It started as a one-man personal finance blog. Now it generates millions in revenue
In 2010, a college dropout named Kyle Taylor launched a Blogspot account. He was taking on odd side jobs in an attempt to crawl his way out of debt, and the blog was a way to write about lessons he learned on making and saving money.
Traffic was scarce, at first, but over a period of years the blog slowly gained an audience. Eventually, brands started approaching Taylor about publishing sponsored posts, and revenue for the site, which was called The Penny Hoarder, quickly grew.
Flash forward a few more years, and The Penny Hoarder now has a huge audience, dozens of full-time staffers, and millions in annual revenue.
To get a better understanding of how the site grew this big, I interviewed John Schlander, The Penny Hoarder’s managing editor. I asked him about how his staff develops its story ideas, how the site makes money, and whether the rise of the gig economy plays a part in its success.
To listen to the interview, subscribe to The Business of Content on your favorite podcast player, or you can play the YouTube video below. If you scroll down you’ll also find a transcript of the interview.
A transcript is below.
Simon Owens: Hey John, thanks for joining us.
John Schlander: Hi Simon.
You’re the managing editor of a site called The Penny Hoarder. How would you describe the site to a person who had never heard of it.
The Penny Hoarder is one of the largest personal finance websites, and we have a mission to help people keep more money in their pockets, as we put it. We’re all about ways to earn and save money.
So it’s a lot of actionable advice. Things they can take. It’s not just passive consumption of content. It’s things they can use, whether it’s saving money, like through deals or life hacks, or it’s ways of making more money. So freelancing opportunities or ways to optimize your work environment so you make more money.
Exactly, we write about job opportunities and deals. We give tips on ways to shop for groceries better. Ways to save money better through 401ks or rainy day funds. Anything that’s going to help readers live a better life and stress a little less about money, that’s what we’re all about.
The Penny Hoarder has an interesting history. It’s not some venture-backed media company. It’s not like a Buzzfeed or Vox. It really started as a blogspot account run by someone during his free time.
That’s correct. Our founder and CEO is Kyle Taylor. He started off in 2010 as just a blog. And we have developed over these past several years into quite a brand. He managed to spin this up, scale it, join forces with Alexis Grant on the content side early on, and has managed to grow this to one of the biggest personal financial brands.
Yeah I profiled the company a few years back and interviewed Kyle. He basically was out of college. I can’t remember if he graduated or dropped out. But he was in serious debt. He started taking on lots of different freelance jobs. And the blogspot account was just his way of documenting his success, or tips he was learning as he was trying to pay down his debt. And he was saying, I remember, that for the first year or two, he remembers the first time he got 100 views in a single day. And for the first year or two he didn’t really get more than that. It was over time that he slowly built this audience and started making real money.
And then Alexis Grant, she was a former editor at US News & World Report. She had gone out and created her own content marketing company. He hired her, initially, to help him create the content, but then she did such a good job of helping build out the audience that he ended up acquiring her company. And then she became the editor in chief of The Penny Hoarder.
She was executive editor and now she has title of executive vice president.
So the audience has gotten pretty large for The Penny Hoarder. Can you give me a sense of how large it is?
We have 12 million+ monthly readers. It’s a distributed model for us, where we’re not only the website, although the website is a big part of it. We’re also on social media and email newsletters. So we’re pretty much wherever readers are. And we have 6 million Facebook fans, 1.2 million email subscribers. So it’s grown pretty rapidly.
Talk to me about distribution a little bit. Where are you seeing a lot of your traffic coming from?
We’re seeing quite a bit of traffic on Facebook, as other publishers are as well. And we’ll use Facebook to not only drive traffic to the website, but we’ve been experimenting with content directly on Facebook. We are having a lot of success on Instagram as well. We’re on Twitter. We’re on Snapchat and Pinterest. And a lot of success with the email newsletter where the audience tends to skew a little bit older. A lot of success there with it being so loyal. So each platform has a bit of a different tilt to it in terms of its makeup.
Facebook famously announced its algorithm change back in January. What have you noticed since then? Has that really affected your stats at all in terms of your distribution of traffic?
We’ve seen a lot of changes in Facebook over the last couple of years. We’ve managed to adapt and have kept up a loyal Facebook audience. We have a very loyal community group on Facebook. We’ve seen some changes in how videos do. But overall, Facebook remains a great platform for us.
You guys have an interesting business model. In the sense that, unlike most other digital media sites, you don’t focus on display advertising. Can you talk a little bit about how you guys approach making money?
Sure, so rather than having a lot of display ads on our site, which can tend to clutter things, or flash at you, or pop up. We rely in large part on what we call performance marketing. This is where we will partner with select clients. We actually turn down a fair number of clients because we don’t feel they’re a good match for us. We partner with them to write content that we feel will best serve readers and help the client toward the client’s goals.
Let’s say you’re having a top 10 apps for managing your finances. You might create a relationship with some of those apps, to where if someone clicks on the link to them and signs up for them, you get a certain amount of money. Or affiliate advertising, if you recommend a type of product, you either get an Amazon link where you get your standard affiliate fee, or you develop a direct relationship with that product maker, to where every time someone clicks and buys that product, you guys get a cut of that.
That’s right. We tend to be not about any sort of real salesy content. We tend to help clients with other goals. Say you have a client like a Lyft. It might be more about helping them find drivers. A client like Credit Sesame might be about downloading of their app. Then we’ll write content, including personal stories from people who have used it, or ways to use it effectively. Serving both readers and clients in that matter.
Does that put less pressure on you and the editorial team in terms of driving traffic. One of the criticisms of standard display advertising is that it creates bad incentives to publish clickbait. How does it change your incentives of quality vs quantity vs pageviews vs actual actionable items.
It enables us to really focus on serving readers. So most of our content is not directly monetized. In that sense, while we care about clicks, it’s not all about clicks. We care about spreading good information and having good content be seen by a wide variety of people. As any publisher would. But there’s less pressure on us. Where we are striving is to have effective monetized content. Those are posts you’ll see on thepennyhoarder.com that have our disclosure explaining that some of these links are being sponsored. It’s on those that we’re making our money. But we have a broad variety of content, and most of it is not directly monetized.
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How does your editorial team work with the revenue side? What is that kind of collaboration like?
We have a branded content editorial team that then works with what we call our monetized team. There are regular meetings where they actually analyze potential deals, potential clients or offers from clients. In those meetings they decide if it’s a good fit or not for The Penny Hoarder. And then they’ll go about brainstorming ideas for how to approach the content. And then we will write it up, put it out there. Adjust as necessary. Work out the promotional campaigns for it. Constantly monitor how it’s doing, and constantly optimize and adjust to make it as effective as possible.
But your editorial team, they write stuff that sometimes, even though they’re not really part of the advertising team, if they’re recommending products or something, won’t the revenue team sometimes reach out to those product makers and try to establish relationships?
So yeah, are you referring to the client sometimes having content suggestions?
No, I mean, let’s say you have someone purely on the editorial team, they’re not really part of the revenue side. Let’s say they’re writing an article on the best tax filing software. And they write that article. But sometimes then, even though they weren’t working with the revenue team, won’t the revenue team sometimes approach some of those tax software companies and say hey, we’re about to publish this article, do you want to establish some kind of relationship so if people click on this link, we get a cut. How would that work?
More typically how it would work is our regular editorial teams might be writing something, say about different apps, and it’s not being done by the branded content team. If they see an opportunity to work in a client like that, they may, on occasion, add that in, and then we have to disclose it as a sponsored post.
So there’s definitely a lot of collaboration between the two sides.
Yes, definitely. But as time has gone on, we do have a little more division of duties in how editorial is set up. So we do have a specific team of two editors and three writers on branded content. They’re producing most of that.
How did you come to work for the site?
I had 32 years in at the Tampa Bay Times newspaper, which coincidentally is now housed in this very same building of where The Penny Hoarder now is. So I can’t seem to get away from 490 First Avenue South, in downtown St. Petersburg Florida. In my final position at the Tampa Bay Times, I was digital general manager. And I started hearing more and more about The Penny Hoarder and wound up as managing editor in August of 2016. I’ve been here for almost two years now.
If you look at it on a weekly basis in terms of how you produce content. What’s the way of pitching and vetting the process for potential articles that you’re going through? Do you rely on a network of freelancers? Is it mostly in house? What’s the editorial structure that allows you guys to decide what content to pursue?
We’re mostly in house. We’re set up remarkably like a traditional newsroom, but perhaps without some of the baggage. We’re not a general interest site, we’re very specific on our mission here. All about personal finance. And then we’re set up on teams that are covering certain topic areas. We’ve developed beats here as well. We’re in that sense a pretty traditional setup of editors and writers and photographers, graphic artists, video staff. We pull all that together each day into a daily report, just like a daily newspaper might do. We’re also working on longer term stuff as well.
What are some of the beats that people cover? You have actual beat writers on different subject matters?
Yeah, they tend to pick up a couple different topic areas. Our broad areas, we have one team that’s over deals and what we call smart money, which is what we call traditional personal finance. And food, that’s sort of one team that’s doing that. One particular writer, for instance, writes a lot about groceries. And retail. Another writer on our lifestyles team writes about parenting and transportation. So we’ve picked out some of these areas that have really resonated with our readers, where we can really offer actionable tips, personal stories, job opportunities. That’s another beat we have. We call it our make money team. They do a lot of work with our work from home jobs portal, as well as writing about career tips.
We’ve divided it all up and have writers who have become experts in these various areas. A lot of the people live the mission here too. We have a lot of in house penny hoarders who are constantly trying to save a buck, make an extra buck. Just like readers out there.
How much of your content is evergreen versus how much is tied to current events or stuff that would be completely outdated in a few weeks?
Last month we were about half and half. And we’ve adjusted that equation over time depending on how we feel the content strategy is going and how well we’re serving people. And what’s hitting and what’s not. In July we were almost exactly half and half. We tag things as either evergreen or newsy. Now our sense of news is different than a general news site. Our form of the news might be deals or job opportunities, versus other types of more general interest news.
Tell me about your products that are less like articles. Like I know you guys are doing video. Newsletters. The Wirecutter is really trying to build up its deals content, it has a dedicated newsletter and Twitter account. What are you guys doing on the deals front?
Our deals have tended to be more deals strategy. Like higher level strategy. We write about couponing. But we’re not, at least at this point, trying to be a true couponing site. So yeah, we tend to be more about strategies and tactics on deals. We will present deals to our readers, but we try to make sure that they’re a significant enough deal, and make enough difference, that it covers enough of the country to make a difference. So we have adjusted over time on exactly what we’re doing on the deals front.
So training your readers how to look for deals rather than presenting your own deals to them.
Exactly. We do present some deals. If there’s a free pizza deal or something like that. A lot of them tend to be food deals, which are popular with readers. But we’re not really like a couponing site.
What about video? What are you doing on that front?
We have a video team that is doing all sort of different things, including some branded content. Another focus of theirs has been personal stories. So they’ve been doing a lot of experimenting. We, for a while, were doing Facebook lives. We’ve suspended that and have gone more toward produced videos.
Obviously there’s this huge trend, especially with Facebook video, of using B roll footage with text overlay and some music, and those have gone super viral. Are you actually sending a camera crew to interview people and doing that kind of reporting? Or is it more splicing together text-based content overlaid with images.
It’s a little more produced than that. Yes we are sending out crews to video different things. That actually doesn’t fall under editorial in our current set up. We have a director of video and a video team. They’re jumping into personal stories where they’ll go out with a crew, light it all up, do the interview, talk about different ways people are making money or saving money, and doing much more of a polished video on something. Not just taking the B roll and putting text on it.
What’s a story you would tell? An interesting story on how someone is making money? How do you choose your video subjects?
Typically, one common area for us is we will find people in ways of making money. We have a project that’s coming out soon, we’re writing about 10 years after the housing crisis. Our video squad went out and did some live interviews with people involved in that. So, yeah, it’s really trying to be…it does take time and resource to do that. But that’s been more of the direction we’re heading in.
And the company is based in Tampa, Florida?
We’re actually based in the sister city, St Petersburg Florida.
Does that make it hard to recruit journalists? Since so many journalists are based on the east coast? What’s your experience in recruiting people who are either in the area or willing to move to it?
We really haven’t had any trouble recruiting. With what’s gone on in newspapers and traditional media, there’s been a lot of people looking for work and a lot of people interested in working at a place that’s actually growing. We have people working here from the Wall Street Journal, from the Houston Chronicle. I’m from the Tampa Bay Times. We have people from a number of traditional organizations that we blended with people from other backgrounds. Into quite an interesting newsroom here.
It seems like there’s an announcement every day that a media company is launching an ecommerce or affiliate or performance marketing arm. It’s becoming one of the new frontiers in terms of finding new business models. Do you feel like the space is getting more crowded? How do you guys feel like you differentiate yourselves from the pack.
I would say, overall, the personal finance space is getting crowded. But we seem to occupy a unique space in it. I attribute at least part of that to our voice and our pretty strict adherence to our mission. We put everything through that framework of helping readers earn and save money, and for whatever reason, people really respond to that. Because we’re taking on this voice of a friendly advisor, we’re writing in a more creative manor maybe than some other traditional media are. And people are responding to it.
How would you gauge your audience? There’s the general population that could always save money or always make more money. And then there’s these really fervent subcultures. There’s this one subculture that’s obsessed with retiring by the age of 35 and they’re super savers. There are other subcultures obsessed with traveling and living the freelance life while living in tropical areas. When you think about Penny Hoarder’s core audience, who do you get a sense of who they are?
We know that about 75 percent of our audience is made up of women. Our research has also shown that they’re making many of the financial decisions in the family. They’re like the family CFO. It’s a little bit different on some of the other platforms. We know on Facebook the audience has gotten a little bit older. On newsletters it’s a little more loyal. It’s a wide variety of people. Are there subcultures on there? I’m sure there are. But we do cover a bit of a wider waterfront than those subculture sites. We do find that people really seem to come to us for side gig information. That’s why we started a work from home jobs portal. As the gig economy grows here and more and more people are piecing together income from different sources, that’s been very popular. Personal stories really resonate with people. Those might be a little less directly actionable than other stories. In that they’re not listing a series of tips, yet they inspire and motivate people. If that person can do that, then I might be able to do it. Or there’s an inherent lesson in it of chasing a dream or being persistent. So, people are coming to us for all sorts of reasons, and we have people from across all demographics.
So a lot of profiles of people who have started their own business, that are somehow unique in some way.
Yeah, stories about entrepreneurs are very popular. Stories about people saving. Sometimes we’ll write them directly ourselves. Or we’ll try them ourselves. Or we’ll compare products and write about them ourselves. Other times we’re writing about other people who are using them and their ideas and tips. So we’re a mix of voice as well. We might be writing about our own experience or other people. We write a lot in the ‘you’ voice to try to bring people in it.
You mentioned the gig economy. Do you think it’s not a coincidence that you guys have really kind of come into wide distribution as the entire workforce has started to transform?
Definitely. We’re long past the days of someone working for one company their whole lives. Though I’ll point out I came pretty darn close with 30+ years at the Tampa Bay Times. That’s certainly not the case nowadays. As people are looking to piece together incomes from different sources, and we have a big community of freelancers. We have a big community of people who work regular jobs but are looking to supplement their income. So yeah, all these people are finding value in the types of things we’re putting out.
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