Thrillist: Concocting A Consumable Blend Of Native Ads, Content

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thrillist-andermanThrillist Media Group, the digital men’s lifestyle company dishing up everything from visual case studies on alcohol composition to foolproof ways to fight angst on red-eye flights, is banking business growth on branded content.

Owner of myriad media and commerce properties that include JackThreads.com, a members-only men’s shopping site; Supercompressor, a newly launched Pinterest-esque buyer’s guide; Crosby Press, an online lifestyle magazine; and Shops, a content-laced commerce platform, Thrillist, which originated as an email list in 2004, has plans to ramp up on resources to support its strategy.

Eric Ashman, COO, and Todd Anderman, president of sales, spoke with AdExchanger about the future of the platform, its role as a publisher and how to perfect a blend of native ads and content.

ADEXCHANGER: What ratio of Thrillist resources is appropriated to marketing your own sites vs. the messages of your advertisers?

TODD ANDERMAN: We’re going across all different avenues. If you look at our revenue streams, we have advertising and we have ecommerce we’ve enabled on our media brands Thrillist, Supercompressor and Crosby Press. From an advertising perspective, we’ve always been focused on custom content and native advertising, but now we also have the great opportunity of focusing on commerce opportunities where we’ll integrate advertisers into the commerce experience, but only in very selective areas where it really creates a better experience and takes people further down the purchase funnel, as opposed to disrupting the purchase funnel.

It’s an interesting balance because we want to keep growing both revenue streams. Our whole focus on advertising is that we want it to be in our voice and we want it to be adding to the user experience, so it’s custom content that we’re creating in our voice and we’re using a majority of the standard ad units to drive people to the custom content. And if it’s commerce, it’s not necessarily that we’re selling the advertiser’s product. We’re figuring out how to integrate them somewhere into the purchase funnel to position their brand the right way and add to our guy’s experience.

Can you give an example of a recent custom ad run you’ve packaged?

ANDERMAN: We put together custom content in partnership with Johnnie Walker and ‘Scotch Tales’ is a whole series of content on scotch that is interesting to our guys, and it is addressing all the interest areas that I would describe as being higher up in the funnel. Johnnie Walker has something called House of Walker where they have events as well and we’ll also be promoting their events. We’ve done integrations like that for other advertisers.

You mentioned bringing the consumer “further down the purchase funnel” through content. How are you doing that?

ANDERMAN: We launched ‘Shops’ in October with Microsoft Outlook. We did a program that goes across all of our ecommerce business including JackThreads, and it’s basically special sales and special products we are bringing to market that are exclusively available to Outlook subscribers.

On JackThreads, we ran [for the holidays] a number of sales that are only available to Outlook.com users. We put together sporadic sales throughout the [pre-Black Friday] time frame of buy-one, get-one free, 25% off and free shipping. The opportunity to buy those products is available to everybody, but as you’re going through the process, you would get an extra 10% off or get free shipping if you log in and make that purchase with an Outlook email address.

And then, for a [subset] of customers, we surface a page that says, "Your order has been comped by Outlook. This is a gift for you, enjoy it, no strings attached." We do it for a limited amount of people, but the social buzz you get out of that when people start posting that they got this for free, is [unmatched]. We’re doing that across all the TMG sites. It really helps the advertiser get their message across in an authentic way and it’s a helpful thing for our guys.

Do you work with external merchant partners?

ERIC ASHMAN: Everything is powered through [our ecommerce site] JackThreads. In 2010, we acquired JackThreads and it was, at the time, the company’s view that there would be this opportunity to monetize an audience both through ad sales and through commerce. And JackThreads was discovered because they were advertising on Thrillist and getting great conversion rates, so there was this recognition that our guy has multiple interests and we can hit him in different ways.

Over the last year, we really built out JackThreads. All of the tech behind it we built, so it’s a full, soup-to-nuts ecommerce platform. We hold inventory in Brooklyn, we do our own fulfillment, all the buying. It’s a beast. It’s not affiliate. Next year [2014] we will do over $100 million in revenue. Over the past year, we’ve been taking that platform and bringing our media platform together. So if you go to Crosby Press or Thrillist or Supercompressor, you will see a link to shop but what we’re doing is creating content about product that is available to us from the JackThreads inventory.

On the flip side, how are you monetizing your audience?

ASHMAN: I was the CFO at Huffington Post, so I’m familiar with large-scale, display-driven media businesses. [At Thrillist] we don’t do any ad network run. It’s about high-value monetization through a combination of great ad products like our email product and things were doing on our site, as well as mixing in commerce supported by content. That creates a very different RPM model... When somebody buys and shops, you get their address, they become a member. You have their email on file and it starts to build a relationship with them that is really different than what a traditional publisher would do.

Can you expand on that?

ASHMAN: To the extent we have inventory [remaining for house ads, etc.] we can use that either to drive back into Shops or promote JackThreads. When we talk about Shops revenue, it’s not ecommerce revenue. It’s media revenue. Media P&L now includes content advertising in commerce, which completely changes the way you think about the growth and profit potential of the media business.

With regard to native ads and custom programs, how do you keep advertisers and readers happy simultaneously?

ANDERMAN: Our team of editors are writing about our advertisers’ products in our own voice in a way that will resonate with our guys. These guys have such a high BS detector on content that’s being created by publishers where advertisers are integrated. We make sure we’re doing this in a very true and authentic way. It’s got to be something that adds value to them. We set out the KPIs that are both important to our users/readers and the advertiser. We do brand studies, research studies and each time we do a campaign we learn a lot more about what works.

One of your target goals last year was tackling mobile. Can you give an update?

ASHMAN: Mobile has been a massive part of the investment strategy for the company for a few years now. Fifty percent of our commerce revenue now comes from mobile across platforms, so we have the tablet app for the iPad, native apps for iPhone and Android, and a big area of investment is to create a great mobile experience all the way through. We built our entire stack last year on the content side, so if you go to any of the sites for mobile, it’s on responsive design and we’re focused on the user experience. It’s all developed in-house.

How does your funding picture look?

ASHMAN: Up until August 2012, the company had only ever done a small investment since it launched. The company had raised less than a couple million dollars up until then. That’s when we did our Series A and we raised about $13 million in venture capital funding. Right now, the company’s profitable and we’re in a strong position to figure out where we want to go.

We’re at over 265 people now and have a whole slew of new hires we’ve set up for the first quarter.

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