to business podcasts, I'll spend time on, uh, Adweek, Digiday media, post, um, you know, folio mag, just look to see what others are doing in the space. Um, and then, you know, I've got a routine. Like I looked through her social media and it looked very YouTube channels and look to see how, uh, our readers and viewers are engaging with our brand.
I think that's. Oh, that's the most helpful. Um, yeah, I can always dip into Chartbeat. That's a, you know, that's a tool everybody looks at. Um, I can always, you know, jump into Google to see what's doing well there. Um, metrics are one thing, but they don't always tell the whole story. Right. Um, but, uh, yeah, that's probably, you know, those are probably the, the tools and resources that they're using on a daily basis
Ben Aston And going offline. What book would you recommend and why?
Ian Bel You know, if you have a business with employees, um, I would recommend culture code by Daniel Coyle. I think that's a big one. Uh, I just finished that. Um, you know, I've read it twice now, great case studies in there around Apple and Zappos and how they create amazing cultures in the company.
Um, at some point, if you're a new entrepreneur you're going to have to delegate. There's only so many hours in a day, right? And you have to understand that, um, employees are not going to do things exactly the way you would and that's okay. Um, keep, keep the goal, uh, out there in front of you. And as long as you're hitting the goal, that's all that matters.
Uh, encourage autonomy, encourage, uh, failure. Um, But great cultures really, um, you know, they happen because of, you know, support and delegation. Uh, they don't happen because you force it it's as simple as that. So that's a great book.
Ben Aston Cool. And so for someone who hasn't got employees, yet, someone at the start of that digital media journey, What is one piece of advice, uh, that you give based on your journey of building from scratch a huge media company?
Ian Bel I would, I would say, look, you really have to ask yourself why you're doing it right. Are you doing it because you're passionate about the category? Are you doing it because you see a market need and nobody's really doing it. Um, could you do it. You know, better than somebody else. So figure out what that is.
I think that'll be your North star that'll, that'll help you with your decision making process. Right. Um, You know, success happens super slowly. It certainly does on digital media. Right. Um, take your time. Don't, don't go bankrupt in the process. Um, most people that raise capital, you know, especially when you're, when you're new at this, um, you know, you're gonna throw away 90% of that money.
10% of it will actually work for you. And then you're probably going to have to go out and raise more. Right. You know, that's just the way that formula works. But if you take your time and your patient, uh, and you're doing it for the right reasons, you know, whether that's. You know, cause of passion or cause you see a market need, you know, buckle up and take your time.
I mean, that's really what it's all about.
Ben Aston Yeah definitely. Ian where can people find you online?
Ian Bel I spent a lot of time on LinkedIn. That's that's probably the most. I'm not on Twitter. I'm not on Facebook, but LinkedIn. So hit me a note there. I'm happy to connect with anybody.
Ben Aston Awesome. Well, thank you so much for joining us today. It's been great having you with us.
Ian Bel Thanks for having me. It's a lot of fun.
Ben Aston And if you liked what you heard today, please subscribe and stay in touch on indiemedia.club. And please leave us a review too. We could do with some of those, but until next time, thank you so much for listening.
Looking for more expert insights? Give this podcast a listen: How To Grow And Scale A Successful Membership Site (with Matt Inglot from Tilted Pixel Inc.)