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Podcast

How To Build A Sustainable Business Through Content (with Benjamin Ilfeld from VentureBeat)

Dive into the mindset of ad tech entrepreneur and revenue strategist Benjamin Ilfeld—look at models for healthy media ecosystems and how to build content-based businesses that can survive the long-term.

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.

Audio Transcription:

Intro

Welcome to the Indie Media Club Podcast. I’m Ben Aston, founder of the Indie Media Club. We’re on a mission to help independent, bootstrapped media entrepreneurs succeed, to help people who create, promote a monetize through content do it better. Check out IndieMedia.Club to find out more. 

Ben Aston

So today, I’m joined by Ben Ilfeld and Ben likes to increase revenue for online publishers. At least that’s what his Twitter says. He started publishing in his 20s and he’s an ad tech entrepreneur and revenue strategist. So for over a decade, he’s consistently innovated and experimented with new models for creating a healthy media ecosystem, which is what we want to talk about today.

So he was a lead revenue strategist, at 10Up—they’re a digital agency, consulting with a whole bunch of different clients. He created an advertising platform called Adglue, and now he’s working with an indie media publisher called VentureBeat. And if you’ve not read that, check it out. But it’s transformative tech news and events.

And if you want to start with the latest developments in the industry, you should check that out. But keep listening to today’s podcast to learn about how to build a sustainable business through content. 

Ben Aston

So hi, Ben, thanks so much for joining me today. 

Benjamin Ilfeld

Hi. Good to meet you. 

Ben Aston

So I first want to dig a bit into your story and kind of understand this trajectory that you’ve come from. 

Ben Aston

We were talking before about you growing up in Sacramento. Now, you, similarly to me, are a graduate of political science. What I’m curious about, which I found as I was digging into your background, was that you founded something called No Snakes Agency and also managed a rapper-producer. How did you how did that come about? 

Benjamin Ilfeld

I mean, it was pretty simple. But I’ll say this. At that time, I was trying to run the Sacramento Press, my first publication here in Sacramento and my hometown. And it’s kind of where my heart was. And then every other weekend, I would take a red-eye flight to New York and I’d wake up in the morning and then I’d work with a musician, a rapper and producer in New York for the next two days. And then Sunday night, take a flight back to Sacramento, go to sleep, wake up, do the startup, take it, do it again and again and again. It’s pretty rock and roll. It was. 

Ben Aston

Or rap. 

Benjamin Ilfield

Yeah, great. I mean, it’s amazing to kind of try and you can only do those kinds of things in your 20s. I’m sure everybody understands that. And it was an unbelievable opportunity. It really just came from friendships. And I’m proud of the work that we did together. But I think the most the thing that made me most proud about that really, really odd.

But the thing that made me most proud of that is. When I stopped because I learned enough about the business that I realized so much of that business is designed to kind of take the musician or artist and have their priorities isolated from the manager. So the manager can be in the back pocket of the label or, you know, some other entity.

And it’s really it’s a difficult business. So in the end, I’m really proud of this. We found a label that actually made the most sense for the artist and other deals that made the most sense for the artists and frankly, didn’t make me any money. So I said, look, I got to stop because now I’m not going to make any money. 

Benjamin Ilfield

But now you’re free to do your art better than you ever did with a group of artists that we love rather than me cashing out. And then my very good friend being stuck in a difficult contract. So to this day, what I love about it is we’re excellent friends. Just went to his wedding a year ago and like. I just I’m so happy with where it ended.

And I know that is actually a pretty hard thing to land. And we named it No Snakes because I just. Does the only thing I want to keep going back to the guiding principle of I don’t want to take advantage of this relationship. That’s not what this is about. 

Ben Aston

Yeah, that’s cool. And so you were doing this music thing at night, in at the weekends by day, you had Lawrence Sacramento Press, an online newspaper is kind of hyperlocal news, as I understand it. But what was your kind of like driving? I guess. What was your driving reason for getting into this Indiemedia media thing in the first place? As a politics economics grad going into starting an online newspaper. How did that come about? 

Benjamin Ilfield

It was two things, one, it was when I was in school, I was in college all the way across the country in Rochester, New York, and. The only way for me to know what was going on back home was just to read the newspaper online. This was between 1999 and 2003. And at that time. It’s amazing, it’s hard to think back to that time. But the newspaper Web sites were just so bad. This was not just Ackmann, it was everybody’s newspaper Website.

You go there, you’d see the national news because they took their front page, which was designed for people that didn’t get national news in other ways and just put it online. Their coverage of local was so thin, I had no sense of what was happening in my city back home. And Sacramento is not a tiny city. So that just felt really strange to me.

And I thought, you know, if this is how I feel about getting news about Sacramento, this is probably what the news landscape looks like outside of just the major, major metropolitan areas in the United States. So something was broken. That’s number one. Number two, my best friend, Jeff. He was going to college, UC San Diego, and he was in computer science. So he was thinking about these loftier, real problematic things going on in the media in general.

The thing that really drove us was there’s this sense even that in like community forums and things, everything would sort of end in a fight. Right. There was this false dualism. My side, your side. Instead of the natural multiplicity of ideas, right. There should be a million facets and variations to every argument. So there was something that was sort of broken in the structure of the web. And we got together and started having these conversations through the mid odd’s when I was off being a ski bomb or, you know, working with musicians and all these other things.

And we kept talking and started doing this on our nights and weekends together and eventually found a bunch of other people who were excited to join with us and try to solve these problems. I guess, again, in your 20s, you think you could, like, solve the problem. But it was pretty exciting to try. And we didn’t just, like, prop up a hyper-local publication, which would have been an insane task anyway.

And to all my friends who were in the local online independent news publisher space, definitely check out Lion. Lion Publications or Lion Pubs. Is a group for local, online, independent news publishers. And it’s probably your best resource and ally. Absolutely join. It’s a phenomenal organization and I’m proud to have been around for the formation of that. But that’s a hard enough job in itself.

Layer on top of that, we wanted to build our own CMS because we wanted to change the way people had online conversations and we wanted to explore the idea of this false dualism. You have to be on one side of the fence of the other, which is something we’re still struggling with today. Oh, and by the way, it’s gotta make money.

So we built around ad system and we’ve got to have data about how we’re doing. So we built our own analytics system. It was crazy, but back in 2006, we got really serious about it. You kind of had to because a lot of the things we wanted to do highlight the principles we had just simply didn’t have platforms that matched up to that high kind of lofty values we had. 

Ben Aston

Yes. So you went through a journey then beginning this Sacramento press, developing an ad network. 

Ben Aston

And how did that end up? How did that how did that go? How did what were some of the successes? You had it on the way and some of the things that were difficult. 

Benjamin Ilfield

Our greatest success and I still feel it today, was building a community, a real, real community. If you start small and you only have a few people both working for you and even reading you, you can put your arms around that community. You really can. I still don’t know how to scale that.

I’ll be super honest with you. But there was something beautiful every time we saw an article pop up that was written by somebody. And I should say we were kind of pioneering the idea of user-generated content mixed with editorial content. And so. We had an editorial team that was hired knowing that we also we’re gonna have all these community contributors, people who are writing for various reasons. So it was this amazing sense of like we’re all in this together.

And when I would see a new article pop up from somebody I hadn’t contacted writing about something meaningful in their community that wasn’t being covered. It just gave me goosebumps every time. And then we started to build analytics around that so we could try to promote the best of that and get as many people doing that as we possibly could and start tackling some difficult issues in our community about who gets to write what you know. I remember going into a continuation high school.

Jeff and I kind of founders of this thing and kind of just for lack of a better word, like Proto Tech bros. Right. And. We’re in a continuation high school because one of the teachers there discovered the site and thought it would be cool to kind of have us talk about the journey but also wanted to see if some of these kids wanted to write on the site. And I didn’t realize we literally were going to teach each class all day long. It was actually, like, truly amazing.

And. One of the first questions I’d ask just says, you know, would you write an article if you could? And people would say, well, no, first of all, it was just unbelievable that anybody wanted to cover anything real going on in their community. There’s just not being covered by the traditional media. But it was. 

Benjamin Ilfield

It’s hard to put into words. There is a sense of disenfranchisement from the media that that was someone else as someone who looked different, someone of a different class, someone probably of a different race, and that it wasn’t for them to be able to write these articles. It was. Really disturbing. 

Ben Aston

That’s cool. So you got to engage in the community and finding new ways to source content, which is kind of cool, intended this. 

Benjamin Ilfield

The next thing that we asked was, well, how many of you guys send text messages? And everybody raised their hands. And I said it’s honestly that simple. We’re going to make it that simple. And the teacher actually offered extra credit for anybody who wanted to write on the site.

So someone did. And it was an incredibly powerful and moving account, what it was to be in that community. And. Kind of tying back to today, it was a story about the sense of the police being yet another gang in their community. 

Ben Aston

Right. 

Benjamin Ilfield

And it was powerful and moving again. This was probably 2008. Was upsetting to me because we had a lot of like we had a thumbs up and thumbs down the voting system and it got a lot of thumbs down and we. Offered to. Honestly, we felt like it was probably because it was written. It is the format of it, like it was written, a lot of it was all caps and just some of the conventions of like what a professional editorial team would like to do that would go through a copy at it.

So we asked permission from the student to put it through a copy edit. And it was the first time we’ve done this with a community contribution. And it didn’t change any of the content. Just, you know, made it a little bit more readable.

That’s it on our platform. You could change your mind so you could take a thumbs up and flip it to a thumbs down, or you could change your thumbs down to the thumbs up. And after the copier, there were no thumbs down. Every single person and thumbs down changed it to a thumbs up. It really taught me that. 

Benjamin Ilfield

It’s not about having an open platform. That’s not the point at all. Just because you can write or you might have a voice, that’s nothing in a lot of the things that we said to everybody in that classroom that day, we’re probably wrong. Just being able to write like a text message. It’s not enough. We had a responsibility as a platform and as members of the community to actually collaborate with and not just empower.

We had to take our strengths as a media organization and marry them with the voices that were. So powerful and important in our community that needed to be heard. And it would have been just as easy to say we will not touch this, because if we do, maybe we’ll lose our, you know, DMCA liability coverages in certain ways or, you know, this section 230 weight on our minds back then.

Well, well, well, if we edit this, does this become one of our own and how does that mean and can we be liable for other things that people write about UFOs or something else that’s crazy on our site. It was an important step in our own maturity. 

Benjamin Ilfield

And I want to cap it off by saying. You know. As I’ve grown, I’ve been able to take that kind of lesson about the deep community engagement that’s necessary to run these platforms on with me everywhere I’ve been. And I know that Jeff, my co-founder, absolutely took the same message. And he’s at YouTube now doing product management.

And I know the work that he’s doing and the difference that it’s making—It’s phenomenal to be able to take some of the lessons we learned in the trenches and apply them in a way that scaled and it’s productized and it means a lot to millions of people. So those are the most important lessons from Sacramento Press, to be honest. They have defined definitely the rest of my career.

Ben Aston

Yeah. And so, I mean, I want one part of this is obviously creating opportunities for those without a voice, too. And on a platform for those to share it. And now, obviously, that takes money as well. The Sacramento press wasn’t something you were doing just purely for the fun of it, without thinking about how this actually at the end of the day becomes a viable business in and of itself. So it keeps being sustainable as a business. So as we kind of develop from, you know, 20 years ago or 10 years ago, as you developed a

Sacramento press into the kind of ecosystem that we’re in today, can we talk a bit about what you see as the evolution of that monetization of content and what some of the learnings have been for you, as you’ve tried to from the ground up, create something, monetize it, even building an advertising platform around it? You built a CMS.

These are quite big tech plays in order to monetize the content and create the community that you wanted. But as you see this now, then I guess the technical ecosystem evolving, platforms evolving. How do you see the nature of the monetization of content changing and the future of evolving? 

Benjamin Ilfield

Yeah, well, I think that’s a really great transition because. What came out of that? Just a realization. We live in a capitalist society. So. Business is important. These are the ways that, you know, we come together, we build communities. If we want that community to be sustainable, we have to grow it. It’s just the nature of the beast.

And even back then Sacramento press, we believed it from the beginning. All the good things that we were doing could not be about charity. It had to be about jobs. It had to be about economic vitality and. It was a struggle at the Sacramento press to make money. 

Benjamin Ilfield

You know, it’s small and we were facing an uphill battle with big platforms that were ascendant, Facebook, and Google gobbling up a lot of those local ad dollars and for good reason. They were producing results. They could measure those results, whether it was a click or a conversion of some kind near the end. The groups of the world.

There is always a way that your local retailer, restaurant, bar, whatever it is, kind of has a bunch of. I absolutely need to advertise here. You have to be on Google. I have to spend money on Facebook. I have to spend money with Yelp. Or else they’ll mess with my ratings. You’ll have to spend money with Groupon. Or really that became a reverse scheme where it had to lose a bunch of money, but do a deal with Groupon.

Increased my volume. I mean, it was incredible. And so we tried everything. We threw everything at the wall. There’s not a monetization scheme we didn’t touch. And many of them actually worked and were successful. Some have even sustained. One of the things that came out of the Sacramento press was an agency that just helps the small businesses around us with their social media needs because we were really good at it and they really didn’t know how to do it at the time.

So we said, of course, we’re partners with you. We want you to be successful. We’ll do anything you want us to do. And that agency still exists and thrives. Yeah. And I think that’s one of the cool things about this doesn’t have to be a publication. You have to be kind of open to that. But the key question is always, who are your clients? How do they fit into your community? And what level of participation do they want to have? How engaged do they want to be? So out of that, we built an ad system called Adglue.

And I took that separately, sold off Sacramento Press. Not for some great profit. I’m not telling you, go out, create a hyper-local, and sell it. That was a great deal. It just had to be done because really needed to focus on this fast-growing Adglue product. And we actually scale that. We had a nationwide partner, second-largest newspaper chain in the United States and. Had a great run, I mean, it was is a different perspective in a different way of living to be really just a tech entrepreneur. 

Ben Aston

Yeah. 

Benjamin Ilfield

And think just about the money portion. And I just kept thinking, if I could get the money portion right, we can solve problems for a lot of independent local publishers. Got to get this right. Again, facing the same way, if I mean, it was an onslaught, it never stopped. From your Googles and your Facebook and things like that, we are a really cool product, unfortunately, and a tough product-market fit.

Our product was about selling ads. They really had to be sold and they had to be sold by local sales teams and the local sales teams were hurting. Frankly, it was great for them to have a new product and it was cool to have something shiny and new. But many of them had kind of pulled back into their turtle shell and said, you know what, if I can just if we got a print edition, let’s just keep selling print.

Even though it’s less than what we got last time around. It’s just a lot easier to sell whatever I sold last time. And it’s fear. Well, I’ve been doing this for 20 years, as is some is my friend. It’s my partner that I’m selling to. Is this going to be as effective? We both know what it means when you put the, you know, the car ads in the circular. What does it mean if we try something different? So it was hard to make that turn at scale for all these sales teams.

And it was a tough thing to see real failure. I mean, real, real failure. I loved Adglue and I thought we had a really cool product, but it did not grow in the way that it needed to. And. Tried my darkness. It’s funny, I see these like failure podcasts and people are focused on failure. It’s great. And you just come out of it and then you have a success, right? No.

It’s not like that. We failed and it hurt. And they cost me a lot of pain. And I still feel guilty for every single investor who trusted me. Although they’re wonderful people and we’re making decisions all over the place. It’s not like, you know, you probably get this, but when you do a startup and you take other people’s money, it’s a serious business and you pull out all the stops until you’re dead.

And the last stop I pulled out was I just thought maybe this needs to be self serve, digital-only. Let’s not go for these local publishers anymore anyway. Let’s just go for, you know, like a BuzzFeed or someone like that, someone really big. How all these different meetings and. There’s this one agency that I’d worked with that helped me and kind of in the end days with Sacranie press migrating Sacramento press to WordPress called 10 up. 

Benjamin Ilfield

And so I called on their founder and president and had lunch and said, I really need just if you just find me a client or two of yours that could benefit from Adglue. This would be amazing. He said, well, I took the meeting because I really like to bring you on board. We’ve got these really critical issues with a lot of our clients around their advertising and just the way the code is implemented.

And knowing what you’re doing with Adglue, you totally understand how ad code is implemented. We just need someone who’s, like, thoughtful and strategic. And if you want, you can even recommend Adglue into it. So I said you may be sure. I mean, I thought, you know what? If you can let me keep my business and I can work for you, I’ll just do that kind of working two jobs at once.

I was super used to it because that’s what I did with no snakes and Sacro press in the first place. No. Just keep two fires burning and it was hard to see Adglue, not survive. But by that point, what had happened is I was now working with dozens of publishers and asking them questions just from a consultant standpoint, not trying to sell them anything. Just listening.

And Adglue is a great product, but it probably was the fifth or sixth most important thing they should do. And they had so many things that had to happen first. There was so much technical debt in terms of and strategic debt in terms of how they were going to monetize that. My passion shifted a little bit and I thought, you know what?

If I’m true to myself and we’re talking about the health of the media ecosystem here, we actually have some deeper issues. And they have some of the same root causes, you know, then what Adglue is seeing this consolidation of power in media and the consolidation of like the total revenue streams of ads. It was changing the media landscape before our eyes.

And these publishers had to react, they had to find ways to survive, stick it out. And so I got to know everybody, every vendor I could find, every solution I could find and really go deep and understanding the systems, whether it’s Google ad manager or how A9 is working, whatever it took, it was just my job to deeply understand those systems so that I could help these folks.

Did that for five-plus years and loved every single minute of it. It felt so right to be helping these people. So my people are on them. And it felt like I went through a lot to be able to learn all of the things I needed to learn in order to make a real difference. Get off the mat. At the same time. If you’ve ever been in the agency world, it’s hard to have that split focus.

Yeah, right. And so it’s great to know you’re making a difference for so many people. But when Opportunity knocked with VentureBeat and they are an independent publisher, Windscale, someone I’ve been reading since 2006, someone that mattered a lot to me, a brand that mattered a lot to me and frankly, a team that is outstanding and top-notch.

I mean, the people I get to work with here are incredible. So when that opportunity came by to just focus. To just have. One group of people worked together to solve really difficult problems and hopefully be an example for everybody in the publishing industry about what you can do. I just had to say yes. 

Ben Aston

That’s a cool journey. And so as you’ve developed ad technology now as you’re kind of evolving VentureBeat offering in terms of product. When you’re thinking about user experience or customer experience. And also with one kind of hand on that one hand on revenue generation.

How do you manage those two? I guess sometimes conflicting areas of focus. You’re trying. You’re trying to improve the customer experience at the same time as protecting and building revenue. But how do you do that? At the expense of their experience and the growth of users? 

Benjamin Ilfield

Yeah, that’s a great question. It’s actually it’s pretty simple. Day today, you’re managing. I mean, it’s just it’s the same with everyone’s job, right. You get so many to-dos, how are you going to get them all done, Right? Everyone has to manage. Everyone has to prioritize. Everybody has to stack rank constantly. And so one of your jobs, I don’t care what your role is, but if you’re touching the product,

Your job is to think critically about what you’re doing and how it impacts the user and how it impacts a whole community that’s using it like I think all of the platforms would just benefit from someone being sane and saying everybody should be thinking about the user. Everybody should be doing this calculation. I’m really proud that at VentureBeat I may make a decision that’s not super user friendly because we have to make money now.

You know, there’s a pandemic on whatever it might be, whatever the excuses to push the throttle when it comes to monetization. And if you push a little too far, I’m really happy that I get people from all around the organization who might call me out on that because everybody’s focused on the user. And you have to balance monetization with the user experience.

That’s always going to be the case and you’re always going to be kind of balancing one against the other. And everyone should be thinking that shouldn’t just be one person’s role. There should be a vibrant discussion around it. What I mean by vibrant actually, probably yelling. Right? People should be passionate about it. And if they’re not, you’re probably not doing your job.

Right. And you had to bring that out of people and really empathize with the user as much as possible, touch base with users so you understand what they’re feeling as well. So that’s one thing. And that’s something we should all be doing. It’s a basic but there’s something greater. 

Benjamin Ilfield

You have to look beyond the clouds of today and recognize that the community you’re building is the value of tomorrow. So the currency of today and paying your bills in cash. I understand that. But if you’re a media company, the currency of tomorrow is actually known and engaged users. And that’s what we’re really focusing on at VentureBeat—the day I came here, that was my number one. We have to build that up.

I want to see a huge volume of people that I can truly call a community and not just an audience. Once you’ve got the community, the opportunities to monetize around the value of that community go up exponentially. And we should be looking for exponential growth, not linear growth in the media space right now. So how do you get exponential growth? You have to build it with exponential growth in value before you cash it in four dollars.

Ben Aston

So as you’re thinking about transitioning then or helping make this transition from someone, from being an audience, being a passive reader, to amend an engaged member who then has long devotee with the brand. What’s yours. You know, I understand that philosophically, but tactically on the ground as yet.

What are you putting in place to help someone make that transition? Or I guess bolster their engagement with the brands? Said that there’s more BI in there. 

Benjamin Ilfield

Well, something that not enough people know about VentureBeat. I’ve been reading it again since 2006. I’ve seen the evolution, but a lot of people think of the brand finally and they think of it from those kinds of days, the dot com startups, You just covered everybody who gets the funding, right. And that’s just it’s a Daily Beast. And that’s why it’s VentureBeat.

Right. The reality is you look at some of those companies today and they’re not what they once were. Some of them are corporate and frankly, you know, maybe a little bit watered down in their mission or their edge. They don’t have the personality they once did. Some are defunct. Unfortunately, it’s a hard business to be that broad and cover all of the technology.

So one of the coolest things is before I even came to VentureBeat, there was already an emerging focus over the last couple of years. Editorial has focused on the transformative technologies that matter to business decision-makers who make those decisions. 

Benjamin Ilfield

So if I’m making a decision about what cloud platform to use for my next project, VentureBeat should really be part of my daily reading to understand what is right at the edge of possibile and what’s developing for those technologies, especially around. AI, and I don’t want to say that we’re only about one thing. We’re really not. We have an extremely strong component of writing about video games.

But I just want to focus on AI for a second and then I can broaden back out. We made a commitment internally to be number one in voice and reach in AI. And we are. And we now know we have a record lead over number two. It’s that kind of focus. That, first of all, gets the right kind of audience that’s willing to be a community. Right. Because now you’ve got a real focus. It’s not just, hey, I got a lot of people.

I’m hoping they interact. Right. We’ve got business decision-makers. A lot of them are trying to buy things like trying to sell things. There is a real opportunity and motivation to network and be together. The second thing that people don’t know a lot about VentureBeat. We’re an events company more than anything else. So 50 percent of our revenue comes from our events. Right. 

Benjamin Ilfield

The pandemic was a huge shift for us. We had to figure it out, retool, and recreate our events as vibrant digital-first events. And we’ve done that. Like, so amazing. The whole team has leaned in literally everybody, every editorial person, everyone in tech has been part of this transition that’s been mind-blowing. And like we have had our most successful events now after the transition to digital. It’s just been incredible.

People don’t realize that we have a community. We have these people who are willing to come together and really get value out of coming together and the question now becomes a question for you. OK, so if you have more digital events. And as part of the digital event, you want people talking and networking and maybe having one on one chats, maybe being in like channels together, and it’s starting to sound a lot like a digital community. It just has these concentrated moments that we call an event.

But what if you are a member? What if you were a member between those events and there were high profile roundtables to be a part of? There were opportunities to be part of polls and surveys that we get the data from the community and give it back to the community. Just the endless number of ways that you can promote community behavior, because now, one, you’ve really niched down. 

Benjamin Ilfield

You figured out who it is and why they have to have the conversations. What’s the urgency? Why do they care? And then number two, you now realize that what you were doing before with something like events was actually just a compression of that community into one place, one space where they could get that done. Digital gives us a huge palette of paintbrushes, and we could paint those compressed pieces in a really interesting and vibrant way.

But we can also have long strokes of landscapes. Where the community can continue and value can still be delivered over longer periods of time asynchronously and not nearly as concentrated. So think about that concept. Keep that in your head and then take it back out to our larger picture. Really niche down around AI. Well, we’re number two when it comes to video games in terms of voice and reaches in specifically with the community of people who develop, build, and executives.

Our game side really marries the passion for games. A community of people who are absolutely as passionate as any community and the business of games, the executives, and developers who build these games and make them happen. We stood up a small community during one of our events just added, added Slack to it.

And it was like a chemical reaction. I cannot tell you instantly before the event even started. Messages flying back and forth, people creating channels IoT. Oh my gosh, we gotta lockdown. We can’t have people create channels. Right. It was incredible to me because that community already existed. It was right there. We just didn’t have the platform turned on. 

Ben Aston

Yeah. That’s cool. So apart from Slack, are there any other tools? I mean, you’re talking about a different kind of engagement thing to talk about. Polls, quizzes. People chatting online. And, you know, the events being those major kind of pulse points between all that. Will that happen around a wider conversation going on? So. Are there any tools or platforms apart from Slack? 

Benjamin Ilfield

Oh, my gosh. I have so many thoughts. Yeah. Let me back up a little bit and say there’s a lot of infrastructure work. When you say the word community. So most of the things that are going on right now at VentureBeat or things people don’t see. But we’re working on an authentication system that might empower a gating system. We’re working on bringing back comments so that it hasn’t been on the site for a long time.

When you think about comments, again, I like communities I can get my arms around. Back in the days of Sacramento Press, if you wrote a comment that called someone a name, I didn’t take it down and ban you called you on the phone. I know this sounds crazy. Even back then, it sounds crazy, but it absolutely worked.

Benjamin Ilfield

I call people on the phone and say. I’m really bummed because your comment was great. You called someone a name, and that’s totally against our policies and you can understand why. If you’re OK, I’ll take that out and just repost it really fast, because I think everyone should hear your voice. Building a civil community is different than just slapping on a comment section.

So this takes a lot of thought strategy and of course, new partners and technical integrations and things like that. Polls are there really like a gateway into the whole community, especially if we can push it out on the right article. So matching up the right questions with a polling system that is like simple and really wants to engage you in doesn’t it’s not like hungry for your data because answering a poll question is amazing data.

So, like, don’t overdo it or hate. Just let people give you the signal and then after that, you can engage them and say you want to sign up and be a member of the community. But it’s kind of a gateway. And so how can you build those? The other thing that’s really powerful. It’s kind of mind, I’m afraid. Should I say this? I don’t know if I should say this. 

Ben Aston

Do it. 

Benjamin Ilfield

I think the secret that nobody seems to be exploring. And I think it’s because we’re games. We have like this whole game team. And they were the ones who dragged me into this. They said you got the Slack community for games and it’s going off like bonkers. It’s really cool. But, you know, all those people use Discord, not Slack.

And frankly, I don’t use discord. I’m a little too old. No. So I had to check it out cause I’m kind of a platform geek. And it is mind-blowing if you’re in media and you’re not looking in that discord. I think you’re absolutely crazy, especially if you care about the community. And it’s for a number of reasons. One is they have a much more open framework to work with. So what do I mean by that? What what are the things I’m talking about? Well. 

Benjamin Ilfield

You can have an open server. That’s their concept of a workspace, it’s generally private where you could build a community of just anyone who wants to be there and you could push information and throughout polls and start conversations. And that’s great. But you can also create private servers where you are gaining access based on.

Whatever you want, and they can go out and check it could check to see if someone is in Eventbrite registrant and give them access to the server or particular rooms, essentially. And then their video is phenomenal. So they’re built around video games, so people want to see the video that really works for this kind of pop up roundtables and things like that. So you don’t have to take people off that highly engaging platform. 

Ben Aston

Yeah. 

Benjamin Ilfield

Yeah. But there’s something there’s one more thing. There’s something at the root philosophically of discord that I think is powerful. People get together. 

Benjamin Ilfield

As communities on Discord. Ninety-nine percent of their traffic is private communities. Groups of friends, people that share a passion. People who are in the same clan in a video game. Right. A lot of the features they’re building. Are to enable those people to moderate themselves and have really healthy communities and dialog. And everybody knows that the video game, Eco-System has a lot of acrimony and difficulty.

So they’ve had to build in some the smartest moderation features. They even have features like if you’ve got one hundred people on camera and talking, you can do that, by the way. You could say that one, two, three, four of them are clan leaders or something. And those people can actually speak over everybody else. Just that just their sound is pumped up. Yeah, it’s not that that feature exists. That’s so exciting. It’s that this is a platform that is responsive to those needs. 

Benjamin Ilfield

Those needs are going to be very similar to excuse me, if not greater than what media companies need to create our best communities. So anyway, I hate to give away that whole secret, but and it doesn’t even exist yet. We do not have a Discord server. But I just you know, I can’t believe it. I think that’s like one of the coolest technologies. 

Ben Aston

That’s cool. Is there anything else that you can tell us about that you’re working on at the moment? Obviously, you’re not working on Discord, but…

Benjamin Ilfield

Yeah. Other things I’m working on. I. We’ve talked a lot about AI in games, right? AI Games, back and forth AI games. There is a lot of crossover for sure, but there are distinct communities. And what can we do? AdVentureBeat to kind of change our branding up and make it clear. So if you’re someone who’s really interested in transformative technology, generally you have a home. If you’re someone who’s interested in the niche of sort of artificial intelligence.

You have a home. And if you’re really interested in video games, you have a home. We just want to enable that. And so we’re actually rebranding and making than the niching that we already did editorially happen on the product side. We’re just trying to be reflective of the change that’s already happened. But it’s super, super exciting because instead of going out to an agency and saying we’re gonna do a big brand, we’ll just come back with ideas, we’ll figure that out. We did all the branding work in-house, and it was hard, right? It cost us money in a way because it cost us our time in developing features. 

Benjamin Ilfield

But we had an engineer who was passionate about it and led the charge internally. And I helped to just facilitate the conversations. And we’ve had such great and robust conversations across the company about where we want to call things the colors of things, just the values underpinning each of our sub-brands. It’s been incredible.

And so it’s not a mad rush to get every feature out, certainly. But to all be on the same page about the journey that the company is taking to get here and then be able to reflect that in terms of the look and feel for the users. That’s probably like one of my most exciting projects right now. And it’s been fantastic because it’s so multidisciplinary. 

Ben Aston

That’s cool. Going. Going back to this. 

Ben Aston

I mean, the platform is evolving. Of the you that as the product lead a helping that evolution takes place. And we’ve been talking about how building community then I guess opens the door to potentially monetizing the community. Jonah, just talks about how that process takes place. Obviously, there’s a value exchange that’s going on.

And we talked about that with, you know, polls, how we can there’s a value exchange that potentially happens. People are interested in the result. And so they’re willing to give their opinion. Then they the value that they receive is the information. And then we offer them more value by offering them to be part of the membership. But in terms of you, as you’ve kind of been part of this transition that’s going on from live events and 50 percent of the revenue coming through live events to going digital with those events, and then I’m guessing transfer beginning to think about.

Okay, well, how do we still make up this 50 percent revenue deficit? What’s that? How is that kind of impacting the, I guess, the ideation or the innovation around how you create value for the community? There’s a role as a facilitator that you can have in just bringing the community together. That is that carries value events. We’ve talked about it. But how else are you delivering value and enabling that value exchange to happen? 

Benjamin Ilfield

Yeah, I think that’s a great question. So let’s talk about sort of short, medium, long term. That way it helps focus the conversation. So I’ll start with short term. Logged in user with data around them is just more valuable for everybody. Advertisers will pay more for it. You can build up a PMP system around it. You could sell the data directly. Let’s be frank. Right. There are brokers that will help you sell that data. Depends on your scale, of course.

But you could end up making just as much money selling signal. If you’re in such a valuable niche like we are and you’re serving such amazing community people who are making big-dollar decisions. So just today. Ad techs got your back. They want the data. Don’t worry. So when you build community, well, you’re really doing is building an army of logged-in users who take activities. Each of those activities becomes first-party data for you.

That first-party data is extremely, extremely valuable. It becomes more valuable because you can have opt-in. You can have consent these days. Right. I mean, the big players are being forced into this concept by GDPR and CCPA, the small players, the independents, we should already be about that. Right. 

Benjamin Ilfield

We should always be respecting the privacy of our community and making sure to anonymize things or only sell certain parts of the data or whatever that might be that should actually be at the bedrock. Something that we’re working on now because we don’t have the proper systems to get that consent.

We have some, but not all. And it’s an evolving place, but we need to be at the forefront of that. And I think all independent publishers should. This is actually our chance to outperform the big platforms. We can gain consent and build a really strong, unique first-party data sets. 

Benjamin Ilfield

So that’s today. No question you can monetize it right now. You can just literally cash in. You can make money through ads. Tomorrow. Midterm. This is actually about facilitating deals. So if you’re in it and it depends. Everybody should scrutinize this differently. 

Benjamin Ilfield

And that was one of the cool things of being torn up, was that you could take the same set of factors, the same big macros, and apply it to like a nonprofit community news site. It’s going to look really different than an NPR station, which is going to look different than a broadcast TV station that is really different than someone like VentureBeat. But for someone like VentureBeat, what’s happening is we’re already sitting at the intersection of media and commerce and that commerce is BDD. 

Benjamin Ilfield

So a lot of these folks are going to pay. Medium-term for introductions leads, education, career development. So there’s like real money outcomes that happen that are big money outcomes. And we’re actually just looking for a small take of that. Does that make sense? 

Ben Aston

Yeah. 

Benjamin Ilfield

So, I mean, think about it this way. I’m trying to learn in a VentureBeat forum in 2020 to about. You know how to how to solve this weird big data problem and prediction problem I’ve got with a certain kind of neural network. If we know that. We might be able to present you not only with the solution really quickly, but with a course where you’re going to become an expert on that. And that might be in concert with a Udacity or Coursera. And part of that could be just affiliate. Part of it could be that we teach part of the course. 

Benjamin Ilfield

Part of it could be that you go to the course and then afterward we have a summit or an event to bring everybody together who is in that part of AI. And that little world. And so you’re actually learning the things that you will need to then actually make it happen inside your organization. And that’s where we can really come in and facilitate that growth from.

I think I need something. I’m Googling it or I’m reading this Dalian and figuring it out, too. It’s a part of my everyday world now. We’ve actually implemented the solution. There’s a lot of value that happens all along, that decision-making process. So now it’s not just ads. It really can be facilitating the deals. And it can be career development. It can be an educational component. And all of those things have incredible value. And there’s already kind of structures in place to monetize. So we’re not making anything up in the medium run.

We’re just adopting existing strategies now that we have a more engaged community rather than just an audience. So in short. Data. It’s like we’re here right now. Medium-term, there are like ways to make money when you’re facilitating those transactions. Long term, the longer out you think, the more you think about what is the overall market for these kinds of products. And how can we develop strategies and new business models where we’re just taking a percentage of that market?

So we’re not looking for a percentage of the media market in some way. We’re too small for that anyway. But when we see a revolution in technology right now, it’s a AI but in five years, it’s something we haven’t thought about. Let’s say in five years, it’s the metaverse. Just throw it out. There is something it’s a little crazy. If in five years, it’s the metaverse.

We want to look at the market for the metaverse enabling technologies and say that we’re going to have some small, small, small percentage of that market flowing to VentureBeat because we’re actually fostering the development and rapid adoption of those technologies. All right.

So that’s I mean, you get get your mind around that. That’s a whole different business, the media. We’re actually taking a custodial responsibility for transformative technologies, generation after generation after generation. That’s an exciting business to be in.

Ben Aston

Yeah, that’s cool. And they had a big evolution. So I’m guessing. 

Benjamin Ilfield

If this were a blog, right? 

Ben Aston

Yeah, yeah. Yeah. 

Ben Aston

So I’m curious as we kind of wrap this up for someone who’s at the start maybe of their digital media journey. We kind of talked to three today how you started off hyperlocal news site. You developed an ad network. You went then on to consult other companies in an agency.

You’re now at a publisher again with VentureBeat for someone who’s thinking, hey, well, I think I’d like also to monetize through content. I love creating content. And maybe it’s, you know, going towards that motivation right at this that we were talking about earlier in terms of creating platforms to for voices that might not have a voice helping educate people and become part of the solution for someone who’s curious about creating their own media platform, their own publication. What are some of the most important things that you think they should take away and remember as they begin that journey? 

Benjamin Ilfield

And the first thing I would say is really, truly, because it’s happened to me a few times. Don’t be afraid to fail. Don’t run away from it. Don’t imagine that that failure will somehow magically grow into the next thing either. It doesn’t really work that way. Keep taking the lessons away from those failures. Seek the advice and counsel of people who’ve been there. I cannot tell you how many times I needed to and went to amazing friends in the media who saved my butt, okay?

Benjamin Ilfield

I mean, amazing people early on, I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere off the mat without people like Amy Webb or Alberto Ibargüen or Arturo Duran. I mean, just people who’ve seen a lot of people who have a lot of touchpoints and I try to give back. That’s why I’m on this program. But I honestly like that was a lot of what it was at 10up too. And we just like, you know what? Let’s just let’s just. People would come.

And the first thing I would say is like, what is everybody else doing? And that’s a hard question to ask. It’s really fair. If you’re a local online independent publisher, like. Absolutely join Lion. So you get you to know, you get to meet all these people. Same thing with something like, you know, the online news association.

There’s probably a group that fits you where you feel like you’re surrounded by a community. The scariest thing is to feel lonely when you’re doing this. And I mean, it’s heightened, I think, with the current pandemic. But it’s about people, it’s about the network. You’ve got to develop that network. And it’s not just because of some crass business or something like that. These are the people who are going to, like, help you pull through the toughest times, I swear.

So if there’s one piece of advice I’d have, it’s like everybody fails. That’s part of it. That failure does not automatically lead to success. And the people who are going to help you get off the mat are going to be the seasoned folks who’ve been through it.

Ben Aston

Definitely. And that is a great segue into talking about the Indie Media Club, which is what this is all about. And so if you are on that journey yourself and you’re looking to find a supportive community and head to IndieMedia.Club to find out more, police subscribe, and stay in touch. But until next time. Thanks for listening.

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