Thrillist Tightens Connection Between Content, Commerce and Data

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More than at any other time, publishers are trying to solve the e-commerce riddle. Consider guy-focused Thrillist. The eight-year-old lifestyle media company's properties include its namesake e-newsletter and mobile app, a local deals provider called Thrillist Rewards, and shopping recommender JackThreads.

CEO Ben Lerer spoke to AdExchanger about the way editorial and shopping curation fit together as Thrillist prepares to roll out a way of packaging data through a new product called ThrillSeeker that also represents an attempt to close the loop around mobile usage.

AdExchanger: Is there an over-arching marketing strategy connecting Thrillist, Thrillist Rewards and JackThreads?

BEN LERER: There’s a fundamental belief that we have about content and commerce living in one place that brings those properties together. It reflects the fact that a reader and a buyer are exactly the same thing. Traditionally, media companies look at a reader and simply aim to monetize them through advertising sales. In being committed to that relationship, traditional media companies have developed a good sense of how to build loyalty and create an emotional connection between brands and readers. For niche publishers, they’re speaking to a specific area that people care about and, if successful, are regarded as an authority in those spaces. Plus, media companies across the board were always involved in commerce, as most thrived by selling subscriptions. In a sense, we’re doing all of that, but in a new way.

How important is advertising sales, which was the biggest part of most traditional media businesses’ bottom line, to Thrillist? And how important is e-commerce?

We’re obviously massive believers in advertising and have been since we started. But we woke up one day and said, “Where’s the commerce? Where’s the rest of the revenue? We have this great relationship and all these guys who trust us.  Every day we write about restaurants, and bars. The thinking was, "Why aren’t we making more money off these relationships?”

Ultimately, we realized that there was this really special situation. We knew that if we could figure out what the supply side was, we’d be able to sell products to our guys. So we found JackThreads, and they were selling products from brands that we were familiar with because we had written about them on Thrillist. It was that obvious connection point where they were the supply to the demand that we had built. And we realized that if we could own both the top and bottom of the purchasing funnel, we’d be able to make more money.

Is there a direct advertising connection between content, advertising and e-commerce?

The way we connect the dots there is that we are transparent with our audience. We’re not letting our commerce influence the stuff that we write about. And we’re not letting the stuff that we write about influence the stuff that we sell.

The value to advertising from having these three entities together is that the volume of users will go up and we will naturally have a bigger business. The real beauty of having content and commerce live in one place is that content and commerce companies traditionally do things a little bit differently. They have different skills. I think commerce companies are much more data driven than content companies. They’re really good at understanding the lifetime value of their users, they’re really good at understanding conversion funnels, user flows and how to manage data.

Another obvious connection between the Thrillist properties is email. No one really talks about email strategy in terms of content and marketing. But does it still work? Why?

Email’s not innovative in that it’s been around for nearly 30 years, but just being new doesn’t mean being effective. The fact that it’s been around for 30 years is exactly why it works.  Things don’t last for 30 years in technology unless they’re really, really good. Emails are a fundamental way that people communicate. People know how to curate their inbox; they know how to separate the wheat from the chaff. There’s an incredible value to the relationship of being within the inbox and being able to have that sort of trusted subscriber relationship.

That said, we don’t believe that there aren’t other effective ways to reach our audience. We’re spending plenty of time and energy investing in mobile first and foremost. And we have a lot of stuff that we’re starting to play with, with video, and you’ll see a lot more of that over the coming months in both Thrillist and JackThreads.

Thrillist has maintained a very clear identity over the past few years around focusing on young men’s lifestyle. There hasn’t been a Thrillist for dads, or for women. So with that simple premise, what constitutes valuable data when it comes to building the audience and helping advertisers reach the right members of the audience?

We’ve created a product here called ThrillSeeker, where we take our first party app data from Thrillist, and in some cases from JackThreads and all the information about this audience and we provide advertisers with an ability to retarget our guys on other platforms. To expand the reach of what we do to more guys beyond the exact Thrillist target consumer, or to go in and re-message -- that’s a product that we’ve started rolling out with success.

Beyond the audience buying stuff, there is a ton of systemic stuff happening right now in advertising where you see some ad dollars heading in one or two directions.  So if you think about the exchanges all the way to the right, and you think about premium publishers all the way to the left, there are what I’d like to call extreme reach vehicles that are, like ad networks, just in the middle. The more time I spend with brands and the more time I spend with high level agency folks, I see the middle getting cut out. I see dollars moving towards extreme reach, extreme sort of commodity buying, optimizing around price on the exchanges, and lots of dollars moving there.

The pendulum is also swinging at the same time back towards premium publishers who can create engaging and unique opportunities for brands to interact with consumers. If you’re sitting in the middle, you’re in trouble because you can’t do truly impactful, truly custom stuff.

At the same time you can’t go and offer the same pricing flexibility and competitiveness that the exchanges can. Generally those are the two areas that are going to see the most success. If you can find a way to combine extreme quality with a distribution play that gives extreme reach, I think you have a pretty compelling challenge. That’s some of the stuff that we’re working on around ThrillSeeker.

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