This B2B media company covers a $7.5 trillion industry and is profitable

John Yedinak didn’t have a traditional journalism background when he started his media company. He was working in the mortgage industry when he read an interview with TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington. The interview inspired him to launch his own blog on the reverse mortgage industry, and as the blog’s audience grew, he began to realize that there was a massive market out there for niche, B2B publications.

In 2012, he and his brother officially launched the Aging Media Network, a constellation of sites that cover the businesses that service the aging population, from hospice care to senior housing. I recently sat down with Yedinak to talk about how his team built the audience for the publications, how they monetize the sites, and why they focus on advertising instead of paid subscriptions.

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.

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Simon Owens: Hey John, thanks for joining us.

John Yedinak: Thanks for having me.

You run something called the Aging Media Network. Can you give us a quick overview of what that is?

We are the largest B2B publisher focusing on the $7.5 trillion aging services industry. We are the largest publisher in five different verticals that include senior housing, home healthcare, and skilled nursing. We recently got into hospice. And then we have one site that got us started, it’s in the reverse mortgage industry.

What we’ve really done is create this really unique and influential media company that focuses on the professionals that serve this massive industry. It’s been a lot of fun.

So this is a B2B media company. The people who are reading it work for the businesses that serve the aging population.

Absolutely. So we’re hardcore B2B. Seniors do read us from time to time, but it’s not our main audience. We’re focusing on everyone from healthcare providers to lenders, financing people, investing bankers. Pretty much anyone who services the businesses that serve seniors.

Is it the executives that are in those companies? Or would a nurse who visits a senior every day read it? Or is it just the people who hire those nurses who read it?

Typically we try and focus on VP and above, so executive level, but depending on the vertical, a lot of times nurses have a lot of sway and they’re a very important part of the industry. So in our nursing or hospice verticals, there might be more nurses reading them. Typically it might be a director of nursing who might oversee a bunch of nurses. We definitely target VP and above. I like to say that we’re the Bloomberg of our respective B2B verticals.

This company launched in 2012. What were you doing prior to launching it?

I had no journalism experience. The company called Aging Media started about seven years ago, but the company really got its start 12 years ago. I was a college dropout. I left school. I was working for the Dallas Mavericks. I started working in mortgage banking. I was reading a lot of blogs, specifically one called TechCrunch. I read an interview with Michael Arrington, the founder of TechCrunch, and he started to talk about the business model behind blogs in general. One of the 150X150 advertising squares on TechCrunch sold for $5,000 a month for each one of those squares.

I was a kid out of college making maybe $28,000, $30,000 a year, and I was like ‘whoa, if I could just sell one of those ads, I’d be living.’ I was reading a lot of trade publications in the mortgage industry like National Mortgage News, the American Banker, and the reverse mortgage industry was starting to take off because of the aging baby boomers. Being the young, naive person — it was actually the night after Thanksgiving — I remember going home and thinking ‘I’m going to launch a Wordpress blog.’

One thing I’ve noticed with trade publications is that their websites seem like they’re 20 years out of date. Has that been your experience?

I think it’s because they’re run by a lot of old school publications that don’t know how to launch a good digital publication. To be totally fair, we were probably them two years ago because we didn’t have a lot of money and we didn’t know what we were doing.

Why haven’t market forces forced them to catch up with the rest of the media industry? Is it because they’re somewhat insulated from competition?

I think they’re a little bit insulated, but at the end of the day with B2B, how your website looks isn’t as important as the value of your content. You can have an ugly website, but as long as you have the most killer, unique, hard-to-find content with the best insights and analysis, and at the end of the day, especially if people pay for that, they don’t care how it looks. They’re reading it to make themselves be better at their job. I’d like to consider ourselves a more forward thinking media company in terms of design, but I don’t think it’s a requirement. But I do think that as this new wave of digitally focused B2B companies come to market, it’s going to make them up their game. It’ll be interesting to see how they do it. Most of the traditional B2B companies are still trying to figure things out. They’re more print focused and it’s young upstarts like us that are coming to clean their clock.

So you were reading these mortgage publications, you read that interview with Michael Arrington. What happened after that?

I launched Reverse Mortgage Daily. I essentially started sharing articles I found that I thought would be interesting to the industry. More aggregating to be honest. But after a couple of years I started to try to write some articles.

I did that for about five years. Eventually I started to make enough money selling ads. I’ll never forget the first ad I sold. I was moving offices at our mortgage company, and I got a call from someone who said ‘hey, we love what you’re doing, do you accept advertising?’ I was like ‘uh, sure.’ I figured out how to launch an ad server, figured out what a media kit was, and launched that. Started to make a few bucks, quit my job, do it full time.

The company Aging Media really started seven years ago. My brother, seeing what I had done in the reverse mortgage space, launched a website called Senior Housing News. At that point, seven years ago, I had two people. We merged the two companies, taking Senior Housing News, which was a little more consumer facing at the time, and spun it hard B2B. It just kind of took off. After that we started to grow what I would call a relatively real business. We had three or four people.

And then we started to look for other verticals that would be interesting to people in senior housing. We launched home healthcare news. We kind of half assed it at the beginning. We didn’t give it the resources it needed. But once we started to put a full time person on it, it started to gain some traction and it’s now the largest site that we have.

At that point we had three websites. What we’ve done is each time we’ve launched into a new vertical it’s worked, but really when home healthcare news became successful we realized the value of creating a media company around aging because it’s such a massive industry. The nice thing, when we’re launching into these different verticals, is that they’re actually complimentary to all our other businesses. We’re building this unique knowledge set of information around the post acute healthcare space. Frankly, it’s been really good for us. From a business standpoint, there are a lot of people in this industry, and rather than having to go to a bunch of different media companies, they come to Aging Media, and we can service their needs in all these different verticals with one point of contact. We fell into it and got a little lucky, but three years ago we figured out we were on to something and have been doubling down since then.

How did you gain an audience? Where were these initial readers coming from?

Typically the way we built our audience was through word of mouth. When I say word of mouth, I mean people sharing emails and links. We’ve never spent any money on acquisition, it’s always been organic.

Typically what we find is once we get a thousand people to sign up for our email list, we can monetize it. I know to the general public that doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s about the quality of the audience, not the quantity. It’s one of those things where once we’re able to get a thousand people on a vertical, you start to see some network effects. You start to see that grow a little faster. Everything from Google News, which we don’t get tons of traffic from — but people typically find out about us because we’re offering something new and unique and provide insights that they end up sharing with their colleagues.

Every time we launch into a new vertical, we do it organically, but the one advantage we have now is that, because a lot of people in our other industries also provide hospice services, we’re just going to announce our new hospice vertical to all our other news sites and boom, basically we have a new audience virtually overnight. It’s one of those things where each vertical we go into we start going deeper and deeper into those industries, and it just kind of steamrolls from there.

How reliant are you on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter? I would guess not very much.

I wouldn’t say not at all, but so very little of our traffic. Last time I looked, less than 5 percent of our traffic came from social media. Depending on the vertical, for example the more nursing focused, we actually do have some success with Facebook where a lot of nurses share stuff with their colleagues. But in terms of our overall strategy, do we share stuff on Facebook? Absolutely. Now is it a main driver? No.

Email continues to be the main driver of our business and I don’t see that changing, ever.

You’re trying to convert people into newsletter subscribers. What’s your newsletter strategy? Are you just rounding up links to articles and sending people to the website?

Right now our email strategy is pretty simple. We put our article links in there. It’s more text-based now. It used to be a little more visual, but what we found was that people typically in the B2B world enjoy text-based emails.

We’re slowly getting to the point where we give our editors more of an editorial voice in each email. We have text ads in the emails along with a couple banners. We find that the simpler the better in B2B. It doesn’t need to be super fancy, but it needs to be effective. I always laugh when these publishers talk about arbitraging traffic away from social media. I’m like ‘guys, it’s all about getting that email and serving your customer. It’s not that complicated.’

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Are you putting entire articles in the email or just linking them to the website?

Just linking them to the website. So that way we can monetize both audiences. We sell advertisements in our emails and can also sell advertisements on our website as well.

What are you doing with podcasts?

Podcasts are a fun experiment right now. We launched what we call Disrupt on our home healthcare news website a couple years ago. We had a lot of fun with it and were just like ‘hey, let’s just try this and see what works.’ We’re really lucky in the home healthcare space to have a bunch of partners and sponsors who are willing to help us fund projects like this that they can get behind.

I reached out to our first and biggest advertisers and said ‘hey, we want to launch a podcast, will you help us get it off the ground?’ And they were like ‘let’s do it.’ We launched that, and what we found with podcasts is that it helps feed the beast. The beast is the editorial beast that you have to keep providing information to. Podcasts were a great way for our team to tell stories in a new way, but also giving us stuff to put on the website that’s really good. We serve it in a podcast format, and then we also do a summary on our website. Not a full transcript, but a highlights thing that helps tease people to get them to listen to the whole thing.

When we did it, we actually ripped off the whole Digiday model of how they do it. It’s been really successful for us.

You’re doing Q&As with executives?

Exactly. It’s C-level people in each respective vertical. It’s been great. When we launched our skilled nursing one, which I know doesn’t sound too sexy, we’ve had a lot of engagement there. We have a lot of executives who ride trains to work or commute in their car, and they listen to the podcast. It’s kind of crazy to me. We’re really happy with the results so far. Is it a huge business for us? Not really, but across our verticals — is it significant enough to cover the production costs? Absolutely.

I’ve heard that a lot of businesses will sell it as an add-on. They’ll say hey, if you buy this ad package, we’ll throw in podcasts as well. That’s how they’re easing people into it.

We definitely do sell it specifically, but we don’t sell the mass reach that a lot of other publishers do, we sell our audience. So I’d guess on our annual average for a podcast sponsorship is $30,000 to $45,000. It’s not huge, but it’s not insignificant. It’ll never be the main part of our business, but it’s definitely going to be part of our business. At the end of the day, it helps feed editorial.

Tell me about what kind of journalism you’re doing. Is it just the facts, ma’am? Are you doing features and long analysis pieces?

It’s kind of all of the above. We try to provide unique content, insights, and analysis that people can’t find anywhere else. While we do cover these unsexy industries, we do have competition. But it’s one of those where our editorial staff is so much larger than our competitors that we’re able to go deeper, do these longer features that take more time. It’s one of those things where you have to balance the quick hits with the longer features. Typically on each site we’re publishing maybe two or three articles a day. It’s not a huge amount of content, but we’re focused on creating stuff that people can’t find elsewhere.

That reminds me of The Information. They don’t produce that much content, but they don’t do commodity news. Everything they publish has to be 100 percent original.

Exactly. I subscribe to The Information and I like it. It’s one of those instances where they’re in a unique position. Everyone finds, depending on the space you’re in — we like to borrow from people who are doing a good job and tailor it for our own industry verticals. I wish we could say we have these great original ideas, but a lot of times we look at what other people doing and then customize some ideas they might be doing and apply them to our verticals.

How large is your editorial staff?

Our sweet spot right now is we have three full time people who are working on one individual vertical. We try and keep it simple. Each of our verticals we look at from an editorial perspective as having these small teams. We used to be set up differently where we had an editorial bullpen and it was a shared resource for editors. What we found is that people were starting to cover more than one vertical and it was getting confusing, so we started to form these small, focused teams that allowed those teams to go deeper and become experts at that one vertical rather than being a generalist across the board.

That’s been really successful for us. To most people, three reporters doesn’t sound huge, but most of our competitors have like one person who covers an industry. You can take most of our competitors, combine them, and I think our team would still be larger.

Is everyone at one centralized location?

Everyone but one person, who’s in San Diego. The rest of us are based in Chicago.

Walk me through your business model. It seems like it’s largely advertising focused. Are you doing native ads vs display ads? Programmatic vs direct sales?

We don’t do anything programmatic, it’s all direct sales. In terms of revenue, we do it all. About 40 percent of our business is display advertising, which we sell in house, and then everything else is spread out over several different things. Branded content/lead gen, which has become a really big part of our business. We have a branded content team that does that. We also sell paid research. We have one person who focuses on it just in senior housing news, and we sold $190,000 of it last year. We think we’ve found a model we hope to roll out across other verticals. We also sell events and webinars. Our events business continues to grow. I think we’re finding our sweet spot in that area. There are a lot of events in our industries and we’re trying to do something cool. My big saying is ‘B2B doesn’t have to be boring. B2B can be sexy.’ Our strategy going forward is to put on cool events that people want to attend. From a business model perspective, events are great because you get paid upfront. It helps from a cash flow perspective. We continue to get more excited about events.

Are they conferences or one-day networking events?

All-day events that could have up to eight speakers at a cool theater here in Chicago. Or they could be half-day events that are more executive focused. We have different formats for different verticals, because each vertical is a little bit different. So you have to customize each of your offerings to that vertical.

On the research side, are those custom research reports where a single company will approach you? Or is it something that’s more scalable where multiple organizations pay a subscription to access your reports?

We do stuff where people come to us and say ‘hey, we want you to do a deep dive on X subject. We’re going to use it for our own purposes.’ But when I say research, I’m really referring to things we find interesting that we do deep-dives on. It’ll be these really sexy looking reports that are 5,000 words on a specific topic. Typically they’re more trend-based stuff, so stuff that helps leaders spot trends that are coming. We’ve had a lot of success with that. The first time we launched one, we put up the page, hoped people would buy it, and ended up selling $30,000 of it, and we were like ‘holy shit, maybe we’re on to something.’

I’m almost surprised you don’t have more subscription products. It seems like niche would do really well with paid subscriptions where everything would be behind a paywall. What made you decide to focus on advertising instead?

Subscription is something that’s coming down the pipe for us. We’re in the process of making that transition. But in terms of when we got into the business, I would say there was, depending on the vertical, people doing it that way, so us coming in with a free model published every single day gave us a huge competitive advantage to come in and clean their clock. So that was part of the reason. But I would also just say we didn’t know what we were doing. We kind of had an idea, but if you asked me ‘how do you launch a paywall product?’ five years ago I would have been like ‘I have no idea, I’m just trying to figure out how to run an ad server.’ We had other problems we had to figure out and we had to make money in order to survive.

Now we’re at a different point. We see the value of our content and know how difficult it is to create, and we think there’s a part of our audience that consumes so much and would be more than happy to pay for it as long as we’re giving them value. We continue to look at that.

What kind of audience scale do you need to achieve to make this model work? It seems like you guys operate at a fraction of the audience of these general news publishers.

Yeah. Typically we can start to monetize our audience when we have an email list of a thousand people.

That’s tiny compared to what the Buzzfeeds of the world have to deal with.

Totally. I think our audience is more valuable, in my opinion. I would rather have a really killer audience of a thousand executives than 10,000 really average people. We’ve learned that size in B2B doesn’t really help you sell. What helps you sell is the influence of your audience. The more you focus on that and the quality of your audience over the quantity, everything else falls into place. We don’t even really get into the size of your email list discussion. I don’t think it’s valuable from a sales perspective, and if somebody wants that because they’re a media ad planner right out of college, we might not be the best fit.

What happens is they might buy somewhere else, and then there boss will say ‘hey, why aren’t we here?’ And they’ll say ‘well, their email list isn’t as big,’ and the boss will be like ‘I don’t care.’ We focus on quality over quantity.

One reason a lot of news publications are struggling is that, rather than me paying the premium of reaching the New York Times’s subscribers, I can pay Facebook a fraction of the price to reach those same readers, and I can do it in a more targeted way. Why are people more willing to buy ads on more niche publications like yours when I could theoretically buy ads on LinkedIn or Facebook or Twitter that can target those same niche audiences.

That’s fair, but as you say, it’s theoretical. How many executives that run billion dollar corporations are on Facebook every day looking for news and information on their respective vertical? I would question that that happens a lot. We found that the deeper you go, the more valuable you are to your audience, and advertisers and business people want to be where their peers and competitors are. That’s why niche publications are only going to grow in the future, because the internet only allows you to target specific subsets of people, and there’s a better mouse trap than Facebook, and it’s email. The more you focus on acquiring those customers over email and making your publication a daily habit for them, the more successful you’ll be.

How do you interact with your audience?

There’s definitely conversation there. We did have comments on one of our sites, and it was a main part of the adoption, but it got out of control. We’ve pulled that back, and we’re looking for ways to deploy comments so we can have that conversation. One of the interesting things is that our reporters and editors have conversations with our audience on a daily basis. If you hit reply on any of our emails that go out, it literally goes to the executives of our company. We hear a lot from our audience. The more dialogue you have with your audience, the better it is, but it’s one of those things where it can get overwhelming and you need to make sure you’re having the right conversations versus just having all the conversations.

So you haven’t launched a Facebook Group or Slack channel that members can join?

I don’t think anyone in our industry is using Slack. We’ve looked at it. Our mouse trap works right now. We’re always looking at new ideas, but the average executive that’s not in the tech sector is still using email to communicate primarily.

Not every publisher can be super niche like you. We actually need general news. Do you feel there are any takeaways you have that can be expanded beyond niche?

I think there’s only going to be a certain number of New York Times. I don’t think they can scale to the point where they’re servicing local audiences. I do think you’re starting to see the New York Times and these bigger publications starting to go vertical, because what they’re finding is that vertical helps you create that habit. Whether it’s the New York Times crossword puzzle or the fashion section, where you can get someone hooked to the specific section of that newspaper, it’s going to be really worth it for you to subscribe to the whole thing. I read an article where the Dallas Morning News started getting a ton of subscribers from covering SMU football. While it’s a D1 school, it’s not a very good football team, but by covering that one specific vertical that nobody else was, Dallas Morning News started getting a lot more subscriptions. So I think you’re going to see the bigger publications starting to really focus on specific verticals that help them convert paying subscribers, because at the end of the day, if you look at just newspapers in general, what used to pay for it before? The classifieds. So once you figure out what people will actually pay for, it’ll help fund the more general news items that we all want and need in society.

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.

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