I’ve worked on the internet for about six years now, which in most industries is a very short time, but in digital media terms, that’s long enough to witness tectonic shifts.
I’ve seen the golden age of social media distribution, where sharing a well-packaged article on Facebook meant an almost instant viral lift. I’ve seen the shift from programmatic to custom content as clicks and eyeballs are devalued by the day.
I’ve seen the video-as-panacea-to-all-problems and the ensuing retreat from video, which led to mass layoffs, editorial restructuring, and abandoning deeply held convictions à la “millennials don’t like reading.”
I’ve seen the rise of clickbait, the near-worldwide disdain for clickbait, and finally the slight adjusting of clickbait that keeps its core functions (scooping up as many eyeballs as possible) while avoiding the buzzwords that make readers want to light their laptop on fire (“one crazy thing,” “you won’t believe”).
In short, I’ve seen digital media grow rapidly from a total afterthought — when I started, we were lucky if big companies were putting even 2 percent of their total ad budgets in digital — to a still misunderstood and underestimated but more coherent place to work.
I’ve had my own brand in digital media for about two and a half years now. In that time, we’ve grown from a personal Tumblr to a strong digital presence across many platforms, with a core team of five women and a roster of more than 1,000 contributors. We write about money for young women, but we believe that money touches everything we do in life, so we find ourselves addressing everything from grocery lists to the uncomfortable dynamics of dating someone with much more (or much less) money than you. So while the umbrella of content we create can be somewhat far reaching, it is all still deeply niche: personal finance for young women, especially with an audience our size—around 1.5 million page views per month on our site, 100,000 subscribers on YouTube, publishing about six new articles per day and one new video per week—means we will always be happy little goldfish in a very, very small pond.
And that nicheness is what led my former colleague at another (much larger) digital outlet to join us around the one-year mark to help define our revenue strategy, manage our sales, and corral our data into usable, understandable narratives. Annie has been with us now for more than a year and in that time has made us understand one of the most fundamental truths about the work we do. It may be more evident in digital media, where trends loom large and bubbles burst quickly, but this is true of all work:
It is better to define yourself sharply and grow yourself slowly than to start big and have to work your way backwards from there.
In media, for example, it’s common for large websites to launch with lofty goals and a core vertical of, well, no one really knows. There are endless websites that do a little of everything not terribly well, and many whose audiences can vary profoundly with every article they publish and with whatever social media might happen to favor that day. In the race to be the next big media conglomerate, hundreds of millions of VC dollars have been hemorrhaged in the name of finding the next best platform, hidden audience, or unique way of packaging the same lukewarm news stories that everyone else does. In the context of all of that glut has been an enormous comfort in knowing exactly who we are, who we’re speaking to, and where we are going to be tomorrow. (With our traffic being over 50 percent direct, we can predict almost exactly what our patterns will be on any given article or day.)
Of course, publishing on our small scale means that we miss out on certain opportunities — we are frankly too small for certain ad campaigns and can’t expand our editorial into as many verticals as we’d like. But we have focused our energy on adding a little more of what we like and what we do well each month, adding a few new freelancers, a few more stories, more lushly designed video. By creating a very narrow and well-executed lane from which to expand, we know that each new step we take in making something better or grander will be one that we can manage. In the meantime, we have seen wildly expensive money verticals and subsites get launched, only to peter out or quickly scale back. We’ll never be able to launch an enormous project and throw endless funds at getting it off the ground, but we’ll also never have to watch it quickly grow out of its own fundability.
When I asked Annie what made her feel so strongly about working in niche media from a sales perspective, she told me this:
“Consider the typical marketing professional right now. She is facing all kinds of pressure from within her own company to show concrete results from each investment she makes. With a sponsored article or video, this might include conversions to their pages, downloads of their apps, subscriptions to their newsletters, or direct purchases of their product. None of this is easy to promote, but it is near-impossible to predict if you don’t know who you’re reaching. Thus, a small site with a clearly defined audience may very well be a more appealing partner than a larger one that reaches ‘everyone.’ Because large sites tend to have highly fluctuating traffic, it is not uncommon for them to have a wide disparity between sponsored content and ‘organic’ content, in terms of engagement. If their overall traffic is driven by a few viral articles a month, the views on any given post could be, and often are, surprisingly low. At a small site with a trusted editorial voice, traffic tends to be much more even and views on sponsored content are closer to, or even higher than, the average.
“In many ways, having a clearly defined audience is synonymous with having a strong brand. And when a brand is strong, sponsors approach you because they can see for themselves that there’s an obvious, organic fit. Many brand partners of the Financial Diet had already been mentioned on the site before we began working together. This saves time and energy that would otherwise be taken up by direct sales, and it facilitates relevant, mutually beneficial partnerships.
“All of this is lost if your sole purpose as a business is to be as large as possible. When your audience is ‘everyone,’ you have nothing guiding your creative decisions and therefore are forced into one of two strategies: (a) striving to alienate as few people as possible by avoiding anything remotely controversial (often at the expense of your more interesting or unique ideas), or (b) trying to capture as many people as you can, regardless of who is alienated in the process, by appealing to the most base instincts and impulses of human nature (in other words, the clickbait or fast-food approach).
“Either strategy leads to a sort of race to the bottom as everyone on your team struggles to satisfy the mean and/or lowest common denominator. This would be the case whether you’re selling shoes, or opening a restaurant, or running a website.
“At the heart of any business is figuring out what your main selling point is, and if your main selling point is being big, that binds you to a vicious cycle where you have to prioritize that over all editorial considerations.”
Every day, as we refine our editorial and sales processes, we are very aware that we are five young women figuring things out almost entirely as we go. We have the benefit of experience in different media and creative industries, but we have quickly learned that being a niche company with distinctly humble goals — pay ourselves fairly, grow a little bit every day, maintain a strong work-life balance, create a product we are proud of — means that there is no one playbook we can work from. We simply couldn’t afford to follow most media trends, and even if we suddenly had an influx of cash with which to do it, we wouldn’t want to.
Going into meetings every day knowing exactly who we are and who we are reaching means we never have to worry about someone else defining us. And always, always operating within our means as a business means that one or even a few missed clients is not the end of the world. We can turn off our computers around 6 p.m. every day and know that, with rare exception, things will be fine in the morning. Every day, we live the benefits of operating slowly and within a very small niche, and every day — as we follow the news of a tumultuous, unpredictable, and often layoff-filled digital media industry — we feel grateful to be the happy goldfish we are in a very, very small pond.