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How To Profitably Build & Scale 50 Content-Based Websites (with Ewen Finser from Venture 4th Media)

Ben chats with Ewen Finser of Venture 4th Media about building, scaling, iterating on, and monetizing content-based websites. Listen to the episode here!

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Audio Transcription:

Ben Aston

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, and monetize through content. Do it better. Check out indiemedia.club to find out more. 

Ben Aston

So today, I’m joined by Ewen Finser and Ewen’s an I.T. recruiter turned digital media operator, and now he’s building the Berkshire Hathaway of digital assets, and he’s doing that by strategically developing branded web projects or properties with a portfolio of more than 50 different blogs and digital commerce lines. 

Ben Aston

That’s 50, five zero. That’s a lot. So keep listening to today’s podcast to learn about how to build and scale 50 content-based websites. Hey, Ewen, and thanks so much for joining us today. 

Ewen Finser

It’s great to be here. Thanks, Ben. 

Ben Aston

And I want to dig into a bit of your back story. I always like to kind of find out where do people come from, how did they end up getting the expertise to do interesting things? 

Ben Aston

So how did you get into the business of content from IT recruitment? 

Ewen Finser

Yeah, so I think I followed a typical path. Many people graduate college or university. They get a corporate gig 9:00 to 5:00. And that was my path and quickly realized that the office cubicle wasn’t exactly what I was cut out for. So I kind of tried to return to some skills I picked up while in college, which is how to throw together at WordPress website had to sell some things online, kind of bedazzling for a while. I think originally I think I sold textbooks. I’d bought up my roommate’s textbooks and would sell them on Amazon. So I kind of got turned on to, hey, you can make money on the Internet type thing. This is back in 2011, 2012. Once I graduated 2012 got this kind of more traditional corporate office job, quickly realized it was interesting. It did reasonably well, but was tired of building someone else’s business, want to work on my own. So basically I thought about one of the skills I have. And, you know, WordPress might not be a tremendous skill set and it wasn’t a developer or anything, but I knew how to host website, how to publish content. And so I kind of returned to those roots and started with Amazon and looked at some other earning platforms they had. One of them was the Amazon Associates program, which basically allows you to refer customers to their platform and get a percentage of their sales. At the time, it was is quite lucrative. It still is, although they’ve cut their rates significantly. But that’s kind of where I started. And I kind of built a couple sites early on in 2013 and started working overtime, was able to quit my day job and then just, you know, achieve that lifestyle freedom. And then from that point, once I’ve kind of been able to kind of go to the proverbial beach and drink my martini on the you know, I realized there’s actually more potential here than just a lifestyle business. There’s an opening in the market for more of a legitimate media company. So we started I started to think more along those lines. How do we scale? How do we bring in a team? And how do we kind of grow up with the industry while still maintaining a lifestyle business? Like not we don’t have a corporate footprint or anything like that today. So that’s really I think the origin story is just a lifestyle business like so many people out there, and then realizing that it can be more than just a lifestyle business. 

Ben Aston

So, I mean, you talk about building a legitimate media business. Tell us about. Yeah. What are you trying to build now? And what’s your motivation beyond? I mean, obviously, this started off as a lifestyle thing. Now it’s now you’re kind of seeing the opportunities and thinking, hey, we could be a legitimate media business. But what does that what does a legitimate media business look like to you? What makes it legitimate? And what motivation with that? 

Ewen Finser

For sure. And I think you hit on legitimate. I don’t think I think that is a term that’s open to interpretation these days. I mean, a lot of the traditional gatekeepers are realizing they’re getting disrupted by people like you, people like me coming in with kind of more micro-focused teams on specific verticals. So to me, you know, you can I can toss around some bigger names of companies. We aspire to be like I wouldn’t say be just like them. But companies that I watch our companies like Red Ventures, companies like publicly traded companies like IAC, Dotdash, their Dotdash portfolio. They own sites like Verywell Family, Verywell Health. Other companies like Future P.L.C. they’re traditional magazine companies, but they’re going digital and they’re basically buying up these old branded magazines and turning them into digitally native publications. So paired those companies, I like a lot of what they’re doing. And so how I see this kind of growing is we’re planting flags in specific verticals, particularly late-stage e-commerce adoption. You know, that this kind along the long end of the of the growth curve that we’re entering right now and we’re busily planting flags and betting that the future is going to be very lucrative for those markets. And so that’s kind of where I see us going, is having a portfolio holding company of kind of best in class operators and best in class content teams who can leverage trends in e-commerce with content. 

Ben Aston

And what do you think? So for these big media companies like Red Ventures, what do you think they’re doing? Well, and what do you think they’re not doing so well? Where do you see the opportunity when you look at the kind of. Ah, yeah. That kind of top tier digital media companies rather than traditional media, because they are also trying to get into the space buying sites as well. 

Ben Aston

Where do you see where’s the white space for you? 

Ewen Finser

Yeah, so that’s a good question you bring up. I think what they’re doing well is creating kind of the back office synergies with ad tech on their own custom platforms, building content teams, going into verticals and kind of dominating certain markets like personal finance, for example, just having some of the biggest companies like Bankrate is one example that they own and just kind of using all that, collecting all that data and then creating kind of proprietary systems and advertising offers for four major brands. I think they do a really great job working with brands. Where I think there’s a gap is in the long tail. I think that even Red Venture’s even Dotdash, Future P.L.C. they’re still focused on these broad categories like automotive, like the site about everything automotive, the site about everything personal finance, where I think we’re seeing that we’re five, 10 years ago, that was kind of what you had to do today. You can kind of go to some of those sub verticals, maybe it’s business insurance or something a little bit more niche. Project management is a good one where you can kind of eat their lunch by being more topically focused. And that’s got another bet that I’m making. Is that how, you know, it’s more tactical around SEO, but that, you know, authority is great, you know, and it gets you, it can get you very far. But we have many examples of more focused, smaller, topically, a niche, I would say, sites beating, outranking, much larger when I call three kind of publications, you know, and even branded ones with a long history. So that’s kind of, I think, the white space that we’re seeing. We’re also seeing it on the affiliate’s side, specifically one of the affiliate relationships or, you know. I think product-specific or brand-specific affiliate relationships are harder to pull off at scale because to do it at scale, you really need either a partner like Amazon that sells everything or you need some sort of database management back end system that can dynamically manage 50, 60, 70 programs. So I’m betting that kind of revenge of the analog, if we can build a team around personally working with brands, you know, we have some examples from other sites where there’s only two articles that were promoting that company on, but those two articles are very lucrative. And so trying to kind of lean into those micro trends and the direct to consumer trends that are kind of disrupting the market right now, where you might have a company that sells one or two products or that on Amazon or on a marketplace. And so they kind of get overlooked by the bigger media companies.

Ben Aston

Yeah, interesting. And going back to that question of your motivation. So one thing is the fun aspect of it. But what is your life? What gets you out of bed? What gets you excited about deploying capital to, you know, operate, operationalize the development of the websites and do this at scale? What’s your underlying motivation? 

Ewen Finser

So I love I realized I’m a builder. I love taking things from nothing to something or taking something from very, very little to something significant. And that’s obviously all relative. But I love kind of looking at the blank canvas and saying, you know, identifying the gaps. That’s a big part of what we do is the analysis and kind of stacking that against content. Content is our hammer. So what are, where are the openings in the market and I love just kind of ideating myself in with our team to kind of create niche concepts, you know, launching them, creating a system that basically with the click of a button, we kind of launched this conveyor belt that then within three months we have a site live with two hundred articles, you know, and we can kind of parachute into these markets and make a difference and fill a gap in the market and solve problems. And I can do that over and over again. And clearly, we have because we have over 50 websites that we’re working on right now. 

Ben Aston

That’s cool, and what’s your I mean, you are talking a lot about content, and I think the interesting thing possibly about the more branded sites like Healthline or I think it was Bankrate you mentioned, any of those Red Venture sites says that there is a I mean, that they’re building a brand. And how much of what you’re doing is brand building? And I think the interesting component for me in this is the community component or repeat visitors because I think that it’s one thing to build a platform that or a website that drives will enable someone to make a purchase and given them the information they need best, something for something or X versus Y, whatever it is, someone who’s kind of quite far along in that purchase journey. But are you also trying to own any of the space higher up in the funnel, which I guess is what I’m trying to say some of my ventures is doing? They’re trying to own the, you know, the complete journey with more with a kind of more content, essentially, and building a brand. Is that part of what you’re trying to pursue as well? 

Ewen Finser

Yeah. I mean, it’s interesting you bring that up, because looking at the history of our space on the Internet, I think kind of a precursor maybe to what you’re talking about are forums. You know, back in the day, forums were kind of the thing. But today, forums have kind of died out as a thing, at least as we traditionally experience them. I think they’ve kind of moved to Facebook and different things, Reddit. But, you know, I think there’s truth on both sides of it. I think community can be great, you know, as long as it works right. As long as people are willing to use a forum or use Facebook or use whatever platform you come up with, I think there is certainly something there. And so we do, I think, some experimentation there. [00:13:14]But I think my big learning is kind of found that the KISS principle keep it simple, stupid, just like find something that works and push it as far as you can rather than, you know, getting a little bit of success and then kind of worrying about how durable is this specific site. [17.2s] You know, the specific model. Yeah. You know, we’re betting on kind of search, discovery, wherever that exists, whether that’s, you know, Google, Pinterest, YouTube, that’s kind of our special sauce. And so we’re going to focus on that. But I mean, there’s there’s certainly pros and cons to kind of building a more enduring community. And I’m very interested to kind of explore those things like newsletters and podcasts. You know, I think they’re all but the truth is they’re all different. They’re all different models. And so, you know, it’s very rare, I think that someone can be a jack of all trades and do it effectively. And so what are you what do you want to be good at? Basically, is what I’m trying to say. 

Ben Aston

Yeah. So, I mean, let’s talk about how you’ve built your audience? 

Ben Aston

Well, actually, let’s go higher level than that in terms of how do you build such visibility? I mean, you’ve launched now fifty-something sites in order for those to be viable, you’re building your search visibility and you’re helping people do something and then you’re getting paid for that through Amazon or some other way. So how do you what’s your process for creating such visibility? 

Ewen Finser

Well, I think it starts with being aware of what’s going on in the world. Right. And it’s maybe overly simplistic, but, you know, I’m constantly taking notes and making observations about trends I’m seeing. It’s kind of this this this toggle between being creative and being disciplined when it comes to the data analysis. And so taking an idea that you have in your head of all this might be a great idea for a website. There’s no sites that are talking about I don’t know how to how to become a better mountain biker. So let’s create a website about that. But then going back into using tools and kind of mixing in lessons learned from other websites to create more kind of a data-driven analysis of, oh, here’s the actual gap. There are X number of people searching per month. They’re not being served, you know, great answers to their queries, or we could do it a little bit better than what’s already in the market. And we kind of just do that over and over and over for different verticals. We’ve gotten, I think, better at identifying those markets that are interesting. And that really comes from just pattern recognition. And that’s why we’ve done 50. It’s like every time we do that and do the analysis, we get a little bit better at comparative analysis. I think that’s the hardest part about starting is picking your market, and it’s you know, a lot of people get lucky or unlucky based on their initial pull to one market or their personal experience. And so how do you make those comparative decisions? And really, it comes from looking at a lot of data over time. And so when we go in, for example, this is a little tactical. But if we’re using Ahrefs or SEM Rush to look at keyword volumes, I could kind of use a route, know keyword modifier like best or mountain bike even just put mountain biking into your keyword tool and return all the results and you can kind of see the competitiveness of scores that show you the levels, the keyword value, the total volume of that universe, and then you can start to place it in context of a very different markets. You could say, I don’t know, like website hosting and mountain biking, very different, but you can start to identify the characteristics of what is a gap. And there’s a little bit more that goes into it, I think, on the monetization side. But certainly it starts with that gap analysis. 

Ewen Finser

Interesting. And so you start with the gap. You’ve identified a gap in the market. How then have any you building that search visibility, you’re creating content and what’s what are you doing? How are you deciding what to write about in what order? 

Ewen Finser

Yes. So. There is really there’s a lot of different entry points, and I think we’re scrappy. Getting back to what you talked about with the buyer cycle where people are in the funnel traditionally to build the brand, you kind of talk about everything. And we do that with our sites, certainly. But we also like to find out early on, OK, what does it look like if we rank number one for a very lucrative kind of bottom of the funnel term? Because we kind of we want to identify what the upside is rather than creating this wonderful community that actually doesn’t convert. And so we kind of start with the end in mind. What is the converting page look like for us? And then let’s back in the entire community from there, if that makes sense. Yeah, so. So, yeah, we create content around, usually around the buying cycle, also around informational queries that kind of support the buying cycle, but indirectly things like how to basically anything that has search intent behind it. So rather than just suede shoes or blue suede shoes, we’re looking at, you know, best blue suede shoes for seven-year-olds type of thing. Like really like very specific. So basically what that’s doing is it’s prequalified the traffic. We know when someone types that longtail specific query to Google, we know exactly what they’re looking for so we can serve them with exactly the answer they need. Yeah. And so that’s really what we do. We hire a team of content writers, kind of our costs are a long rate per word, varies from, let’s say, three cents to eight cents per word. Your articles range from fifteen hundred words to three thousand words. And then we kind of, you know, are our main objective in a new size just to get over one hundred articles. 

Ewen Finser

That seems to be the place where this critical mass with a topical focus interlinking of tactical things. But that seems to be the snowball that gets us to a true validation point. Is this market worth going further in or not? 

Ben Aston

Yeah, that’s cool. So you’re building those high intent posts. You’re building up about 100000 words ish. And at that point you’re saying. Are we getting some traffic you have to now link building or I mean, I’m guessing your internal link building, but in terms of external link building, are you doing any are you literally doing no link building whatsoever? 

Ewen Finser

Historically, we have examples of sites where we’ve done zero. I think, you know, that’s a little bit controversial. I think the SEO community where everyone says things still matter and I think they do. 

Ewen Finser

It’s just a matter of are you intentionally trying to build them or is it more of a side effect of quality content and a branded web property? And so we lean more into, again, finding those gaps and solving those pain points just by being the first or second. Good player in the market, like quality content site, you’re going to get links. Yeah, you know, it’s kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy. So we’d rather focus on where’s the white space to rank number one? We’ll get links naturally, by ranking number one versus let’s go into super competitive market like payday loans or something and like juice our way with links. That’s typically not our strategy. I will say we do some outreach links, so we’ll have a team that kind of does generic outreach. We publish this or broken link building or something like that. But it’s not a core focus and it’s we use the medicinally. I kind of look at links like steroids. They’re you know, they can certainly help and that you can certainly achieve good results quickly. However, it’s not necessarily the most durable form of growth, at least on our experience. 

Ben Aston

Yeah. So, I mean, how do you stack your traffic channels? You talked about trying to own particular spaces like YouTube or when you mentioned a podcast, what kind of traffic stacking are you doing to drive traffic? 

Ewen Finser

Yeah, we try a lot of things. I would say we come back to Google search. The skies has been falling for the last 10 years. I think with Google search, everyone’s like, oh, they could turn it all into ads. And all of a sudden you could. Yeah, you know, and I think there’s platform risk everywhere you look. I can’t think of any channel, really, where there’s zero platform risk, even email lists, you know, there’s decay of email list. There’s all sorts of variables that every channel has. 

Ewen Finser

And so we try different things. But I’d say most of our traction comes from search, followed by some different networks like we’ll do with Pinterest. We’ll do some experimentation with YouTube. Even Quora is another interesting off the beaten path one. It’s a question and answer site. Even Reddit, you know, there’s things we do. But I think we were very focused on search. We’re basically like I said earlier, someone has to prequalified themselves before coming to us. 

Ben Aston

Yeah. 

Ewen Finser

Just because it’s so much easier to convert that person to something meaningful versus, you know, some of the other channels where, yeah, you can get a follower. But what does that follower worth? I don’t know. 

Ben Aston

Yeah, yeah. No, definitely. I think that’s certainly been my experience in. Yeah. You can put a lot of energy into building. Yeah. Building an email list, building a social following. But why? What is it, what is it actually going to achieve? And a for me I think it’s hey well part of this is I’m building community and that’s a big part of the business model overall. You know what I want to do. And that’s the reason why I get out of bed. But yeah, when you think about OK, well, what does that why should that follower care about what we’re doing and how can we make it relevant? And is there any way to monetize that follower? That’s a whole different story. So I think there’s a lot of value in just being walking back up from those money and working. OK, well, how do we get traffic there? And if it converts, then, hey, we get paid. So it’s quite simple. 

Ewen Finser

Yeah, it is. And it’s not that I don’t want to build a community. Right. It’s just that it seems hard. 

Ben Aston

It’s yeah. For sure. Can you in your kind of journey that you’ve been doing this now for a decade, what, what’s been your biggest screw-up and what’s the any major fail story that you can share with us and what you learned? 

Ewen Finser

Yeah, I there’s a couple I would say back in the day it was to do some link building, which is kind of what turned me off to it back in the back in the 2013, 2014. It is a lot of courses out there that would teach you how to do like building or PBN’s and the whole industry term, that it’s very vague and opaque, but essentially it’s manipulating backlinks. So I realized, you know, I built a little site a few hundred bucks a month back in the day and had it completely wiped out. And that’s just not a good feeling to wake up to one day. That’s one story. I think more recently, it’s it’s been a pivot point for me where we have this company called Owl Mountain Capital, which I’m a founding board member. Um, initially we had done some acquisitions. Some of them worked out really well. Some of them did not. And the ones that did not, it was kind of a wake up call because my experience has been really growing sites from scratch. We’ve done some small. Scale acquisitions, but for the most part, it’s all bootstrapped organic growth, and so like so many people, I think in the space, there’s kind of moment. Well, what if I could buy other people’s websites? That sounds great, right? Nothing could go wrong with that. 

Ewen Finser

And so confusing a couple where my skill set was a little bit in terms of I’m a builder and established websites need good operators and connected to that is being able to really diligence some of these bigger websites. Typically when someone’s selling something, there’s something wrong with it, no matter what the broker says. And old houses have old pipes and there’s a lot of iceberg risk when you acquire someone else’s business. And so for me, realizing that the grass is not greener, that I’m going out raising a bunch of money, just buying a lot of stuff is actually not the fastest way to grow. And so that led to a pivot where I said to our investors, hey, what if I just do what I was doing before, which is bootstrapping sites from scratch, but using capital as the accelerant. And so that kind of led to this whole idea, which I call the incubator, which is what we have launched 10 sites about two years ago, and kind of with the idea of how do we measure our progress and how do we take capital and measure the ROI on a new site versus, you know, an established acquisition. And so that, I think was the point the biggest screw up is we had a couple of sites that a one in particular that didn’t go to zero but, you know, lost like 80 percent of its value in 18 months. And it was due to really a diligence failure, you know, making some assumptions that the growth would continue. But in fact, it was kind of built on a house of cards. 

Ben Aston

Right. I mean, let’s talk about that deploying capital, because I think that’s interesting how you do effectively deploy capital, because there’s yeah, there’s the buy or build option for deploying capital. What you’re talking about is building, which I think makes a lot of sense in terms of potentially there’s less risk. You know what you’re paying for. But yeah. How do you effectively deploy capital? What have you invested in and how have you have how has that played out? 

Ewen Finser

So I read I don’t want to give it away because I think you all know what book recommendations would be. But read this book by Jim Collins. called Good to Great. And it’s a kind of a traditional kind of MBA type book that talks about, you know, how these big companies succeeded, you know, Apple, all the big kind of blue chips. But in it, there’s a lot of helpful frameworks that I identified. One is this concept of fire bullets, then cannonballs. And so how do we apply that approach to websites and for and for me, basically, just to summarize his concept, it’s basically don’t blow all your gunpowder and all your cannonballs on one shot. 

Ewen Finser

And that’s kind of the narrative we hear, I think, from Silicon Valley is look at Facebook. They went all in and they lived. They ate ramen noodles and, you know, 10 years later, look at them. 

Ewen Finser

I think that’s a really unhelpful narrative in some respects. And so fire bullets then cannonballs does essentially says take, you know, a small percentage of your gunpowder, throw it against the wall, fire it, see what sticks, and then kind of come back and make a better kind of comparative decision. Is it use the analogy of if you’re man o war at sea, you have an enemy pirate ship bearing down on you. You have a choice. You need to turn and fire. Do you fire all of your gunpowder at once or do you fire a small shot? OK, it lands in the water, let’s say three hundred meters to the left. OK, now you have a reference point. Then you maybe kind of adjust, you know, extremely to the right. You fire another cannonball, it lands one hundred meters to the right, and you kind of box your way in. Once you hit target, once you hit the ship with the small cannonballs, it doesn’t do a ton of damage. But you now have that line of sight where you say, OK, now we fire all of the cannonballs because we have that. We have shots on target. And that’s how we’ve kind of approach our incubation project. It’s let’s take essentially a ten to fifteen thousand dollar allocation, watch one hundred articles on, in this case, we did ten different websites at the same time in different verticals. So it’s not a perfect test, but ten different websites and then literally wait six months and see which websites respond well to that dose and then take the additional reserve you have so, in our case, we had around two hundred fifty thousand dollars, ten to fifteen thousand dollars for each site. Kept the rest in reserve waited to see which sites proved themselves back to us with a data-driven approach in terms of traffic and then fire the rest of our gunpowder on the top three, for example, and then kind of using that approach to iteratively build a portfolio versus I have this great idea. You know, I think eBay could be the next best thing. I’m going to put 250k to eBay. Yeah, that’s kind of the traditional model. And breaking it down to a more evidence-based flywheel is has been very important, I think, for us. 

Ben Aston

Yeah. And I think yeah. Talking about that in project management terms. So that’s a very agile approach. Yeah. Build, test, learn, optimize, and then you iterate on something rather than, you know, going all guns blazing on something that turns out to be a dud. So I’m curious that when you talked about yeah, it starts off with fifty and I think you said, well, ten sites, you narrow it down to three. What for you then is the most important health metric when determining or assessing the health of a media site or even the publishing business? What’s metric are you looking for? Is it traffic? Is it you’re looking at the kind of. Yeah. What are you looking at? 

Ewen Finser

Yeah. So I think it’s I would say it’s different for an established site versus a new site. In the example I was giving, it’s kind of a growth health assessment. How quickly. Is the site growing and so we want to optimize around the ones that are kind of first past the post and in my head I said, OK, we’ll give it six months to a year once the site exceeds 10000 page views a month. That’s kind of a sign that it’s at a tipping point at the time. That was also conveniently the hurdle for us to get display ad monetization. And so that was kind of it on purpose because we wanted to know a worst-case scenario. We got ten thousand sessions. We can make a hundred bucks a month from this and say we’ve invested ten, fifteen thousand dollars. If we just cash for that for a year and sell it three multiple, we can kind of recoup the cost and then some. It won’t be a great return. But again, it’s what mitigating risk first, rather than kind of doing the Hail Mary, I would say for an established site, once we get past the one and a half to two-year mark, or if you if you’ve acquired a site, the big thing I look for is the rank ability. And what I mean by this is if you have a new topic, a new keyword you’re targeting or topical cluster, you publish it. How quickly does it rank in a meaningful position? There are some big sites out there like I’m sure like a CNET or TechCrunch. They might publish something and within 30 minutes or an hour it’s ranking on the first page. That’s not always the case. And so really understanding on a site level, what is your return on investment for new content? Because content really is the product in this case. And what is the kind of float that you have, you should expect between paying for the content and generating pennies or dollars per day on that content spend? And so that’s a really important metric I look at. And it can vary on a website you could have three different verticals within that one website and you can find that pay for website hosting. We’re doing really, really well. But for email marketing tools, you know, we’re just not ranking. And so that can kind of help you out even within a site, determine where you’re kind of strong silos. And that’s a very important health metric for me. I mean, superficially, you can look at other tactical things like keyword growth. You know, generally, if something’s declining, you know, I don’t like catching falling knives. So because there could be a whole host of reasons. But generally, if it’s up to the right, something’s working. And so it’s a little bit of security there. 

Ewen Finser

But I think and one of the I think the easiest things to do and it’s kind of I don’t know very basic is just to read their content. Like when people send me some people send me acquisitions and say, hey, what do you think of this? And the first thing I do is read their top article. Does this read? Well, it does. It makes sense. There’s a lot of stuff ranking that doesn’t make any sense. And to me, that’s very fragile. If it’s actually not useful, you know, and surprisingly, you know, before looking at Backlinks profiles and all that stuff, read the content because there’s intrinsic value there. Yeah. Yeah. So that’s my first thing I do. 

Ben Aston

Yeah. And so I mean we’ve been talking about. Yeah. Dollar, cents, some dollars, and monetizing it and I mean you talk to them about, you know, you can put AdSense on a site once you’ve got 10000 visits a month. But how else, I mean as you’re monetizing these, you’re also stacking monetization models. Tell me how that works and kind of what you found works best?

Ewen Finser

Yeah. So the ideal mix for me with our skill set on our team is definitely display ad plus affiliate. And when I say display ad, that can be AdSense. But more lucratively there’s optimized ad networks like Zoek Media, Media Vine, Ad Thrive. There’s a couple of others out there. But essentially what they do is they programmatically put ads across your website which gives your site a kind of a baseline revenue that you kind of know. This is the floor. My R.P.M. is an industry term, but, you know, is let’s say fifteen or twenty and then, you know, OK, for every thousand visitors I get, it’s 15, 20 bucks. That’s a very helpful guidepost. The affiliate, I think is where the most money is, is really in the long run. And so we’d like to stack those two approaches, ideally stacking. And even within the world of affiliate, there’s different Amazon affiliate, which is very different than, you know, B2B software, which is very different than health and fitness. And so we try to look for those lucrative markets on the affiliate’s side where we can get 10, 15, 20 percent or even higher. Some brands will pay you. One hundred dollars through three dollars just for a signup, and so kind of understanding the dynamics of those markets, we tend to like to stack affiliate but multiple affiliate channels. I would see it as a sign of caution not to enter a market. If there’s only one big channel, you know, it’s only a product that’s sold by this one company. Yes. They have an affiliate program. But what happens if they disappear? So we stack affiliate display ad. I would say Lead Gen, it’s kind of in there a little bit, depending on how you categorize that. And then we do some brand sponsorships, too, which is something I’m exploring, doing more of, but kind of putting together a custom package for a brand who not only wants maybe conversions and clicks, but they also want exposure, which is the kind of ties back to that whole community aspect. But really just focus on that occasionally. Some information products, for example, on like recipe sites, you might be able to bundle some recipes into downloadable PDF or physical ebooks, but for the most part, its affiliate display ad as the cornerstone. 

Ben Aston

And so when you look at obviously Amazon is a big affiliate provider or revenue option. And the great thing is there’s lots being sold on Amazon. But as you’re kind of choosing those sites that you’re gonna go into. How much effort are you putting into identifying those kind of top-tier affiliate channels, I guess, or platforms out there, and how kind of wary I am? You talked about how Amazon obviously cut its rates. And I’ve seen this a lot, how, you know, affiliates, I guess people see it as a marketing. Yeah, I mean, it is a marketing channel and they’re like, oh, this is too expensive. Let’s change the terms. So how did you kind of evaluate do is there a formula you used for just saying, hey, based on this much traffic, we think we can monetize this much of it? Or are you trying to research specifically? Well, this is a really rich this is a really competitive industry. Maybe they’re sustainable with high lifetime values. Therefore, the affiliate rate will be higher. How kind of how far down the rabbit hole are you going? 

Ewen Finser

Initially, I probably wouldn’t go very far, but I would primarily just look at the keywords and identify that gap. But now we do a lot more that we actually build out what I call the affiliate Rolodex before we enter a market as part of the validation to really say, OK, across all of the affiliate networks to include individual company run brand on platforms. Who are the players? What are they paying? What’s their advertised rate? 

Ewen Finser

And is that is there enough diversity, I would say, of partners, to your point, even off of Amazon, you know, like you said, affiliate affiliates or brands that have affiliate programs can change their terms. A lot of times I use as a growth pack when they’re getting started and they say, yes, we’ll pay you one hundred dollars a lead for the first six months. And then all of a sudden, you know, they’re venture-backed and they have to cut back on costs. And so they say, no, we’re actually moving to a performance model where only five percent. Yeah. Or they kind of completely like within during the pandemic. They know some brands have to cut their affiliate program entirely while they were trying to figure out what they’re doing. So it isn’t you know, it isn’t individual programs are not particularly durable. So I like to go into markets to have many and also so you can play them off of each other. I think that’s a good advantage to have, because really where we are standing with our content sites or is at that junction between, you know, a customer and brand. Customer comes to us trying to make an informed decision. We are kind of, in a way, a gatekeeper, kind of have become like we have a little bridge over a little over the moat. And it may not be particularly durable. It may not last forever, but at least we have the ability to put down a bunch of those moats or bridges if we need to. And so being able to go to, let’s just say the UpWork your space, you have no Patagonia and RCI and Arcteryx and say there’s a whole bunch of brands. You can kind of say, well, this is what this other brand this is what we did for them, you know, you know, what can you do for us? And I’ve had if to be careful about it because you don’t burn bridges. But I’ve had brands that have almost doubled their commission, if not triple their commission, from what’s publicly stated based on that relationship building effort that we put in. And that then becomes a competitive advantage for us, because then we can build more sites in that in that market that they have a special rate that only we have or some brands we’ve approached don’t have a public affiliate program, but they have one privately. And, you know, so that’s another little moat. Or some brands haven’t even heard of affiliate marketing. But I kind of explain what it is and where their first affiliate and we’re probably their only affiliate. And so there’s a lot of opportunity in there. Whereas Amazon, there’s no real account manager. There’s no you know, it’s kind of their gatekeeper. And they’re really not going to let you speak to the brands directly that sell on Amazon. And so that’s why I kind of steered away from Amazon and more to individual brands. 

Ben Aston

Yeah. And let’s talk a bit about the kind of nuts and bolts of producing these sites. 

Ben Aston

We’ve talked kind of strategically about how you focus, how you monetize then in terms of actually building out these sites. Let’s talk through team, like who’s on your team and what are they doing and how has that changed over the past ten years? 

Ewen Finser

Yeah, so the big evolution really is when I realized, hey, I need a team, the step one originally I wrote some the articles myself. It was very kind of a low expense. We right now, today, we kind of have a structure of I’m trying to build that almost like a team, not, you know, not in the traditional corporate sense, but having a kind of a chief revenue officer, having a chief operating officer and then having kind of this layer of project management kind of below them. And then. Having a team of writers, I mean, writers are really the most important part of our business is we have over one hundred writers now across our different sites. Some of them are part-time, some of our full time, but they all have passionate expertise in their market. So identifying the right writers and making keeping them happy and employed is really a big part of our business. And so we kind of build up those teams that typically above the writers will have editors, writers, editors, project managers, and then are kind of operating executive teams, so to speak. But, yeah, I mean, it’s critical for us to have to identify writers. And, you know, we just we do that in some nontraditional ways, like, you know, not just going on UpWork, although that’s you can go on UpWork and you can find good writers there. But sometimes even posting on Craigslist or posting in a forum of people that are super passionate, talking about community people that are those community leaders who are super passionate about whatever topic it is and then bring them on to our team and saying, you know what, we’ll actually pay you to talk about what you talk about anyway. And that seems to be very enlightening. And so we’ve built this team and, you know, using up a project and a project management structure. That’s basically how it looks like. And we have, say, three to five writers for each site. We do have generally an editor who might be responsible for a couple sites, but generally, there is a point person for each site and then for the rest of it, it’s pretty horizontal in the sense that we have specialist teams like SEO specialists or video specialists or product placement specialist teams that we can kind of parachute into whatever website we’re working on. 

Ben Aston

So I’m curious, going back to your team of 100 writers, so you as you’re hiring them on Craigslist through forums and creative about how you’re finding these people? I think what’s curious to me is you’re paying normally less than one hundred bucks per post. 

Ben Aston

How? Yeah. How is that worth that time when? 

Ewen Finser

Well, I think so. So there’s a couple variables. One is what we’re leveraging is geographic disparities right now. You know, someone working in the US, in the Midwest has a much lower cost of living and lower wages as a result than someone living in New York City. So, I mean, any digital, digitally-based business has that kind of that advantage. 

Ewen Finser

The other thing that’s part of it is really there’s an oversupply of writers. Everyone, you know, everyone might not be a good writer, but everyone can write. Yeah. And it’s something that’s also very flexible. We don’t have you know, we don’t require people to be available 24/7. It’s here’s the monthly projects we need. Here’s the demand signal. Who can meet that demand? Right. And so one of the things we’ve built is actually is this custom content management tool that is essentially a self-service platform for writers to log in, see what topics are available, what kind of piques their interest. And rather than having us drive, you will write about this article like, what if the person doesn’t want to talk about foosball tables? Well, they can go in. They can select what they want Slack what they’re interested in. And then it kind of tags them to certain sites that if you if you’re a writer, you your expertise in three niches, you’re only going to see available topics from those three sites. And then it kind of there’s a whole management process where they submit their work for approval. The editors can kick it back for revisions and then it tracks their rate per word and at the very end kind of creates auto, generates an invoice, integrates with PayPal mass pay so we can do a one-click payment. It’s going to break down all the friction points. And so I will say that, you know, again, one hundred bucks per article maybe is a good rule of thumb, but sometimes we pay up to three hundred dollars depending on the length of the article and the expertise. And some of the writers make eight to 10 cents a word, depending on the technical technicality, I guess, of the vertical versus, you know, some market. There’s just an oversupply of writers. There’s a million writers that want to talk about, I don’t know, TV shows, for example, versus some writers who can talk about, you know, very technical programming languages or something like that. Yeah. 

Ben Aston

And so, I mean, you’ve talked about this in-house tool that you’ve built. How did it take to you develop that? 

Ewen Finser

I took about two, two and a half years to kind of iterate, again, iterate, we didn’t set out to build what it is today. We just wanted to solve the small friction points that particularly I felt initially. But then that are our project management team was feeling that our editors were feeling, you know, the way most people manage content today. They might use Slack, they might use Asana. But it’s generally kind of notification-based or email-based where, you know, you assign the topics, writer delivers topics and then they then do an invoice. And basically that’s very manual. You have someone’s going in there responding to the emails, you know, writers maybe having different questions. And so what we’ve really tried to establish is what we call the content conveyor belt, which is this is the system we use. This is how we produce content. We’ve broken down all the tiny friction points. So the other thing it does is it has an API integration with WordPress. So it kind of they submit their work in it and a busy week editor and once it’s approved, it gets pushed to the right Website already in draft, already formatted because, you know, in the old days you’d have to someone would send you an email with a word attachment and then, OK, what am I going to do with this? I got to copy and paste it. There’s a lot of friction there. So copy stuff you don’t want empty text, weird code fields. Then you need someone to format the article for WordPress. It’s almost like you have to translate the article a little bit and then you have of that has to go in and they have to add images or whatever and then they to schedule to go live. 

Ewen Finser

But then it’s all part of logging in, logging out, downloading, uploading, you know, very brittle in my opinion system. And so we tried to basically centralize those functions over time, you know, to like a tool that works really, really well for us. I don’t know. I don’t know if it works. It would work well for everyone because everyone has a different process. But it’s very much geared towards the pain points we identified. 

Ben Aston

Yeah. And I mean, let’s talk about tools beyond this tool that you’ve created. What else is in your stack for producing, publishing, promoting content? You mentioned Ahrefs, SEM Rush. 

Ewen Finser

Yeah, I mean, definitely, you know, on the or research side, I would say Ahrefs, SEM Rush are kind of good tools to start with to do that. Market analysis and then other tools we use are things like marketing use, which is a kind of an AI. Article optimization tool that basically tries to qualitatively or really quantitatively answer the question, what is your content score? How good is your content? It’s not perfect, but it gives us a very good indication of where we are. Other tools like surfer SEO kind of on-page optimization tools we use. Fresia was another one. We kind of like use all of them because they’re all iterating different ways and making improvements. And so we just like to stay ahead of the curve. And if, you know, if we try the Market Muse optimization, it doesn’t move the needle doesn’t move the article up in the rankings. We’ll try another tool and sometimes it’s one of the other. Oftentimes it’s just Market Muse. And I would say anything else Asana, I guess, for project management, integrated with Slack for team communications. I think that’s mostly it. I mean, WordPress is a very flexible tech stack, so it has plenty of plugins and things like that. But that’s fairly, you know, fairly simple what we use. 

Ben Aston

Yeah. And do you calculate specifically ROI on content? So do you get down to the point of saying, OK, well, if I spend one hundred dollars on an article, my return on the investment over one year will be one hundred and ten dollars? Do you get that? 

Ewen Finser

We have done. Yeah, we have done that analysis and I could say it’s kind of a double-edged sword because you can kind of there’s a lot of noise that can happen. Right. Google has an update. Yeah. They change their featured snippet positions, you know, and so it’s a little bit tricky to get a good analysis. I tend to do like a cohort analysis. So we’ll do a batch of, let’s say, twenty articles and what kind of measure that batch overtime versus the individual article, because you know, that feedback is only as good as, you know, the recent measurement because, you know, it’s six months since they can change that can be penalized by Google and your data is trailing. So it’s going to tell you that it’s still great. Publish article, and you’re still pumping out thousands of dollars of content. Yeah, that’s where I get back to that remarkability. 

Ewen Finser

It’s like before we do a big push into a new vertical or even into an existing vertical will drip out maybe three to five articles and say, how did those go before we do the full 20? 

Ewen Finser

Trying to measure that, you know, is it for whatever reason, is it ranking or not? And how quickly is it ranking? Because then we have to make those kind of evaluative decisions across the entire portfolio if we have X number of dollars to spend. Where’s the best place to put that, which is a good problem to have? Yeah, but it also requires some analysis. 

Ben Aston

Yeah, well, it’s tough for you in doing this. I mean, the way that you talk about this, it sounds like you’ve, you know, operationalized everything. Everything’s working sweet as a nut. But what is tough? What are some of the biggest challenges you’re dealing with? 

Ewen Finser

Yeah, I mean, that’s a good question. I think the as much as we try to operationalize it, Google and a lot of these big platforms are still blackbox is a little bit how they rank, even Facebook, whatever channel you’re on because you’re building at first, you’re going to build your business on someone’s rented land. So which one do you want to choose? 

Ewen Finser

They all have this element of an algorithm, and it’s really hard to, on a Day-To-Day basis, interpret where that algorithm is and where it’s headed and so we can be surprised by different updates. What I try to do to optimize for that is kind of take a longer-term view where it’s not what happened last week, but it’s kind of OK, let’s look at the last three years, five years, and let’s, like, keep our eye on the horizon when it comes to let’s create high-quality content that satisfies users. Yeah, right. And if we optimize for that, as opposed to, you know, some Google search feature, which we might do as well, but keep that previous statement as kind of our guiding North Star, I think that’s going to turn out well. I think Google’s trying to optimize for that, too, right? Yeah, I would assume Facebook is trying to do that, too. So let’s just try to create something. We make it too complicated. I think, as SEOs like how do we measure everything, which I think is important, but at the same time create great content and just show it to someone in the industry? And do they like do they think it’s garbage or do you think it’s legit? Yeah, and that’s kind of a good litmus test. 

Ben Aston

Yeah. Good stuff. Let’s finish off with the lightning round. Sure. What would you say is the best advice you’ve ever received? 

Ewen Finser

What’s the best advice is just keep it simple, don’t overcomplicate it. 

Ben Aston

And which of your personal habits you would you as most contributed to your success? 

Ewen Finser

I would say it’s kind of a two-part, but I would say the balance, creativity, and discipline at the same time. 

Ben Aston

Can you share an Internet resourceful tool that you love or that you’ve used regularly? 

Ewen Finser

Yeah, I would say honestly, Ahrefs, it’s just a great market tool to look at the market. So I’d recommend people having that in their toolkit, regardless of what business model they have. 

Ben Aston

Any books that I’ve read recently that you’d recommend? 

Ewen Finser

Yeah. So I mean, good to great Jim Collins. It’s a great framework book regardless of your market, to help you get in the right headspace. I would say other books are like On Grand Strategy by John Lewis Gaddis. I like big, big picture strategy and then apply it to my microfocus market. So those are two that I would definitely recommend. 

Ben Aston

And for someone at the beginning of their digital media journey, what is one piece of advice you’d give? 

Ewen Finser

Yeah, so I think the challenge of starting is not knowing where to begin and what to leverage and is lot inundated with different ideas. And so I would my advice would be experiment. But once you find one thing that’s working, maximize that before worrying about all the other things people are telling you should be thinking about. 

Ben Aston

Good stuff, where can people find out or find you, find out more about what you’re up to? 

Ewen Finser

Yeah, a little bit hard to find, but I would just say go to LinkedIn. My name is relatively unique, Ewen Finser and just let me know if you listen to this, what you think if you want to connect, I don’t have anything to sell. So that’s a problem. 

Ben Aston

Ewen, thank you so much for joining us today. It’s been great having you with us. 

Ewen Finser

Likewise. Thanks, Ben. Appreciate it. 

Ben Aston

And if you like what you heard today, let Ewen know. But also, please subscribe. Stay in touch on IndieMedia.club. And if you really liked it, well, why not really leave a review on iTunes as well, but until next time. Thank you so much for this. 

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